A Hopi Indian saying goes, “To watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak.” Dance is expressive of one’s innermost feelings. It is a vehicle by which those emotions can be conveyed powerfully to an audience and can make the spectators feel what the dancer is feeling. Dance can tell a story without words, and it has the capability to transport those watching into a different time and place. Dancing has been an integral part of human history down through the ages. Nearly every culture has its own traditional folk dances that are unique to it. In the formal dance world of today, there are numerous genres of dance: classic disciplines like ballet, jazz, tap, and ballroom as well as contemporary genres like hip-hop and break dancing. The different kinds seem to be continually multiplying. There are several television shows that, happily, bring dance into people’s living rooms. Though, unfortunately, the emphasis of these shows can sometimes seem to be more about overt (and objectifying) sexuality than about the art form of dance and the portrayal of inspiring and beautiful relationships between a male and a female dancer.
However, this is not the only way in which the world of dance presents relationships, and one only has to travel to the theatre or search for a video on YouTube to watch a very different portrayal of relationships in the world of classical ballet. People may not initially think to look to ballet for an example of a positive, romantic man-woman relationship. Yet it is there, engrained in the very function and atmosphere of the movements.
George Balanchine, the world-renowned choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet, once said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.” At first glance, one might be taken aback by this bold, perhaps stereotypical statement; nevertheless, it warrants consideration. Most of society certainly associates ballet with girls and women even though there have been repeated examples of male professional athletes who extol the benefits of taking ballet. The athletic prowess of male dancers could match almost any athlete; moreover, dancers must be graceful and artistic at the same time as they exude power and strength. There’s even a humorous saying about male dancers: “Real men don’t lift weights, they lift women.”
Nevertheless, I think Balanchine is grasping at something deeper than the mere physical aspects of ballet, though they could be considered the manifestation of that deeper concept. He is, arguably, touching on the relationship between man and woman as depicted in the world of ballet. That relationship is one of complementarity and chivalry, two words that are often excluded from the contemporary milieu regarding relationships.
This notion of complementarity and romantic chivalry is manifested through the steps of ballet and through the interaction between the man and woman, especially in what is known as the grand pas de deux. The grand pas de deux can be found in full-length ballets, such as the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier in “The Nutcracker.” The grand pas is danced between the two leads in a ballet, and it includes five parts: an entrance, an adage (slow) section, male and female solos, and a concluding up-tempo coda.
Overall, the dance highlights the dancers’ strengths both together and individually. In the sections of the grand pas in which they dance together, the couple must possess unfailing trust in one another, not only emotionally but also physically as one’s bodily well-being partially rests with the other person.
The ballerina must trust her partner to catch her, to physically hold and to lift her, and to support her in her movements. In doing this, she exhibits vulnerability and self-gift, and through this, a certain strength and courage. On the other hand, the man must trust himself to care for and to uphold her, and he must trust her to do everything in her power to help him to support her. This help can be simply how she holds her body in a supported pirouette (turn) or by making eye contact with him before a lift. Just as communication is essential in off-stage relationships, one could say that the aforementioned examples are a form of unspoken on-stage communication which is necessary to make the grand pas de deux the best that it can be.
Also as in real life, a major part of this ballet relationship is timing. Timing is everything in balletic partner dancing. In rehearsals, the duo should strive to come to know one another on a personal level. In order for the grand pas to be successful, the couple must learn each other’s quirks, weaknesses, and strengths. Only then can the dance be seamless and united.
Naturally, this trust and coordination can only develop over time–which requires patience, another essential ingredient to both on and off-stage relationships. The two dancers painstakingly rehearse for countless hours, sometimes practicing the same step over and over. Through the good days and the bad, they must work together through frustrations, challenges, and even injuries in order to achieve their common goal of a mesmerizing and seemingly effortless final product for the stage. They both have a vested interest in the dance, and they must be willing to do what it takes to make it work.
The male and female solos are the opportunity for the individual dancer to display his or her dancing abilities. A female solo can be elegant, graceful and even a little bit sassy. The ballerina may show off her turning and balancing abilities or other steps that exemplify strength. The man’s solo is typically filled with bravado and impressive turns and jumps. These solos are short and impactful. Despite the fact that they are complete and lovely in and of themselves, when the two dancers come together again, it elevates the dancing to a new level. Together they are able to do things they could not do by themselves, and with their combined energy and teamwork, they create a thing of beauty.
The overall feeling of the grand pas de deux is one of chivalry, respect, and romance. The man’s character is inspired by the woman’s character, her beauty, and her love. The female dancer is supported, protected, and presented to the audience by her partner as the one to be watched and admired. His energy and strength are complemented by her quieter, gentler power. They are not in competition with one another but rather work together to be the best versions of themselves on stage.
This mutual giving and respect between the couple extends even to the final bow at the end of the performance. The couple returns to the stage together, but the man usually takes a few steps back for his bow so that, once again, the ballerina is the main focus. Furthermore, it is a tradition for the lead ballerina to receive a bouquet of flowers and often, she will pluck a flower from her bouquet and give it to her partner in a gracious gesture of sharing and affection.
From start to finish, the grand pas de deux and the world of classical ballet promotes a version of male-female relationships that may be idyllic but is also inspiring and beautiful. Though real life is not like fairy tales and ballets, the values these stories and traditions embody are certainly worthy ones, and they deserve a deeper consideration and perhaps emulation in the real world relationships that are lived each and every day.
NOTE: I originally wrote this article for The Gadfly, a student publication at Franciscan University of Steubenville.