Frequently Asked Questions About Ballet
1. A female dancer is called a ballerina — what about the men?
A male dancer is strictly called a dancer or danseur.
2. What are pointe shoes made of?
Pointe shoes are worn by female dancers so that they can balance and turn on their toes. Made of satin and shaped like narrow slippers, they have no heel and there is no wood or metal in pointe shoes. The area covering the toes is made of layers of fabric glued together in the shape of an oblong "box" and hardened. The sole of the shoe is hard leather which lends slight support to the arch of the foot. Pointe shoes are worn two to three sizes smaller than street shoes. To keep them on tightly, dancers sew satin ribbons and elastic bands to the sides and tie them securely around their ankles. A pair of shoes cost between $65 and $80.
3. What do dancers do when they aren't on stage?
Dancers' lives are full of daily ballet technique classes and rehearsals. A typical work day can start with an hour-long class, followed by four to six hours of rehearsal, often concluding with a two-hour evening performance.
4. How long does it take to become a dancer?
It takes roughly eight to ten years of training to become a professional ballet dancer. Training ideally begins when a student is between the ages of 7 and 10. Beginners attend technique class once or twice a week. By the time a student is 15 years of age, they will be taking 10-15 classes per week. The hope of a career with one of the world's top ballet companies is limited to a very few people. These dancers are comparable to the finest Olympic athletes.
5. Why does it take so long to prepare, and isn't a dancer's career rather short?
A large part of a ballet dancer's job is to make the difficult look easy. Unlike professional athletes, whose exertion and effort is perceptible and expected, ballet dancers strive to create the illusion of effortlessness. Simply leaping and turning are not enough. Ballet is a theatre art; the gravity-defying movements these artists can execute are meant to mystify and entertain.
Careers in ballet are indeed short. Typically, a dancer's career ends anywhere between ages 30 and 40. Dancers often move into choreography. Many also teach, direct their own ballet companies or resume formal education. The intensity of ballet training and short length of a professional career often mean that dancers do not study beyond high school. In recent years, however, many of the country's top universities have devised special programs that welcome dancers, and many other artists, to join in resumed undergraduate and graduate level study.
6. Don't dancers get dizzy when they turn?
Dancers learn a handy trick called "spotting." Before they begin a turn, they select something to focus on, a clock, door, or distant light. As they turn they try to keep their eyes focused on that object until they have to whip their head around quickly to find the spot again. This helps the dancer keep a steady balance during consecutive turns.
7. How long does it take to create and present a brand new full-length production, like The Nutcracker, for example?
Creating an entirely new production means assembling quite an extensive creative team of scenery, costume and lighting designers, choreographers, musicians, conductors, dancers, and composers. Not to mention a professional administrative staff that raises funds to support the project, and drives the marketing, public relations, education and outreach efforts to support a new production. It's not uncommon for planning and creative production to commence two years from the eventual premiere date.
8. Where does ballet come from, and why has the art form endured so long?
Ballet originated in Italy in the 15th century. Catherine de Medici exported the art form to France where it developed into a highly popular form of entertainment for the royal court. Ballet was an integral part of a huge entertainment spectacle that included lavish costumes, music, singing, props, moving scenery and pyrotechnical special effects. Louis XIV, the Sun King, established the five primary ballet positions of the feet and arms. Ballet was not performed on an actual stage until 1669, when it was presented as part of an opera. Click here for a full history.