One of my favorite things about ballet is watching the corps de ballet. The Kingdom of the Shades from La Bayadere is one of the most beautiful examples of how 20+ dancers can move and breathe and live as one. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1p3bng9V64 It is mesmerizing. And it’s not easy. Ballet is an individual art and sport, but it is also a team effort. It takes discipline and time to train your body and your mind. There are many methods used to help reinforce a one-ness, and the first is through dress.
I have been teaching for 14 years, and I still hear many of the same questions: Do I have to have my hair in a bun? Do I have to wear a leotard/tights/ballet shoes? Do I have to take off my jewelry? Can I please wear my sweats/shorts/tee-shirt over my leotard? And my favorite: Why?
Ballet is an intricate and precise style of dance, and requires bodies to be trained in a specific manner. In most pre-professional ballet schools, dancers start out in a uniform of socks, ballet slippers, and a leotard, or briefs and tank for boys. No tights are worn for the first few levels so the instructor can really see the body at work and ensure proper muscular development. This also helps catch any bad habits before they start, and prevents injury. The uniform of pink tights and a leotard, black or color coded to your level, helps your instructor ensure that you are training properly. How? The thin materials and tight fit let me observe which muscles are being activated, and which ones are being ignored. I can see if your spine is aligned, if you are standing properly on your feet, and if your joints are stacked. When thick or baggy extra layers are worn, it obscures the body. I can still see major ‘oopses’, but the more subtle mistakes, such as a tipped pelvis, are impossible to see. These smaller mistakes are usually the ones responsible for chronic and acute injuries.
Ballet shoes are designed specifically for ballet. There are small variations in design, (leather vs canvas, split sole vs full length) but they are basically the same. Ballet shoes allow you to fully feel the floor and move in ways other shoes do not. Jazz shoes use much thicker leather and have a heel. It might not seem like a big difference, but the heel does not allow you press your entire foot into the floor and glide in the way ballet requires. The heel also gets in the way of the intricate beats more advanced dancers perform. Dancing barefoot, or in lyrical shoes also prohibits the proper articulation of your feet on the floor, and inhibits turning.
A bun is a key part of ballet. Proper ballet buns need to be secured at the crown of the head with tight hair elastics, bobby pins, hairspray or gel, and maybe a bun form. When a dancer is constantly distracted by loose, floppy hair, and/or lots of fly-aways, they are unable to focus on what they are doing. Brushing bangs out of the face or shaking hair out of the way becomes a habit, which then becomes muscle memory, just like chewing your nails. You find yourself doing it without realizing it. Like I always tell the kids, what you do in the classroom, you will do onstage! Buns are also important for balancing and for spotting; it helps contribute to the feeling of lifting up. It can sometimes seem as though ballet is too strict and boring and there is no room for self-expression. A fun way to show your personality is with your bun. Flowers, scrunchies, jewels, braided buns are all ways to take the required bun and make it your own. It becomes part of the pageantry.
Having a uniform for class and rehearsal helps the dancers, instructors, and choreographers to see the dancers as one unit. It helps highlight inconsistencies in line and execution, which then allows for correction. There is a time and place for soloists, but there is also a time to blend. Think of ballet like a choir: each person is responsible for hitting the right notes and putting work and passion into achieving a pleasing sound. At the same time, they are also responsible for blending with the group. My teachers, both in dance and in choir, taught us that we had to be part of the corps before we could ever be a soloist. Team work and unity is what truly allows you to grow, and it’s what supports you when you get that featured moment. The principal ballerina wouldn’t be as interesting or dynamic without her corps to back her up. Yes, sometimes wearing a basic ballet uniform can seem boring. Choose instead to think of it as making you part of a whole, and recognize that it is there to help you grow and become your best. I want to see you all succeed and enjoy this beautiful art form!