This is what a dancer looks like… Why not a ballerina?

There was a bit of a furore in the UK press this week: a young girl named Pollyanna was entered into her ISTD ballet exam, and came out with a Pass. Her parents were disappointed because the rest of the class had achieved Merits and Distinctions… but then the rest of the class weren’t dancing on an artificial leg. Parents Sarah and Christopher had asked the ISTD in advance to make “reasonable adjustments,” and felt that they’d been let down, and they had… but not by the examiner.

The comments on the article in The Telegraph ranged from the deeply empathetic to the misunderstanding to the deliberately spiteful. Most focussed on the politics of disability: accessible spaces, adjusted grading, giving everyone a chance… or not as the case may be. A couple of people even went so far as to say that ballet is a particular thing and that particular thing was unobtainable by a disabled body. So first of all, let’s clean that up before it goes any further, and then we’ll look at what the main problem was with Pollyanna’s ballet exam.

No-one’s sure what ballet is. Literally.

I have recently returned from a conference of the world’s top dance scholars, and we had arguments and debates and history and culture and FAR too much coffee and all along we KNEW that we don’t know what ballet “is.” We know the history of ballet (although most people get it wrong), and we know that ballet has some no-good-very-bad problems with imposing an aesthetic standard on the body and what beauty looks like. We also know that there’s a large number of people doing a kind of ballet that’s not tied to a stereotypical body, to narrative, to “classical” music or to a set vocabulary of steps. To give an example, Irreverent Dance, a queer, a-typical-bodied dance studio has just found the funds for a permanent space to teach ballet classes (and other things). So there is ballet out there that doesn’t give a toss what people THINK that ballet is, ok? Get thee to google.

Moving on.

I’m going to make the assumption that at least some of the people reading this blog have never taken a UK-style syllabus-based ballet exam, or even know what one is, and explain first of all what it was that Pollyanna walked into. While some studios offer independent, free-form dance classes by age group, where material might change from week to week or show to show, with children progressing by age/experience/ability, the majority of teachers follow a syllabus of graded examinations. The major boards in the UK are the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and ISTD (International Society of Teachers of Dance), and let me tell you now that I’ve taken an awful lot of exams in both.

To take these exams, you go into a room in a group of about four (ish, less-so at the higher grades etc.), without your teacher, and perform a series of set exercises. You are marked on how well you do the exercises: technique, performance, general presentation and accuracy. You get marks for politeness, for curtseying at the right time and for having your ribbons done up right, “A polite and well-groomed candidate” was a standard phrase on the reports of my childhood. But back to those exercises.

You have to get them right.

You have to do the right steps in the right order at the right time to the specified music, which means that what teachers usually do is teach only those exercises, particularly in the run up to exams. This is at the heart of why the ISTD didn’t make adjustments for Pollyanna: their whole grading system is based on the performance of a set of exercises, from which any deviation results in a decrease in marks. When your leg is “frozen” (her father’s words) and you cannot do certain things involved in your exercises, the most suitable accommodation to make is to change the exercise in order to demonstrate your technical understanding and performance quality another way. But THAT’S the accommodation that the ISTD just doesn’t make.

This is the heart of what’s wrong with syllabus training overall: it promotes one very particular way of stringing together steps, the technique necessary to perform those steps in that order, and very little understanding of the variability inherent in ballet and performance. Over history, time and place the performance of ballet and the ideals of technique have changed according to bodies and fashion. Individuals have danced a revolution in what it means to perform ballet, driving forward the possibilities for what we can do and how we can put it on stage. Syllabus training does not truly accommodate the fact that everyone’s body does ballet differently, whether they have a disability or not, and as such often produces dancers who cannot adapt to the fluidity and choice-making needed to succeed in the professional dance world.

America is another story. In the USA, syllabus training is only just beginning to get a foothold, thanks to lobbying from the School of American Ballet and the creation of their own training syllabus. Ballet in America is driven by choreography and performance, by mastery of the skills required by a piece, rather than the checklist of steps and sequences needed to pass an exam. This approach produces very different dancers – of course with their own habits and issues, but with an attitude as well as a physicality that’s worlds away from the syllabus based model.

I wholeheartedly urge parents looking for an accessible ballet class to find someone giving a class that your child wants to take, and which puts no limits on their possibility for achievement. There is someone out there who will choreograph classwork based on your child’s physical capabilities; who will structure their training to enable them to learn, and provide standards of assessment that facilitate their need for evaluation and progression. What’s more, they’ll be engaged and enthusiastic about making that happen and be passionate that what you’re doing is really, ballet, yes really. Don’t let anyone tell you what ballet “is,” go out and find the ballet that’s right for you. I hate to share a soppy video, but sometimes that means having to go out and demand it.

That sounds like I think Pollyanna’s parents were lazy, or have an obligation to do the work, I really, really don’t. I think the teacher should have explained the exam system, and how their daughter would be graded before they decided to subject her to that system. I think the ISTD should be transparent about the fact that they will only make certain kinds of adaptations. I think the dance community should be pro-active about directing potential students to a class that will keep them dancing, even if it means giving up on some class fees. I’d like a moment here to point out the incredible work of Cando 2, and others working to provide exceptional training to young dancers with disabilities but also to ask why the ballet world hasn’t really stepped up to the plate in that regard to provide sustained, accessible training for children and young people at both a hobby and pre-vocational level. Come to think of it, let’s get more ballet classes available low-cost and for free, so that we can get over that nasty class barrier while we’re at it, and don’t get me STARTED on the whole racial divide thing…

I’m a ballet-lover, in case you couldn’t tell. I’ve also spent nearly a decade working with children with various disabilities. I see absolutely no reason that Pollyanna should have felt forced to stop doing the ballet that she loved, and I’m saddened she felt that there was no space for her in the major balletic institutions of the UK. No space for people with disabilities is a common problem, and one that’s only going to get worse if current austerity measures go ahead. With such a powerful media platform at his disposal, I URGE Christopher Hope to keep demanding that space, and those fundamental human rights that are being persistently removed and denied. I also urge the dance world to work a little harder at making that space for the next generation of artists, and to think long and hard about what dance class ought to be for.

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