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A beautiful spectacle, or a life of pressure and pain on the quest for perfection? We're left pondering this question as the world of ballet remains one of secrecy. Until now. From gruelling training schedules to the iconic satin slippers, former Royal Ballet dancer Jackie Kennedy sheds a twinkling light on the profession.
1. Pointe is incredibly painful
In case you were under any illusion, the solid wooden blocks on which ballerinas delicately pirouette aren’t a luscious cushion for the toes. In fact, they’re excruciating, says former corps de ballet dancer Jackie: ‘The high pain threshold that all ballet dancers have, particularly females, with what they endure through pointe work is incredible.’ And going to extreme measures to keep agony at bay is a rather creative chore, she says. ‘One night could finish a pair of shoes. I had sacks of them in my loft. In those days the modern toe pads didn’t exist. At the Royal Ballet School we used “Bronco” toilet paper and later animal wool to avoid blisters and bruised toe nails but we had to put surgical spirit on our cuts. Ouch!’
2. Ballerinas strive for perfection, always
Practice is an eternal concept according to Jackie, who would endlessly repeat her graceful movements until every muscle fell delicately into place. And it’s certainly no easy feat. ‘Dancers prepare like actors if they have a ‘role’ with research and so on, but the repetition of the physical rehearsal in the quest for perfection is gruelling.’
3. Magical costumes warrant museum space
Ballet, historically appreciated by society’s elite, is a work of art. Exquisite performances are accompanied by ethereal costumes fit for royalty. ‘The wardrobe department is immense,’ reveals Jackie when asked about the craftsmanship that goes into each embellished ensemble. ‘The detail is like that of Downton Abbey, but for hundreds of different Ballets.’
‘Most dancers are careful,’ explains Jackie when quizzed on the assumptions of the barely-there ballerina diet. ‘Some stay healthy, some are chaotic, and others risk everything by indulging in ridiculous diets, but the truth is you have to have fuel to be able to dance.’ She does admit there are some cases in which food is slightly restricted, but never stopped, revealing: ‘You’re not to do a full length ballet on a full stomach. With day rehearsals too, little and often is better for a ballerina.’
5. Schedules are just as you imagine – punishing
A ballerina’s timetable is as intense as we thought, and on occasion, dancers endure up to 10 hours of fatiguing physical exercise a day. ‘Back in the day it was a 9am class at the studios then rehearsals all day for that evening and/or for the next show in line,’ tells Jackie. ‘Bear in mind ballet dancers don’t just do one whole run of a show like in musical theatre or acting,’ continues the former corps de ballet. ‘You could be rehearsing for two different classics and a couple of triple bills all in one week.’
6. Comradery is ballet’s core
Dancers train together, tour together, sometimes live together, and occasionally sleep together; one thing’s for certain, an almost animalistic intimacy runs through The Royal Ballet. And shared rituals play a part in keeping the corps close, believes Jackie. ‘We all had our own personal rituals before a performance, but a common occurrence was the banging of pointe shoes on the stone steps (backstage) at the royal opera. Nobody wanted noisy feet on stage. People used to say “chukkers” which is the ballet term for “break a leg/good luck.”‘