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  • Nicole (Johnson) Williams

32. storytelling with ballet

Updated: Sep 14, 2023

I spent this past week in Pittsburg, accompanying 10 of my students at the National High School Dance Festival hosted at Point Park University. I taught dance, I talked about dance, I thought about dance, and I watched A LOT of dance. Each day, there was a wide variety of different classes, along with informal concerts, student choreography concerts, and gala concerts every night. The opening ceremony welcomed an hour-long program featuring Complexions Contemporary Ballet. While I was excited to see them perform, I didn’t expect any inspiration for my own personal praxis or movement style. Over the years, my relationship with ballet has become increasingly estranged. In my daily work directing high school students, as well as my work with a group of more experienced dancers last summer, an ongoing exploration has been that of identifying the codified movement vocabulary that is most useful in training a body to execute the movement necessary to tell my story in my language. The movement styles I have been most disciplined in throughout my life have been ballet and Release Technique modern. Although these styles greatly influence many of my movement choices because of the length of time and amount of access I’ve had with both, adopting a more critical ballet practice has made me really begin to question its place in my body. 

While at the festival, I sat in on a discussion led by James Robey (Chair/Associate Professor of Dance at Radford University). In this discussion entitled, Emerging Paradigms for Dance Teachers, Robey introduced some research he’s been doing to understand/organize thoughts regarding the evolution of dancers’ needs throughout a lifetime of engagement with the craft. These evolving paradigm stages travel in a color coded spiral and include:

  1. Primal Paradigm – the learner values belonging and is dependent on the teacher

  2. Tribalistic Paradigm – the learner imitates the teacher, who is playful and reassuring

  3. Egocentric Paradigm – the learner has a fear of shame while the teacher is tough yet rewarding

  4. Absolutistic Paradigm – the learner tries not to get in trouble while the teacher provides discipline and structure; here the master teacher has the hierarchal knowledge and there is a clear “right” and a clear “wrong”

  5. Multiplicitic Paradigm – the learner is experimental while the teacher builds autonomy through encouragement

  6. Relativistic Paradigm – the learner is observational and critical while the teacher acts more as a colleague with a framework; here, all waves of the evolution are equal except for those that are hierarchal/oppressive

  7. Systemic Paradigm – the learner is agile while the teacher facilitates and gives space; Robey likened this to code-switching or changing paradigms to fit an appropriate situation

  8. Holistic Paradigm – the learner explores by trying things out while the teacher is more of a facilitating team member

  9. Unifying Paradigm (I think I was talking here and forgot to take notes on this paradigm, but essentially it deals with peace and unification amongst all 9 of these waves)

After a late start to my “formal” dance training at age 15, I worked hard to learn all the ballet that was necessary to be deemed a valuable and serious dancer (Egocentric Paradigm). My aim was to correct my comportment, improve my feet, tone my body, increase my strength and flexibility, and to become fluent in this language that seemed to be the gatekeeper to all serious means of movement expression. I took all the ballet I could in high school, routinely passing up opportunities to study styles like hip hop and tap, for fear of being labeled “good for a Black girl.” I just wanted to be GOOD, and the only way to know if I was good was to master a discipline in which there was a “right” and a “wrong.” So, I worked hard to catch up to my peers. When I entered my undergraduate program (Absolutistic Paradigm), I remember going back to my dorm to cry every night the first month I was on campus. I was in Ballet 1, my turn out wasn’t great, my feet were great, my knees were bent (even when I thought they were straight), I struggled to remember combinations, and it seemed that, regardless of my tireless efforts to catch up in the previous three years, I would never be able to make my body suitable for the technique that would validate me. Everything I did was wrong, wrong, wrong. I resigned myself to hating ballet forever, making it known to my professors that it just wasn’t for me and that I was a modern and jazz dancer (which they didn’t disagree with, and applauded my efforts).

I moved back to the metro-Detroit area after finishing my undergraduate program. Not knowing where to find other adults to train with, I finally happened upon an adult ballet class at a small studio in Keego Harbor, which has since become an incredible independent program in Farmington Hills. The instructor, a retired Brazilian prima ballerina, taught for all bodies and stages in a dancer’s career (Multiplistic Paradigm). I continued to come back for the training. Once I began to see improvements in my dancing, I began to come back as an act of resistance; to show myself mostly that I could, in fact, use this technique effectively within my own movement style. I took class nearly every day. Many days, I took more than one class a day, then went to teach ballet at a studio in the evening.

By the time the pandemic hit, I was dancing for a ballet company, taking multiple classes at the adult studio, and teaching multiple classes each week as well. I finally felt GOOD, but never felt GOOD ENOUGH. I continued to feel like a foreigner while speaking the language, my thick accent seasoning the movements and maintaining my place as a lifelong outsider to the form. This feeling continued to fester inside of me. At the same time, doors had begun opening up in the contemporary modern dance community, specifically with other professional Black and Brown dancers. The movement here felt natural in my body and easy to tap into. Finally, fed up with always striving to be, I broke with ballet (Relativistic Paradigm). I liberated myself from pursuing the righteousness that came through the acquisition of ballet correctness. As I began to dance with more Black professionals in the city, I began to see the validation in the movement that I had been suppressing for so many years. I joined a collective and did some freelance work that focused on authentic jazz and African American vernacular dance. I joined another collective that played with the conjunction of contemporary modern techniques and social dances such as house and vogue. The value of these dance styles began to shine through as dancing them awakened a deep knowing that had been collecting dust since I traded my West African dance practice in for cheerleading in middle school and never looked back.

Coming back to these styles felt so good and natural in my body and spirit. What’s more is that, as I looked around, I began to see this movement as affirmed and valued by those who watched the movement work through my body. I realized in this time that I had never needed to strap on a pair of pointe shoes to be valid as an artistic mover (although the world would have had me think otherwise). From that point, there was no going back. I was happy to completely reject the overemphasis of ballet that had guided not only mine, but the training ideals of many other Black dancers. I was happy to be done with ballet, until I moved to western Massachusetts.

In developing a more intentional and holistic teaching pedagogy and artistic praxis, while still being contractually required to offer an Honor Ballet Technique and Theory class, I have an opportunity to be in constant pursuit of a deeper understanding of: a) where ballet comes from and the many perspectives that make up its origin story [past], b) how dance functions and exists kinesthetically in one’s own personal body [present], and c) what we can create, with an ever-broadening understanding of how we interact with ballet’s past and present, to build toward the betterment and fullest expression of self [future].

Since I’ve begun teaching here at the boarding school, I’ve experimented with completely omitting ballet from the company’s training regimen, substituting it for Horton and Release Technique. I’ve worked to uncover and understand many ways in which ballet’s past and present can be harmful and counterproductive to my personal practice. Having experience with both side of this equation, I am now interested in understanding the ways in which ballet is useful in my own body (somewhere between the Systemic and Holistic Paradigm), allowing it back into the conversation with a new awareness of its wholeness in relationship with mine.

Tomorrow (first day of Spring Break) I plan to begin an intensive personal ballet practice. During this intensive period, I plan to maintain a consistent daily practice that intentionally includes ballet and allows it (in conjunction with Release Technique, Dunham, and Horton) to inform my improvisational explorations. I’m curious to know how much and what kind of movement found in this exploration will lend itself to molding the missing pieces of choreography in my Artistic Experience.

Returning, briefly, to the festival: In the six concerts I watched over the four days, I felt overwhelmingly annoyed with most of the pieces presented. I felt negatively about the experience of watching these dances until the colleague I was traveling with asked the students (who were equally annoyed) what that annoyance told them about their own creative processes. This was incredibly helpful in reframing my own negative outlook on the works. In watching the dances, I felt that the number of ballet-based “tricks” (extensions, multiple pirouettes, flashy jumps) lent itself to a serious disconnect between movement that was aesthetically pleasing and movement that told a story and expressed a clear idea. I routinely struggled to find the relationships between the music, titles, movements, and costuming. Being in an audience filled with teenagers, I also found that students struggled to connect the movements to the overarching theme/storyline/intention, as they continued to applaud for these ballet-based tricks, even when the feeling of the piece was serious/sad (applauding the technical achievements of friends instead of being immersed in the intention of the piece). After reflecting on my annoyance, I came to understand a0 some stories are difficult for me to follow in ballet, and b) relationship and connection are vital aspects of my brand of storytelling.

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