Celebrating World Ballet Day, 2021 in your school

The 19th of October is World Ballet Day, a day when ballet companies, dancers and ballet maniacs will celebrate the joy of Ballet.  In this article I suggest some ideas for how to celebrate in your school or at home with dance activities for a variety of age groups.

World Ballet Day

This year is particularly exciting for ballet lovers from around the world as COVID has kept many of the world’s stages empty.  The dancers have been rehearsing, isolated, in their kitchens and living rooms so, when the stage lights were turned on again, they were ready to dance.

Why celebrate Ballet?

Ballet dance can sometimes appear to be elite, unapproachable, and a sometimes unappealing form of dance.  However, many people, young and old from many cultures are passionate about Ballet. I will admit that ballet became a personal obsession in my late teens and early twenties.  It consumed my life until I discover the freedom and joy of contemporary dance.

But Ballet is more then the extremes of pretty tutus and intense physical discipline.  The connection of history, detailed technique and aesthetics is appealing to young people who crave creativity, a physical vehicle to express themselves and the comfort of routine.

The rhythm of a ballet class can be hypnotic and comforting.  I remember that feeling of being at the barre at the beginning of class and how calm I felt after doing that first plié.

This year’s celebration of our cherished art form will be more important and meaningful than ever, as friends and colleagues around the world return to the stage and the studio, many still with great difficulty.  I hope World Ballet Day continues to provide dancers and ballet lovers across the globe with a sense of solidarity – and at the same time introduces a new generation to the beauty and inspiration of ballet that have sustained and nourished our audience members over the past 18 months.                  Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet

 

But how is this historic art form relevant to young people today?  How can we bring the beauty of Ballet into our Primary/ Elementary classrooms?

Ballet as Storytelling

Ballet is about expressing emotions and telling stories.  Some of these stories are abstract but many are literal.

Narrative ballets use gesture and mime to bring forward the plot.  However, the story is also supported by the acting of the dancers, the lighting, the sets, the music, costumes, and the dance technique itself.

The use of the Elements of Dance in conveying the meaning is important when we talk about Ballet in our school settings.  This supports arts literacy through the children interpreting different symbol systems.

teaching ballet in schools

Try showing a section of a narrative ballet to a class of young children and they will be able to retell the story, read emotions and interpret the meaning without any knowledge of the intricacies of ballet gestures.

An example to use may be in the 1st Act of The Sleeping Beauty when the evil fairy, Carabosse, tells of Aurora’s fate through an extended mime.  As this mime is very literal it is easily interpreted by even very young children.

Ballet as creative movement

It is this interpretation of even abstracted movement that inspires children to explore their own creativity through movement.  Encourage students to create sections from their favourite stories using movement.

There are many examples of the creative use of dance to tell a story in Ballets. For example, Balanchine in his masterpiece, Apollo, shows a chariot being drawn by three horses.  It is represented by the female dancers performing arabesques while linked with the male dancer’s arm.

Therefore, using ballet as an example of problem solving when children are choreographing their own work, exposes children to the myriad possibilities of how we can make meaning through movement.

Ballet based activities for school classrooms

When introducing ballet in your Primary/Elementary school classroom it is important to remember that some children may have had a lot of contact with the ballet world. However, some may never have seen it.  Children often have stereotypical and very gendered ideas of ballet.

Ballet for schoolsDiversity in ballet is an evolving process but there have been many ground-breaking dancers throughout history who have challenged stereotypes.  Carmen de Lavallade, Misty Copeland, Raven Wilkinson, Arthur Mitchell, and Desmond Richardson are just some of the dancers who have been the first African Americans to be dancers in major ballet companies.

The documentary Ella about the first Indigenous member of the Australian Ballet, Ella Havelka, is a story of her journey through dance.

It is important to view Ballet for its historical contexts, and to also acknowledge the extreme physical nature of the training and performing of it as an art form.

A 2008 study that compared dancers from the royal ballet with a British Olympic swimming squad, found that in an investigation of fitness dancers came out on top (Watson &Garrett, 2008).  Some of the things the research took into consideration were strength, endurance, balance, flexibility, and psychological state.

Celebrating Ballet in your school

Therefore, it is important to find out what your class may know about ballet already. Can they name any ballet companies or dancers?  Show some footage of ‘extreme ballet’, of comedic ballet, or just beautiful ballet that is not in tutus and tights.

Ballet in schools

Who are the people in a ballet company and what do they do?  Talk about the different professionals that are part of ballet companies.  Have them research what each of these ‘ballet jobs’ is about.

A ballet company is not just the dancers.  They are the ones we see.

There is also the,

Stage manager

Assistant stage manager

Technical director

Scenic artist/set painter

Master carpenter

Set crew

Lighting designer

Master electrician

Lighting crew

Light board operator

Costume designer

Master stitcher/tailor/seamstress

Costume Crew

Makeup Artists

Choreographer

Rehearsal Director

Props manager

Run crew

Orchestra Manager

Publicity Manager

Graphic designer

Publicity Crew

Program designer

House manager

Ticket Manager

 

Fun Facts about Ballet

  • Don’t forget to say ‘Chookas’ if you’re a dancer in Australia. It’s bad luck to say, ‘Good luck’. Dancers in other countries say, ‘Break a leg’.
  • One tutu takes about 90 hours to make.
  • The first ballet dancers were all men. Women were not allowed to dance in public until 1681.
  • 14,000 people see the ballet at least once a year. Although possibly not during COVID!
  • One of the most famous ballets is The Nutcracker.
  • Pointe shoes are handmade and need to be ‘broken in’ so that they are not noisy on stage.
  • Many footballers take ballet lessons to help them with their sport.
  • A ballet dancer can take three times her body weight on her big toe.

Ballet activities for primary schools

Ballet activity for early childhood

Begin by showing the children a narrative  ballet where they can recognise the story.  The Nutcracker, The Sleeping Beauty, or even Peter and the Wolf.  You can choose just a short extract from these as watching for too long may be difficult.

The children then take photos of themselves or a friend dancing.  They draw their own or their friends poses by looking at the photos.

How does your body feel?

Could you make the same shape with your body again?  Dance your own drawing.

What do you notice about your body as you are dancing?

Ballet activity for Year 3-4

As a part of World Ballet Day, they are holding a Jump for Joy Challenge.

Try doing this in your own classroom.  Encourage the children to plan for what their jump will look like.

What parts of the body are they using and are they curved or angular shapes?

They may like to photograph each other as a part of the planning process and include the photos in a planning worksheet.

You can talk about the science of what it takes to jump.

What do they have to do before they take off and what do they do as they land?

Remember to talk about the bend at the beginning and end of the jump as a part of your safe dance discussion.

Showing examples of male ballet dancers in slow motion gives the children an idea of the different shapes and the amount of energy and athleticism it takes to do a ballet jump.

Ballet activity for Year 5-6

For a challenging ballet activity take French ballet terms and join them together to make a movement sequence.  Small groups are given different French ballet words to order and execute.

Why is ballet in French?

Ballet originally came from the 17th Century French courts.  This tradition has been handed down over the generations.

If dancers are not native French speakers they can still understand what a teacher or choreographer is asking them to perform.

The children learn to pronounce the ballet terms. They also are making choreographic choices about why they have put the movements in a particular order.

How did you join them together so they moved smoothly into each other?

 

Ballet is the theatrical blending of four component arts: drama, music, design and dance. The perfect blending.      Peggy van Praagh and Peter Brinson 1963

Ballet can inspire, excite and delight young audiences.  Through the celebration of World Ballet Day this October your classroom can come alive with dance that may broaden your students’ ideas about dance.

To watch live ballet performances on 19th of October go to World Ballet Day.

 

References

University of Hertfordshire. “Ballet Dancers Are Fitter Than International Swimmers, Study Finds.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 27 October 2008.