Ballet Ugly

August 7, 2019 / Spark Magazine

The world of ballet is full of beautiful bodies achieving incredible feats. Ballerinas are athletic yet delicate entities that work to create impossible art. On stage, ballerinas appear effortless as they leap and turn on the tips of their toes, floating across the stage like glittering sprites. Adorned in jewel-encrusted tutus and tiaras, ballerinas represent the pinnacle of delicate glamour. However, the world of ballet has an unexpected dark side. Ballet has a tendency to push dancers to a physical and mental edge, resulting in bizarre fashion rebellion.

I spent 10 years of my life struggling to master the art of ballet. After a full day of school, I would race to my local dance studio and dance for hours before leaving to begin the day’s homework. Many nights, after endless hours of seemingly futile rehearsal, I would cry at the barre as I looked down to see blood from my bruised and blistered toes seeping through my satin pointe shoes. And despite my already slender physique, I began to resent my developing body as I yearned for spindlier limbs. Standing in front of a wall-sized mirror in tights and a leotard can be extremely vulnerable. There were days when I wanted nothing more than to pull on a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie. But as any ballet child knows, pink tights and black leotards are the strictly enforced uniform in class, and a flyaway hair from your bun is near sacrilege.

When you imagine a morning at the Royal Ballet, images of pretty pink tutus and delicate women probably come to mind. Ballerinas are known for the elegance that radiates from the tops of their tightly wound updos to the bottom of their torturous shoes. Entering a professional rehearsal studio, one would likely expect to see a similarly dressed sea of pastel angels primed and poised to rehearse. However, the reality is that every morning at the world’s most prestigious ballet companies, ballerinas stand at the barre wearing everything but a cowboy hat.

Once they reach professional status, dancers are allowed to wear whatever they wish for morning rehearsal. As a result, outlandish attire graffitis the holy space and defies all preconceptions. Dancers stretch over the barre in Barney-purple leotards and shiny parachute shorts, adorned with tasseled scarves and finished with mismatched legwarmers. Other dancers slump about the room in oversized, full-body jumpsuits that resemble an infant’s onesie and puffy boots known as “moon shoes.” Other common tropes in rehearsal include long, multicolored, striped pants, puffy vests and jackets, mismatched socks and lots and lots of layers. Additionally, much of what you see on these professional ballerinas works to cover every inch of their bodies. The pile of layers on top of each ballerina nearly swallows their tiny figures, and seasons are of no consequence as the dancers wear winter coats no matter the weather. Despite the heavy layer’s utility to warm the dancer’s muscles, their clothes can serve as security blankets in which the dancers can find respite under.

It takes a certain kind of irrationality to persevere through the demands of professional ballet. Ballet is often a competitive, frustrating and lonely test of mental and physical strength. Even after reaching professional status, most dancers never achieve the glory they dreamed of as children. Professional ballerinas are contracted on a ranked scale, meaning there is a strict hierarchy. At the bottom of the totem pole is the ensemble, known as the corps de ballet, followed by soloists and topped by principal dancers. Many performers spend their entire professional careers in the corps, praying to be promoted to the next level and never achieving their dream.

But despite the fact that the lives of ballerinas are controlled by a continual routine and constant reaching for unattainable perfection, what ballerinas wear to morning rehearsal is entirely up to them. Through their outlandish warmup attire, the men and women of professional ballet companies are able to find a glimmer of individuality and an opportunity to display their frustration. These bizarre, admittedly ugly, accouterments symbolize the individuality of each dancer. Ballerinas dress themselves through a sort of punk rock rebellion that allows them to separate themselves from their peers and announce their bohemianism to the world.

Although the infantile garb adorned by these dancers may seem inconsequential, it is the very haphazard nature by which it is thrown together that makes the ensembles’ statements. Ballerinas relish in their disheveled nature as they embrace their opportunity to dress as far from what is expected of them as possible. Hiding in their layers of early morning ugly, professional ballerinas begin their day by reminding themselves and others of their humanity, eccentricities and imperfections. •

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