The debate pops up every so often but none more so than as the Cultural Olympiad gave way to the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’, the Olympics, about whether ballet and dance are sports. I would strenuously argue that ballet is so much more, it is an art-form undertaken by those at the peak of physical fitness who push their bodies to the absolute limit in extraordinary feats, and what to mere mortals seems impossible. The attitude and dedication of the Olympians and how they conducted themselves with the utmost pride, providing the greatest inspiration to the future generation was lauded, especially in contrast, on occasion, to our national sport, football. Ballet dancers do immensely long hours, train pretty much constantly and perform to an international standard. I have often used the term, superhuman, of ballet dancers as there appears to be no limits that they push their bodies and minds to. This was a phrase that became synonymous with the Paralympians who also push their bodies to the limits of endurance and overcome their bodies to do amazing feats. There was an extraordinary video doing the rounds after Jonny Peacock spectacularly won the Gold in the 100 metres, taking ballet classes as a young boy, which would have helped with his balance and muscle control. Olympians have much in common with ballet dancers who are themselves often overlooked except for their army of very loyal supporters and audience members and are most certainly an inspiration to future generations. Thanks to television and mainstream films, ballet is seen as so much more accessible and less exclusively dominated by the upper classes. Anyone with the beginnings of a talent, (or in the case of myself and adult ballet class, no talent is even required, just willingness), as long as they are prepared to work very hard and also for the prospect of failure in a very tough business. There are many that will be inspired by these films and dance programmes and hopefully, especially in Britain, more males will be encouraged to get involved as they see that dance is not for wimps but some of the strongest and toughest that could defeat most sports people for strength and endurance. This generation have been labelled by many reports as one of the least inspired generations. I say that there is more than one way to put this right and it is not always by the traditional sports and my question is, where does ballet fit into the Olympic Legacy?.
Political points were to be had and lost at the end of the Olympics when it was reported that the Government were selling off sports fields but think about it, is this necessarily a bad thing or an exercise in political one-upmanship, cashing in on what was a very successful and popular event. Can exercise only be undertaken in a few acres of grass enclosed by a fence. (Not of course that I would advocate the loss of our green spaces which I certainly feel are worth fighting for and green spaces have their own therapeutic values for the overheated brain). Can more be gained by looking at alternatives to just team sports, including dance, in the curriculum, or at the least, on a rotation basis with other extra-curricular activities. It can be argued that dance is a better accompaniment to academic study. Academic Research is starting to back-up what those engaged in dance for years have known, that there are so many psychological benefits to dance as well as the health benefits and how it improves the body and especially posture, giving young people a positive body image and awareness through exercise and a healthy diet has now become essential. Myths are being exploded, although high profile films have not exactly helped, but then education is also essential to show that dance is a formidable challenge that can only be done on a healthy diet, contributing to a healthy body and mind. In our particular Northern Ireland context, Shared Education is what is most likely to provide a positive future with Schools coming together from all communities. Sharing positive cultures is definitely something that Northern Ireland does need to explore and role-models such as the Royal Ballet’s Soloist, Melissa Hamilton and recently crowned ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ Champions’ Prodijig, wowing audiences with phenomenal performances of their modern take on Irish Dancing, to promote a positive cultural future.
Dance is a perfect accompaniment to academic study and evidence has shown from dancers at the Royal Ballet’s School, White Lodge, that most students achieve the highest grades in academic study alongside vocational dance qualifications. Although there are not many mere mortals will make it to and through White Lodge and with competition from dancers the world over as highlighted by Luke Jennings’ article, by not including dance in our school’s curriculum, you could say, no wonder not many home-grown dancers make it through and into top jobs. By introducing proper dance into schools as early as possible, our top companies could have more than a token number of Principal dancers from the UK. As long as dance is relegated to outside of school and reliant on parents having the means and the motivation, it is likely to remain dominated by those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. Also again when it comes to males in dance, UK males are definitely at a disadvantage and placing it in the curriculum makes it fully acceptable and equally viable for boys as well as girls as they exhibit much more strength and fitness often than footballers and rugby players.
The paradox is that ballet is seen as the highest of culture and has always been supported by the learned community but, in Schools dance is seen as intellectually inferior and pushed to the outside under extra-curricular activities that you do if you have the money and the means. However, we also want ballet to be available to anyone, regardless of their status or educational background. I overcame my own prejudices and found that ballet is perfectly accessible and I would love to again see crowds lining up around theatres to see the likes of Carlos Acosta and the reported visit from the Royal Ballet back to Northern Ireland after a number of years away. In order to achieve this, we need to get ballet more widely known about but also, all dance that can be done on any school or parental budget, especially as you put it alongside the fact that the average dance class costs around £5 or less for one hour, whereas the average music or swimming lesson costs around £20 for half an hour!
The Guardian recently reported that: “London 2012 festival success signals new era for culture”. Northern Ireland contributed to the Cultural Olympiad with its’ own dance event, the Land of the Giants, however, to be honest, I’m not sure what this was about and the publicity to me, who would like to think am pretty cultural savvy but part of that is my own unwillingness, pretty much, to see dance outside of the Grand Opera House. Northern Ireland are usually a few years behind London and with it being reported that Dance UK are hoping to extend their mentoring programme to Northern Ireland, I am hoping that the renewed interest in culture with these events and the Olympic Opening and Closing ceremonies watched by a major slice of the viewing population, I am hoping that the Olympic Legacy will be positive for dance and culture, as a whole. Let’s hope that this legacy includes dance and especially ballet which is perfect for this funding-strapped, recession generation. Anyone who doubts the value of dance should read Carlos Acosta’s autobiography which is one of the best ballet reads.