Sick though one may be of the way that the poison dart of ‘woke’ is lazily flung at what is a real and complex set of problems, I fear that it’s deservedly winging its way towards Leeds’s Northern School of Contemporary Dance. Last month it announced that it would no longer require a competence in ballet for its auditions on the grounds that it is ‘an essentially elitist form’ built around ‘white European ideas and body shapes that are often alienating’. Stifle your groans for a moment, and let me unwrap this and offer some context.
First of all, it is not uncommon for schools specialising in contemporary dance to make ballet class optional. There are several other respectable and effective systems of technique – Martha Graham, Laban, jazz and tap, for example – that follow principles eschewing the turned-out feet and concepts of graceful line on which ballet is grounded.
But by common consent a ballet class offers the most rigorous and empowering training to which a dancer can aspire. It is the gold standard: a good ballet dancer can adapt his or her body to any other style, benefitting from levels of cardiovascular fitness and muscular flexibility, balance and precision, that demonstrably surpass those attained by professional athletes and sportsmen. It’s a regime as tough as hell, and not without its potential drawbacks (badly taught or monitored, it can harm knees and hips in particular), but a dance school that does not offer ballet is quite simply denying its students the chance to reach their highest physical potential.
Yes, one could justifiably take the view that ballet is an art form established by white, largely male European elites – so is virtually all the art, literature and philosophy that has given millions of people joy, inspiration and wisdom for the past 2,000 years, and presumably even the fiercest of Northern School of Contemporary Dance’s governors wouldn’t want to ditch the entirety of the western tradition.