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The Beauty and Benefits of Ballet
by Samantha Mele photos courtesy of Deborah Grammel
At four o’clock in the basement of the Green Center for the Performing Arts at DePauw University, Debbie Grammel and her troop of young ballerinas are in the studio working diligently on their dance moves. Local Greencastle girls, ranging in ages from four to fourteen, come to Grammel to study the art of ballet, bettering their flexibility, coordination, and strength, while simultaneously improving upon their work ethic, creativity, and discipline. One Wednesday afternoon while looking for a place to study, I discover Grammel’s ballet class. Peering into the studio, six young girls in pink tights and black leotards work on a series of complicated steps. “You can come in if you like,” a woman I have never met before says as she ushers me into the room. “Thanks,” I reply. “Are you a ballet teacher?” “Yes, I’m Debbie. I teach the local Greencastle kids.” “Wow that’s awesome!” I take my place in the corner of the room and observe her ballet class. As I sit and watch the young dancers I wonder why I haven’t heard about this before. A former ballerina myself, I had been in search of the local ballet studio. These lessons were going on right beneath my classrooms, and I had no idea. Young girls around the age of 10 and ll line up. All are in black leotards and pink tights, their hair slicked back into a bun. The girls stand at attention--attempting to exude poise and elegance beyond their years--as they wait for Debbie to start class. Ballet began in the 1500’s and has been evolving ever since. In France, King Louis XIV solidified ballet’s technique, and its fame spread. Ballerinas study the steps, continually advancing and improving upon them. For generations ballet has remained a popular art form. There are over 150 professional ballet companies in the United States and 4,350 ballet students at the Cuban National Ballet School, the largest ballet school in the world. However, these companies and schools are located in major cities. The advantages of ballet should not be reserved for those living in a metropolitan area.
Combining beauty and athleticism, ballet is unique. In a community as small as Greencastle, where children are involved in multiple activities, parents and children might miss the important benefits of ballet. The skills learned in ballet can help with other athletic programs, such as the fast and fancy footwork required for soccer. The benefits of ballet extend beyond sports--the life lessons instilled in students at ballet classes stick with them throughout their lives. Grammel is actively trying to increase participation in ballet amongst the Greencastle population. She began her ballet training at her small hometown studio in Michigan, not unlike the studio she runs today. Further into her training she spent summers at the Michigan State Summer Cecchetti Council program. By high school, she had left home in search of better training. She ended up traveling to Michigan City in order to work one on one with a couple who had graduated from Butler’s dance program. This inspired her to continue her dance training at the collegiate level as well. She received her Bachelor’s degree and Master’s degree in dance, simultaneously traveling to and performing in New York, Los Angeles, Texas, and Florida. After school, Debbie decided to return to Indiana. She worked for Indianapolis Ballet Theatre constructing costumes and dancing. She went on to design for Dance Kaleidoscope, a professional contemporary dance company located in Indianapolis. Eventually, she found her way to DePauw where she has been teaching for 38 years. Grammel has taught in the Communications Department, the Physical Education Department, and The School of Music. She has choreographed for the DePauw Dance, as well as DePauw’s musicals, and operas. On top of all this, Grammel recognized the importance for young children to be exposed to the art of ballet and decided to offer lessons to the Greencastle community. “Ballet is important to young children because it introduces them to movement, body awareness, music, discipline, and appreciation for the arts, she states. These elements are taught through specific exercises, that when combined, create a beautiful performance. Grammel packs all these benefits into an hour and a half class, costing only $17.00.
Combining beauty and athleticism, ballet is unique. In a community as small as Greencastle, where children are involved in multiple activities, parents and children might miss the important benefits of ballet. The skills learned in ballet can help with other athletic programs, such as the fast and fancy footwork required for soccer. The benefits of ballet extend beyond sports--the life lessons instilled in students at ballet classes stick with them throughout their lives.
I have seen these elements in action. Grammel starts by lining the students up at the ballet barre. The long, tubular piece of wood is nailed to the wall like a railing. Students keep a light grasp on the barre to assist their balance. Plies are the very first move performed. The ballerinas turn out their feet so that the insides of their heels touch, and essentially, make a straight line. Then they bend their knees and straighten and repeat. Plies stretch out the Achilles tendon, warming up the legs so that jumps increase in height and toes can point more. From the very first move, ballet is working on increasing flexibility. There are many exercises that increase flexibility. “To increase flexibility I would use exercises that include plies, and leg on the barre, Grammel says. This requires the student to put their leg where their hand formerly rested. The ballerinas turn towards the wall and place their leg on the barre so that their legs make an obtuse angle. Grammel explains that this stretches out their hamstrings before grande battements. A few minutes later the ballerina’s perform this step. Grammel walks over to the music machine and a booming piano introduction plays. “Four grande battements en croix,” Grammel shouts. En croix is the French ballet term that means: in the shape of the cross. The girls get into their starting position and begin kicking their legs up to the front, side, back, and side. Repeating each movement in all directions ensures that the muscles are being stretched as a whole so that ballerinas can translate this step into more complicated ones with ease. The exercises performed in ballet require a dancer to be strong and flexible at the same time. Grammel achieves this strength by making dancers hold their legs high up in the air, increasing muscle at the level to which the strength must be used. Furthermore, ballerinas are required to dance on the very tops of their toes. In order to build up the muscle required to do this, Grammel states that “steps that work on balance, advancing to releves” work best. Again, I watch the students delicately place their hands on the barre, in the same turned out position as before, and slowly rise up to their toes and back down again. The ballerinas are increasing strength in their calf muscles, inner and outer thighs, glutes and abdomen. Grammel shouts, “pull up in your tummies girls!” I see several ballerinas suck in their stomach and seemingly grow a few inches taller. Grammel explains to me later that “pulling up” reminds the girls to stop slouching and to engage their stomach muscles so that they have greater stability in the center. After the exercises at the barre, Grammel brings the girls into the center of the room where they are expected to take the techniques and steps they practiced at the barre and string them together to form a dance in the center. The ballerinas releve and plie and kick, jump, twirl in numerous patterns ending with a curtsey. Combining the strength and flexibility they have acquired into a beautiful dance takes coordination. In ballet, the dancers increase their coordination by repetition of steps in multiple different combinations. The more they practice a combination the more seamless it becomes. Ballerinas then apply what they have practiced to the new combination.
Through ballet, kicks become more powerful, jumps reach new heights, and quickly transferring from one step to another increases agility. These are all skills that can be applied to multiple activities that a student can improve upon in one ballet class. But ballet doesn’t just benefit athleticism. Students learn about rhythm, tempo, and tone by dancing the steps to music. They become more aware of their bodies and how they move through a space. Ballet also teaches discipline, organization, and increases a positive work ethic. Unlike other sports where children run around freely, ballet class is extremely structured with a series of rules. Students must remain quiet and focused. A ballerina always starts at the barre before moving into center. The proper clothes and hair style must be worn. Students are responsible for memorizing and perfecting a dance to the point where the audience does not see the struggle behind the movements. All these things require hard work and dedication that translates into students’ real lives. Ballet teachers push their students to be the best they can be. The ballerina’s practice the same steps every day until they are perfect. A ballerina must learn how to stay focused and driven. Furthermore, steps build upon each other. Just as simple addition translates into algebraic formulas, basic moves learned at the ballet barre are used to create more difficult ones to be performed onstage. I took ballet lessons and had to stop just before coming to college. Oftentimes, when I am lackadaisically studying my ballet teacher’s voice will pop into my head: “If you don’t work hard at this step how do you expect to perform the more complicated one that comes after?” The effort I applied at ballet translated into my school work. I have first-hand experience with the discipline and organization that ballet instills in its students. Ballet also increases artistic ability. There is more that goes into a ballet performance than just the steps. No other sport requires a player to worry about the emotion behind their movements. Unlike ballet, sports do not tell a story. Ballet dancers are unique in that they have to focus on the story of the ballet and what emotion they are supposed to project to the audience making them the most athletic actors. The concentration on their faces in class must be completely gone by the time they hit the stage. The end goal of ballet is to tell a story through beautiful movement that is enjoyable for the audience. This pushes students of ballet to think creatively. They must come up with a way to project feelings through their bodies. Ballet forces a person to combine athleticism with art.
Oftentimes, when I am lackadaisically studying my ballet teacher’s voice will pop into my head: “If you don’t work hard at this step how do you expect to perform the more complicated one that comes after?” The effort I applied at ballet translated into my school work. I have first-hand experience with the discipline and organization that ballet instills in its students.
According to Grammel, “Ballet helps with many aspects of life. Discipline, organization, creativity and communication skills are just a few.” Furthermore, ballet gives back to the community. Students work on a ballet and perform it for an audience, sharing their art with everyone. The skills learned at ballet class can help with other sports. Greencastle kids are involved in multiple activities and very rarely decide to focus on one. However, ballet should be at the top of their lists. Ballet improves strength, coordination, flexibility, and agility while simultaneously working on memorization skills, creativity, organization, and discipline. These skills apply to every activity a Greencastle child might engage in. Ballet isn’t just for the kids to enjoy. While most grown adults are too old to become serious ballerinas, ballet performances bring an entire community together to engage in artistic appreciation and acknowledge the hard work of the students. The beauty of ballet should be appreciated by all. Debbie Grammel and her young ballerinas are engaging in an important mission; spread the popularity of ballet in Greencastle. They have two performances a year, one in December and one in May. These performances are held at Moore Theatre. Grammel describes her performances as a learning experience for her students. “The students Focus is on learning a dance, remembering the dance, performing in front of people, being on stage in costumes and having fun,” she states Grammel’s students receive the benefits of working on a dance and performance skills simultaneously providing entertainment to the community. Ballet multifaceted art form should be recognized by everyone in Greencastle. Grammel and her students are just the beginning. A 2015 graduate of Bativa High School in Bativa, Illinois, Samantha Mele is currently a student at DePauw University. Featured Image Credit: Ballet Shoes by Kryziz Bonny is allowed under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.