You are ABSOLUTELY ALLOWED to call yourself a ballerina!Apr 25, 2022
Isn’t the above photograph just stunning? It was taken by Max Dupain in 1939 in Centennial Park. The dancers pictured are Emmy Towsey and Evelyn Ippen who were performing a Gertrud Bodenwieser piece called Waterlilies.
Bodenwieser trained extensively in classical ballet before declaring that the art form had ‘become a mere exhibition of virtuosity’ and moved into exploring more modern ways of moving through her school, ensemble and performance pieces.
I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel the same way as Bodenwieser. Too often the ballet world can feel so prehistoric and aristocratic. Too much about the perfect ballet body or perfect ballet training. That’s why I’ve made it my life’s mission to break down the elitist barriers often associated with ballet.
There’s a lot of chatter on social media over a comment I made on social media…
Anybody who practices ballet is a ballerina.
Your uncle who surfs on the weekend calls himself a surfer.
Your Dad who plays golf a couple of times a year calls himself a golfer.
You have every right to call yourself a ballerina!
This is the caption I wrote on a reel that I posted to Instagram recently. The accompanying video was a quick snapshot of one of my adult ballet classes with the text ‘Anybody who practices ballet is a ballerina!’ For context, my videos and reels usually only get about a couple of thousand views but since I last checked this particular one has hit over one hundred and forty thousand views.
Sometimes I put a huge amount of thought into my social media posts but this one was quite spontaneous and just came to me whilst sitting on the couch waiting for dinner to be ready. Honestly, it was a spur of the moment, unplanned post. It came from the heart. But the reason it became so popular (and still is to this day) is because the comments section went wild with all sorts of opinions and arguments.
I honestly didn’t expect the reaction it triggered. However I’d say about 80% of commenters were so incredibly thankful for the words and the permission to call themselves a ‘ballerina’ whilst the remaining 20% completely disagreed with me. Interestingly the majority of that 20% were dance teachers. I found this fascinating (but sadly, not surprising) because as a teacher I believe that allowing clients and students to feel a sense of belonging to a community is vital to their studios, companies and products survival.
Amongst the noise, there were a few comments from a fellow ballet teacher who resides in Brisbane (which is about an hour from my own studio). He wrote…
I have to respectfully disagree and find this to be a disregard for ballet history. Anyone who practices ballet can be called a ballet dancer, but ballerina is reserved for those female dancers who have achieved the highest ranks in professional companies. Calling anyone who practices ballet a ballerina is disrespectful to the decades of work done to attain the title.
It’s the comment about me having total disregard for ballet history and the use of the word disrespectful that got me. I could not have more respect for ballet and especially the professional ballerinas of this world who dedicated their blood, sweat and tears (literally!) to this art. So I responded…
Thanks for stopping by on my account. I must admit I’m really surprised by your comment. I’ve admired your love for also teaching adults and children from afar. I thought your vision was also to instil a love of ballet within anyone who comes to your studio. In my opinion, allowing students to not only embrace but also be proud to call themselves a ballerina is crucial to this love. The dusty notion that only professionals can be called a ‘ballerina’ is exactly what deters people from beginning. My whole life’s work is about breaking down those elitist barriers often associated with ballet (partly so that both you and I can continue doing what we love most). When a friend who surfs once a week calls themselves a ‘surfer’ and a father that plays golf once a month calls themselves a ‘golfer’ I believe someone who regularly and consistently studies ballet can call themselves a ballerina. I have the utmost respect for professional dancers and ballerinas. Just like I have the utmost respect for professional surfers and professional golfers. Anyway, just my thoughts on my social media… hope you’re business is doing well during these tricky times and take care!
I was honestly planning on leaving it there, as I mentioned previously I was relaxing at home and I’m pretty sure it was a Saturday night. I don’t spend much time on social media from Saturday evening through to the following Sunday and the last thing I wanted to get into was a debate.
However if there are comments happening on my social media platform that if read could potentially stop a client or someone in my audience from studying ballet or beginning ballet I need to monitor that conversation and fight for what I have dedicated my entire life to – the pursuit of breaking down the elitist barriers often associated with ballet that deter people from beginning and essentially optimising their mental and physical wellbeing!
Now before I read the reply I want to note that I did think about inviting this particular person on the podcast. In fact after our exchange on the gram, he basically asked to be a guest on the podcast for a more in depth discussion. And we did have a more in depth discussion privately in direct messages, but can I be honest?
I am so tired of this argument and there is absolutely no way he is going to change my mind on this topic and I fiercely protect what Balanced Ballerinas stands for. This argument is a nonnegotiable for me and I don’t know how further discussion with him would benefit this community or my own mental health.
I invite people on this podcast that inspire and interest me so that they inspire and interest the community to continue pursuing their love of ballet. I don’t invite people to the party who could potentially make someone feel excluded by dragging around out of date arguments that sound factual due to their elitist nature, but are in fact simply prehistoric. We are after all called, Balanced BALLERINAS around here.
In fact, not too long ago I had scheduled an interview with someone in the ballet world who is incredibly respected and held in such high regard. However I cancelled that interview because I heard him say during a conversation that there are some people in this world who just shouldn’t do ballet because they don’t have access to what he considers exceptional training and that ‘bad ballet’ hurts his eyes.
I immediately thought of the beautiful children I taught in Africa. Their smiling faces as they twirled around their mud covered floors in the Kibera slums. The purpose that their weekly ballet class brings to their lives is something the average, white, privileged person will NEVER understand. Watching them rehearse combinations I gave them well after class was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Ballet for these students keeps them safe and youthful. Let me explain…
When I was in Africa, I had the most incredible woman (who I still keep in contact with to this day) show me around the school and organise the dance classes that I was to take. Krysteen is the Kenyan Director of Annos Africa (the charity I was working with) and is responsible for bringing arts to the slums. We climbed to the top of one of the school buildings. And when I say ‘climb’ I really mean ‘climb’ – there are no rails on their staircases and the stairs are completely uneven. Krysteen said children have died and seriously injured themselves at school. Can you even begin to imagine that happening here?
As we stood on the top of this building overlooking the slums and the children playing below, Krysteen explained that their attendance at ballet is sometimes their only escape from home life where they are in charge of looking after elderly grandparents, raising siblings or being abused by their fathers and uncles. Ballet for them is an escape from an imminent adulthood that comes well before their time. So I dare you to tell these children they can’t call themselves a ‘ballerina’ because if that label brings a slither of peace into their lives (which we can never begin to imagine!) then I will shout from that rooftop that they are ballerinas!
Ballet is so much more than perfect arms and legs. It can be essential to survival for some! But according to this man I had scheduled an interview with (someone who regularly posts about his new grande piano, incredibly expensive antique furniture and lavish lifestyle) only those who have the perfect ‘ballet body’ and can afford proper training should be allowed to participate. It’s a shame really, because I quite enjoyed his teachings on port de bras but alas I want nothing further to do with these prehistoric dinosaurs… and I’m so glad I cancelled the interview.
I also read a quote by the economist J.K. Galbraith that said, “Faced with a choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.” So I’m using this podcast episode to provide some proof and reasons for my passionate stance. Because quite frankly, I have the right to protect the energy of the work I’m so proud of.
You’ll notice that I am not using the name of the person who I began a lengthy argument with. I mean it’s public comments that he made, so he obviously wouldn’t have an issue with it. But I don’t think it’s necessary or kind. And I really don’t want this conversation to begin a pile on of this person. Because there are many that think this way and I certainly don’t condone the bullying or cancelling of one individual over a semi-collective thought of a particular group of people in this industry who really quite frankly need to get with the times if they want our beloved art form to thrive.
So with saying that, please don’t seek this person out in the comments. Honestly, it’s not worth your time! Put that energy into good vibes instead of feeding the argument. Share a Balanced Ballerinas quote that inspires you or share a video of your own practice. Call yourself a ballerina and spread that beautiful energy – that’s my advice.
And on the other hand, I’m sure there are going to be some ballet teachers or students that actually agree with those that say you can’t call yourself a ballerina, but before you email me or go comment on this post… hear me out!
So, he continued…
My reasons for disagreeing have to do with the time and dedication it takes to earn the title of ballerina in the traditional sense. Of course anyone can call themselves what they want to, but just as someone who paints would not call themselves a master painter, I believe that the mastery that is associated with the term ballerina should be reserved for the women who have mastered their craft. All of that being said, I absolutely believe anyone and everyone should practice ballet if they feel called to it. The history of ballet is one of aristocracy, in fact originally only men were allowed to dance ‘the kings dance’ as it was called in the court of Louis XIV. I love being able to share the art form that has consumed decades of my life in beauty and creative challenges with anyone who wants to learn, but I also think it is necessary to honour the history of the masters who have come before me and their achievements as ballerinas. It may be old fashioned, but it is part of the etiquette of ballet. I also hope your business is doing well and that we both can continue to share our love of ballet with generations to come.
Honestly, where do I even begin with this response. The comment about how ballet’s history is one of aristocracy and originally only men were allowed to dance just shook me to my core. So essentially what we’re saying with this comment (if history is to be honoured and respected) is that only white, wealthy men should participate in ballet?
There’s enough white, wealthy men in positions of power across the dance industry (and almost every other industry!) in the world. We really don’t need to bring these thoughts or plant the seed that only the elite can practice ballet. I mean c’mon!
This makes me think of a Misty Copeland quote; “Ballet is run mostly by old white people… so I find myself having these moments of complete fatigue, but at the same time, this racial reckoning that we’ve experienced in the past almost two years has been a tipping point for the ballet industry.”
Anyway, my response was…
I understand what you’re saying, however the beauty of the present is that we can change the parts of history that exclude someone or feel elitist. ‘Final Bow For Yellow Face’ is a perfect example of this. I think we’re beyond telling someone how they can and cannot identify. Anyway, let’s just agree to disagree hey? Have a lovely evening!
To be honest, I really couldn’t be bothered arguing any further. My social media is a place for positive reinforcement and inspiration. Not debate and finger pointing. And my intention with the post was to make adult ballerinas believe they can call themselves a ballerina because if they train regularly they most certainly can.
The argument that you wouldn’t call yourself a ‘master painter’ if you were an amateur one is invalid and makes no sense at all. Because if someone is a ‘painter’ they can call themselves a ‘painter’ – they’re not walking around calling themselves a ‘master painter’. I’m not telling people to walk around calling themselves a ‘master ballerina’ or even a ‘prima ballerina’ which we’ll get into now… all I’m saying is that they can call themselves a ballerina as much as their Dad can call himself a golfer, friend a surfer or sister a singer.
My sister has the most beautiful voice, absolutely angelic and she spent many years training classically. She still sings at home, practicing with her piano and even sings at her closest friends weddings as they walk down the aisle. Just because she hasn’t made singing a ‘career’ doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to call herself a singer. Do you know what I mean?
And there were a few commenters who pulled the ‘surfer’ reference from my original quote and said comments such as…
We all know that officially ‘ballerina’ is a title afforded at a certain level professionally. You are a ballet dancer. Not a ballerina or a ballerino. Or prima ballerina. These are titles. Like a surfer might be a world champion, but not all surfers are world champions or entitled to that title if they haven’t earned it…
Okay, so this person has actually won my argument for me. I don’t know any casual ‘surfer’ who would call themselves a ‘world champion’ unless they have won a world title! I also don’t know any casual ‘ballerina’ who would call themselves a ‘Prima Ballerina’ – do you see my argument?
The commenter continued…
You might be a craftsman, but not a master craftsman. If you are interested in ballet these are important things to know. And they are earned, not given out like lollipops to children who wish to prop up their ego. Would you call yourself an Olympian if you did a sport but had not been to the Olympics?
Of course not! Do you see how this argument is ridiculous? No one is going to call themselves an Olympian unless they went to the Olympics! This argument makes no sense. And allowing a three year old to call themselves a ‘ballerina’ is not a disservice or disrespectful act to professional ballerinas everywhere. In fact, it’s essential to making little ones feel connected to a community that fosters a lifetime love of the arts and ensures the professional ballerinas have a job, because one day they’re going to be the ones buying tickets to shows!
I think the next part of this discussion needs to be about the actual definition of the word ‘ballerina’…
A few people in the Balanced Ballerinas community actually jumped in the comments and provided the actual definition of the word ballerina for me. Thank you to those who did. One member of the community wrote…
Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionary definition of a ballerina is a female ballet dancer. So yes, I call myself a ballerina. Not a professional ballerina nor prima ballerina. But just a ballerina!
In response to this, the dance teacher from Brisbane wrote…
I see where you’re coming from. Having been a professional principal dancer, the amount of times in casual conversation that I would state I was a ballet dancer and non-professionals would say “Oh me too, I did ballet all the way through high school, I was a ballerina too!” often felt like it undermined the 5 hours a day, 6 days a week I spent training at the Kirov Academy of Ballet to have the ability to perform professionally. I’m not trying to win an argument or fight against @thebalancedballerina but I have earned the right to have an opinion given the experience I have had in the dance world. Wether the status quo should be changed or not is a different discussion, but there should be a qualifier to differentiate those who dance as a profession vs non professionally as the level of dedication is different. Not everyone can nor will become a professional ballet dancer. It is an elite profession. Does that mean you can’t practice ballet? Of course not. And I am probably being old fashioned about all of this.
The elitism and gatekeeping in this answer just does my head in. And to be honest the comment about casual conversation where he didn’t feel validated makes me feel like this is a personal issue, not a discussion of the facts and betterment of the dance community as a whole.
Now I could be wrong, but I think (and this is my personal opinion) that there are many ex-dancers who are really uncomfortable with the casual use of the words ‘ballerina’ and ‘ballerino’ because they have been hurt by the industry and want people to know how much they have suffered compared to the average human. And I think that’s why it stings when a child or adult identifies as a ballerina.
But guess what? If ANYONE knows how hard a professional ballerina works, it’s someone who studies and practices ballet as a hobby. It’s a professional ballerinas job to make what they do on stage look completely effortless. That’s the magic of ballet. But when a student begins studying ballet (whatever the age) they truly understand that it’s not magic after all, it’s a hell of a lot of work, dedication and skill. So I don’t think professional or ex professional ballerinas should be offended when someone who studies ballet as a hobby calls themselves a ballerina, ballerino, dancer or whatever. They can’t even imagine what it took for you to get there, but they have more of an insight than the general public which garners even MORE respect for the professionals.
On that note, I think there’s something we don’t talk about enough. When you’re in a pre-professional training setting, yes it’s common to be told you’re not good enough or skinny enough etc but you’re also told how incredibly talented and special you are. You’re put on a pedestal amongst family and friends and when that’s no longer part of your life it’s not uncommon to go through s serious identity crisis.
Honestly, I used to cringe when people called me a ‘ballerina’ after I finished my professional training. And when I opened a studio, family members would call me a ‘ballerina’ and I would correct them and say ‘No I’m just a dance teacher!’ And to be honest, those times of my life were fraught with anxiety and sadness and a sense of not knowing who I am or where I belong. Now that I have a more healthy relationship with ballet and don’t even flinch let along correct people who call me a ballerina… I am a far more productive, calm and happier human. I mean, I have dedicated my life to studying ballet, teach over 27 hours of ballet a week on top of my own study and practice! So I really shouldn’t get so worked up if someone calls me a ballerina now should I?
The Balanced Ballerinas lifestyle is what I strive to share with all my clients who love and take their ballet seriously, seriously enough to call themselves a ballerina, but not seriously enough to take it professionally – because you might not have the money or the body or the access to training. And that doesn’t make your love or passion any less.
In Atomic Habits (which is one of my favourite books!) James Clear wrote, “Humans are herd animals. We want to fit in, to bond with others, and to earn the respect and approval of our peers. Such inclinations are essential to our survival. For most of our evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in tribes. Becoming separated from the tribe—or worse, being cast out—was a death sentence.”
A little bit dramatic but so true. As humans we want to belong and bond with our peers. My beautiful clients that come to Balanced Ballerinas HQ love being free to call themselves a ballerina. And they have every right! I have some women that take class with me four-five times a week. That is some serious dedication. Allowing these wonderful humans to call themselves a ballerina is not only good for business but its good for the soul. It takes the elitism out of the practice and softens it’s archaic exterior of nobility which creates a new space for the ballerina who is a little more balanced.
Before I conclude this conversation and put the argument to rest, there are two points I want to briefly discuss. The first being that we should call ourselves ‘ballet dancers’ instead of ‘ballerinas’… there were quite a few comments about this. But honestly? Potatoes POTATOES! If we go back to that dictionary definition, a ‘ballerina’ is a female ballet dancer. Do I need to say anymore? I don’t think so.
And secondly, an argument that I really respect and have deeply pondered is that we should perhaps be a little more inclusive in our language in terms of ‘ballerina’ for female and ‘ballerino’ for male. What if you don’t identify with either? I had a wonderful discussion with a fellow ballet teacher who said she calls all her students ‘dancers’ to keep it simple and gender neutral. I like this… and it’s definitely something to think about.
To wrap this up, I had one final conversation with my pilates instructor who (along with his wife) are ex professional dancers. When I explained the argument that erupted on social media (in between exercises) he took a deep breath and said, “Honestly Georgia? Who cares! The creme de la creme and prima ballerinas and ballerinos of the world don’t actually get called ballerinas or ballerinos. They are called Misty Copeland, Margot Fonteyn, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev. They get two names, their first and last name. Because at the end of the day, they are more than a title.”
When he said this I laughed so hard, because he is SO RIGHT! Aren’t we all beyond a title? Aren’t we all beyond telling one another how we can and cannot identify? If someone inconsistently studies ballet and goes around telling everyone that their a ballerina – who cares!
But more importantly, if you study ballet on a consistent and regular basis, showing up for your mental and physical health at the barre and want to call yourself a ballerina? I say go for it. You absolutely are.
Now if you disagree with what you have heard today, please DON’T fill my inbox or DM’s on social media with your argument against this opinion. I will not reply. It’s not because I am closed off to differing opinions or refuse to debate. I love a good debate!
Anyone who listens to my podcast knows I’m constantly trying to better myself, my clients and be open to new trains of thought. However this argument for me is closed. For my sanity, for my clients wellbeing and for this wonderful community I love so very much.
Peace & Pliés,
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