Learn About Ballet

Frequently Asked Questions

What is ballet?
It is a type of stylized dancing involving a specific technique.

How do you become a professional dancer?
Most dancers study ballet for 10 or more years and then audition to join a company. Dancers often audition for many companies around the world to find the company that best suits their style and technique.

What do dancers do when they aren't on stage?
They practice exercises in daily ballet class to stay in shape. After ballet class they spend up to 6 hours each day in rehearsal learning dances taught by choreographers.

Can children dance on stage?
Children who take ballet lessons sometimes are asked to dance small roles with professional companies in such ballets as The Nutcracker. Some ballet schools have annual recitals in which all the children get to perform. But to be a professional dancer, students must study in a professional school until they are 17 or 18 years old.

Is ballet just for girls?
No. Every year more and more boys are taking ballet lessons. Ballet dancers are elite athletes and to dance at a professional level requires great co-ordination and strength. Today's choreography features many exciting roles for male dancers to show off their athleticism and power. Male dancers must learn to partner female dancers and to lift them and make it look beautiful and easy. Many male dancers do special weight-lifting programmes to develop their muscles in the chest, back and arms. This helps them with partnering and prevents injury.

Is training different for men and women?
In some respects, it is. Women dance in pointe shoes on their toes. They perfect delicate but strong movements through years of rigorous training to develop and strengthen their leg and foot muscles. Men, on the other hand, work on jumps, turns and the partnering of women.

Don't dancers get dizzy when they turn?
No, they don't get dizzy because they are taught a trick called "spotting." Before they turn, they choose something on the wall, or somewhere else in front of them, to look at — a clock, a door, a light — and they try to keep looking at it as they are quickly revolving around and around.

Are injuries an occupational hazard?
Yes, injuries are a constant threat to a dancer's career. Injuries do not occur only from falls. Dancers must take class every day to keep their muscles strong, loose and warm, and their bodies flexible. They put rosin powder — the same rosin that's used on violin bows — on the bottom of their shoes to keep from slipping. Even with all of these precautions, dancers injure their backs, necks, shoulders and knees, pull muscles, sprain ankles, twist joints and break bones.

Where do dancers practice?
Dancers practice in a large room called a studio, which has mirrors on the walls so the dancers can see what they are doing. There are wooden or metal rails attached to the walls called barres. The dancers usually perform warm-up exerices while standing at the barre and holding on to it with one hand to keep their balance. Ballet class and rehearsals are accompanied by a pianist.

Do all ballets tell stories?
Story ballets such as Giselle, Don Quixote, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake are straight narrative works told through dance and mime. Dramatic ballets also usually follow a narrative or have a literary source. Story and dramatic ballets must be detailed in structure, with exact pacing and build-up of dance and dramatic effects. Abstract ballets have no story but are mood pieces in which the movement and patterns are the focal point. Abstract ballets have come to the forefront in the 20th century. The first such ballet was Les Sylphides, created by Michel Fokine in 1908. Fokine, and many choreographers since, created ballets for the sake of movement and mood alone, with no specific plot. Don't look for a story in these ballets, because there isn't one. Audiences can just sit back and enjoy the ballet and let their emotions and mental images be stirred.

What is the difference between a Corps de Ballet Dancer, a Second Soloist, a First Soloist and a Principal Dancer?
The Corps de Ballet is the backbone of a ballet company and performs in all the large group sections of a ballet. The female Corps de Ballet in many classical ballets must be very well rehearsed so they can maintain symmetrical lines and perform in perfect unison. A dancer who excels in the Corps de Ballet may be promoted to a Second Soloist and be asked to perform smaller group dances and some solo roles. Demonstrating their talent and strength as a Second Soloist, can lead a dancer to being promoted to First Soloist. As a First Soloists, dancers are given more solo roles to perform and are groomed for principal roles. When a dancer has reached a certain level of technical ability and artistic maturity, they are promoted to Principal Dancer, the highest ranking of dancer. Principal Dancers perform starring roles in a company's repertoire.

At what age do most dancers retire?
Most dancers stop dancing between 35 and 40 years old. Sometimes a dancer may have a specific injury that has forced them to stop dancing and sometimes their bodies are just tired from all the physical strength that is required for ballet. When most adults are settled into their careers and are financially secure, retired dancers have to go through a career transition. Some dancers remain in the profession as teachers, choreographers or artistic directors. Others find new careers as photographers, actors, writers, doctors, lawyers, massage therapists and psychologists.

Do you have more questions about ballet? Please email us at info@national.ballet.ca and we will be happy to answer them.

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Top image credit: Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kuras.