Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ballet in Poland vs. Ballet in the United States, Part 1:

In March, I was invited to the graduation show of the Warsaw Ballet School. It was not just a concert to me. It was a bittersweet comeback to the “Teatr Wielki Opera Narodowa” in Warsaw, the home of Polish National Ballet, to watch my own class graduate. Seeing my classmates, I saw the other way my life could have gone, but never went. The scent of the theater, the atmosphere, all the familiar faces and the stage sent me on a stroll down the memory lane…

Ever since I remember, I dreamed of becoming a ballerina. My parents signed me up for ballroom dancing when I was five, and even though my dance partner and I won a gold medal in our dance studio’s competition, I was complaining all the time that it wasn’t ballet.  Finally, I took my first ballet classes when I was six. I was one of the bravest kids in my group, I always wanted to have a solo and I always did my best, always stood first in line, and always was the first to volunteer for dance improvisation.

At the age of nine, I was sure I was destined to become a famous ballet dancer. My dance teacher asked me to dance at a bridal fashion show, which was a big deal of a little girl. Later that year, I received an award for being the best dancer in the group that year. It was a little statue of a dancer, painted to look gold. It wasn't a huge prize but it had a great emotional value to me. This little statue stands on my shelf to this day.

after receiving the award for the best dancer in the group
dancing at the bridal fashion show

That same year I auditioned for ballet school, and finally I started my professional ballet education at the age of ten. In the beginning, it was like a dream come true. Ballet classes every day plus any additional education that is needed for a professional dancer. There were lessons in recognizing notes and musicality, folk dance, and stretching, and even more to come in next grades! All the training was supposed to prepare us to become professional dancers, ready to work in theaters around the globe. What else could a ten-year-old with a big dream ask for?

In ballet school, aged 11
It didn’t take a lot of time for me to realize that it was far away from what I expected. After spending four years at a dance studio where teachers wanted us to achieve our dreams and encouraged us a lot, it felt like a bucket of cold water was thrown on me. My ballet teacher turned out to be not very supportive and even devilish in her comportment. She only complimented the same three kids she favored, always making sure that the others felt insecure. It was very old-schooled way of teaching, which not only did not improve our dancing skills but also took away the strength to keep practicing, and gave us nightmares. One single look into her eyes felt like looking in the eyes of Basilisk. There were girls who cried before ballet classes, who faked sickness not to come. There were those who simply shook and trembled whenever teacher approached or was about to say something. Some of them even ended up on deciding to leave ballet school just because it was too much pressure for them. For the teachers it wasn't a big deal. We all knew that this is the way how the ballet schools work like in Eastern Europe, and ballet school in Warsaw was strongly influenced by the teaching methods of Russian ballet in the past.

However, I cannot say it was THAT bad. I did get to live a tiny bit of my dream. I got the chance to dance in a real ballet with Polish National Ballet. It was “Tristan”, an adaptation of “Tristan and Isolde”, a ballet choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor, the director of the Polish National Ballet. Some of my other classmates and I were hired to dance the role of little children from the village, who are being saved by Tristan, when the villain Mortholt tries to kidnap them. It was rather a tiny role involving lots of running around the stage but I danced it with passion. Five minutes on stage with professional dancers felt like five minutes in heaven. Some people say the small roles don't matter but I personally think they are the most important! Without us the show would fall apart. Once, when we were in the middle of the dance, one of the boys tripped me by accident and I fell down, hurting my arm. It was an excruciating pain, but I had to get up in only seconds. If I didn’t get up, the principal dancer would run into me and I would ruin the show. Luckily, I managed to get up and save the show. For spectators we were just tiny kids appearing in the show for a moment, a crowd on stage. I am sure that many of them don’t even remember that there were kids in that ballet, but for me the magic of those moments will stay forever, I will remember it for the rest of my life.

backstage, dressed in the costume for "Tristan"

When I was thirteen I had to leave ballet school, I was told I was too tall. I simply grew faster than my other classmates. That year eight of the tallest girls from our class were asked to leave. I knew I didn’t deserve to leave, I knew that there were other girls who danced far worse that I did. They had only one advantage; they were little. I can only speculate that the teachers were afraid we would get too tall and that there would be no male dancers strong and tall enough to pick us up when needed to.
Funny enough, I haven’t gotten that much taller since. My shoe size hasn’t changed since 7th grade. Now I know I have perfect figure and height for ballet, but how would they know it back then? From that and perhaps some other inexplicable reasons they didn’t allow us to stay.

Looking back, I am glad that I left ballet school. Back then, I was totally broken, I couldn’t imagine my life without being a dancer. I saw it as the end of my life. I know it now, I was wrong. If it didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t be writing this post today. Leaving ballet school led me to making different choices, focusing on my education that led me to higher academic achievements and my exchange year in the United States. Having stayed in ballet school, I would only learn the profession, not the academics, and I would have never gotten the chance to spend an amazing year in Texas.

I never stopped dancing. I never could. I joined a group from the dance studio I used to attend before going to ballet school, and I was quite satisfied. Only with time, I noticed the effects of lacking regular practice. To stay in shape I should practice at least three times a week. I wished I could practice on the same level as I used to in ballet school, but I knew it was impossible. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find ballet classes that have level as good as those in ballet school. At the time there were no studios that offer this level of ballet, and I didn’t want to primarily dance other dance styles. Even though, I was lucky. I was a part of one of the best groups in my dance studio (and still am). Dance has always brought me so much joy, and being outside ballet school allowed me to do it just for fun. There was no more screaming of the teacher or repeating one exercise countless times just because someone didn’t point their feet enough. I had the advantage of professional training that allowed me to establish my position in the group. The teacher finally appreciated me and classes were pure pleasure. I started learning jazz and modern dance. I was happy to dance in competitions and different shows with my friends. I was happy I could still do it and have solos, and not stand in the back row. I was reconciling with the idea of never becoming a professional dancer. They took away to become a professional for me but they couldn’t take away my passion.

dancing at the dance studio concert after leaving ballet school

Even though, I knew I was happy in my new life, I used to think a lot about it a lot. I always wondered “what if?”

“What if?” is one of the most powerful questions. It not only allows us to dream but it also allows the past to enslave us. A question that cannot be answered. It keeps us awake at night, always bothering, hanging like a shadow over head, asking what could our life be like, if we made a different choice or got one more chance. That same thing happened to me.  I kept thinking and thinking about what could have happened if I got the chance to stay in ballet school. It kept me up all night a couple of times, and even when I thought I forgot, each time I went to see a ballet; it kept coming and coming back. This question kept bothering me until I lived through two major events in my life.

Only after attending dance classes in Dallas last year, and going to see that graduation concert last month allowed me to let go off the question and let go off the past...

To be continued…

at the ballet studio concert, third from the left