Stuck in First Position: A historical examination of the ballet classroom

Abstract:

In this paper, through historical contextualization of training manuals and resulting methods of teaching ballet, I trace how the progression of ballet pedagogy intertwines with ballet’s desire to uphold tradition. Born out of hegemonic narratives, ballet pedagogy is sustained through exclusive measures and reinforced by employing a large percentage of female identifying instructors. These instructors have emerged from the ranks of ballet, expected to obey and to never question authority. While progressive approaches and instructors exist, the field will not fully advance unless there is acknowledgement of the fact that these instructors are working within a system that continues to avoid change.

By tracing key advancements in ballet pedagogy, I was able to draw parallels to current practices. This process revealed that the institution has, since its inception, been effective in establishing hierarchical ranks that determine who can enter and how long they remain. This pattern is particularly evident given that more worth is given to an instructor’s professional performing career over their pedagogical skills when it comes to securing employment as an educator. Additionally, men continue to hold the majority of power as company directors, school directors, and choreographers, requiring women who often are at the forefront of progressive pedagogical approaches to challenge the status quo. By more deeply understanding the development of ballet pedagogy, we can more clearly understand what is at stake, how preserving these norms is harmful, and critical actions we can take to break tradition and forward the field.