I have been an avid fan of Strictly Come Dancing since its’ return nearly 10 years ago, in the wake of the fabulously quirky but wonderful, Baz Luhrmann’s film, Strictly Ballroom. This particularly niggley series of Strictly between the judges and the professionals and even judge to judge, has prompted me into making comparisons between ballet and ballroom. Lovers of dance will generally watch any dance programme and support the dance phenomenon. Ballet is possibly lagging behind ballroom programmes in terms of popular television. Programmes about ballet can be few and far between as ballet is maybe perceived as inaccessible to mainstream entertainment and perhaps ballet is seen aloof. One of my greatest regrets was only discovering ballet later in life but at least due to the Crescent Arts Centres’ Second Chance Ballet, I have at least enjoyed participating, to a certain extent, in ballet and shattering some of the myths I had such as, that it was just for the higher echelons of society and have met a great group of interesting people who are also contributors to this site. What originally inspired me to the awesome beauty of ballet was Omnibus arts programme focusing on Darcy Bussell and I know that her engagement with the media was to many in the ballet world, controversial and unfortunately her appearance as a Guest Judge on Strictly was not very successful as she was squeezed in as a fifth judge alongside Alesha Dixon rather than as a replacement but couldn’t get two people from more diverse backgrounds which sometimes works as a contrast but on this occasion, was probably not the correct format for a World-leading dancers’ talents. The Judge that gave her the most respect was Craig Revel-Horwood who enjoys ballet himself and was trained in it and frequently uses ballet terms. From my very limited experience as a highly unprofessional ballet dancer, the more you do this as an amateur, the more awareness you get of the difficulty of this art-form and that unless it is drilled into your feet and legs from a young age, turn-out will be largely alien to them. Although, it has opened this world up to me and accessibility is not an issue but sometimes I feel my limited knowledge is but then I remember to enjoy it for its’ beauty. I have broken down the social barriers but not the barriers of difficulty and technique, however, I think that ballroom dancing, is more accessible to amateurs and grew out of dance-halls where anyone could partake and only later grew into a competitive dance form where most ballroom dancing was found, until its’ rebirth on television. As good as some celebrities become, compared to the professionals, there is a vast gulf usually in terms of the speed of their movements, the steps the professionals execute will be a lot quicker and sharper but then it is in their brains from childhood. The ballroom dancers also learn to choreograph their own dances from an allowed set of steps and rules, I’ll never forget the “no new steps” repeated to comic effect throughout Strictly Ballroom but some of the professionals are fabulous choreographers, I think Artem is one of those and is very theatrical and Karen Hardy from previous series and I think the addition of So You Think You Can Dance’s winner, Matt Flint has been a great addition.
Ballet encompasses most of the branches of the arts – theatre, music, movement and visual arts. It wouldn’t be the same without the live orchestra which adds to the drama and its’ immensity. Part of what makes ballet great and something that countless ballet films and television programmes have highlighted, is its’ discipline. Discipline is one thing that sums up ballet for the uninitiated but when you get to love it, you realise that if a dancer was purely disciplined, they would not be much of a joy to watch and the greatest dancers are also the highest of performers and add theatricality on top of this but discipline is at the core of ballet. To hold turn-out and literally wedge your feet onto blocks or spring off from standing to fly though the air and mostly to put the body into positions it was never meant to go. Of course, to do ballroom at a professional level takes a high level of discipline and, like ballet, if a dancer was just technically brilliant, they would not be much fun to watch and ballroom dancers also start at a very young age and commit themselves to hours and hours of training. Strictly Come Dancing has given ballroom a new lease of life and dancers are performing for larger audiences with packed auditorium tours and spin-off tours that would not have been possible a number of years ago. Ballet has also recently tried its’ hand at playing to auditoriums with the English National and Royal Ballets playing the O2. The Royal made its’ appearance in the Summer to largely positive reviews, using its’ most dramatic dancers, Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta and camerawork for close-ups that was widely praised from the Ballet Boyz that have also put together a number of documentaries with unprecedented back-stage access afforded to them due to being former dancers themselves. The main motivation behind this was to make ballet more accessible and whether this will increase numbers of patrons in theatres from a non-ballet background remains to be seen but I certainly hope so.
Throughout these series of Strictly Come Dancing, there have been various appearances by ballet dancers. It is to ballet that dancers often turn to give the celebrities that extra bit of polish and grace and I love to see the varying styles of dance supporting each other and feeding off each other’s particular strengths. I particularly enjoyed when Strictly used to showcase other dance forms and the professional dances became somewhat predictable with a lot head-tossing and posturing. I really commended Strictly in the past for showcasing ballet and I still remember a mesmerising performance by the Birmingham Royal Ballet dancing a ballet-ballroom fusion to Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ in character shoes but with so many lifts that would give the judges a heart-attack. Although, ballet could sometimes learn about the projection and sheer audience delight that ballroom can bring but what we see is usually in two-minute segments, it can be easier to thrill an audience and hold their thrall. As mentioned above, there were various appearances by Darcy Bussell but I don’t believe that this was the most appropriate forum for her talents which would maybe be nurturing and working with young dancers and ballet dancers have often suffered on other dance programmes due to being trained in a very specific way. I don’t think any other dance form requires such a strict turn-out or as many lifts and jumps. Ballet probably spends most time off the floor of all dance forms whether it is in lifts, jumps or dancing on one leg.
I think ballet can take itself to wider audiences and be as accessible as Ballroom. Dancers such as Carlos Acosta show that you can come from a disadvantaged background and still make it. Niche, arts-based television channels such as BBC4 and Sky Arts serve ballet well and for the first time, I caught ‘Ballet Rocks’ on Sky Arts which makes ballet look like a pop video but is mesmerising and programmes like this show that there is a wider audience for ballet and it can break out of the majestic but some people may see as stuffy, theatres and can adapt and modernise, such as with choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor. Maybe we could see a series of Strictly Ballet, especially with Cultural Olympiad just around the corner and show that ballet can be mainstream as it shoots off in different directions, it does not have to be just in threatres. English National Ballet’s Strictly Gershwin seems to be the ultimate collaboration of dance and maybe in the future, we will see more collaboration of styles as ballet bursts out of its’ traditional theatres and audiences. Of course, there is no substitute for traditional, narrative ballet but they can work hand in hand to bring ballet to a larger audience and add new elements to keep breathing life into audience and celebrate ballet to a larger audience but with no compromise on technique that has made ballet survive for hundreds of years already. Ballroom, like most dance, has only positive benefits, you only have to watch Strictly and see the delight of the celebrities involved in it and I hope that dance programmes continue to flourish but will do so only as long as they don’t compromise on the quality of the dance.