This post is written from a personal experiential point of view, a sort of autoethnography. This is the first of a series of posts highlighting how important dance has been form me, throughout my life, in all its different phases. However, because the experience is very personal to me (the culture I came from, my personal taste and experiences), you may share or not my opinions. Dance may have been important for you in your life, and if it has, it might be for very different reasons and in different ways. The dance experiences I have had so far have been shaped by the places and cultures in which I have lived in different moments of my life. Different cultures have different perceptions of dance and this must have surely influenced my experiences. It would be interesting to hear from you with regards to your different experiences, so please feel free to contact me if you would like to share your ideas and thoughts.
I have loved dancing since I can remember. It has always been my favourite form of self expression and dancing has always made me happy. It is to do with the joy that comes from moving the body in conjunction with the music. I have also always loved watching every type of dance; however, when it comes to dancing myself, I have my favourite genres, as many of you I suspect also do. I am not a full time professional performer, but dance has a relevant position in my life, as I am currently doing a PhD in dance as a form of cultural heritage.
Because I have lived in different places during the course of my life, this autoethnography will explore the role of dance in different cultures. However, the point of view is from of a Sicilian woman (from Italy) born in the early 1970s. In this first post I will talk about the experience of ballet during my childhood.
Dancing Ballet as a Child in Sicily (Italy) in the 1970s
I do not know how or the exact moment when I first became interested in dance. However, I can say that it was at least from the age of six, from what I can remember. The first dance genre I was attracted to was classical ballet. Maybe because ballet is associated, at least in Western culture, with grace and femininity. Being a girly girl I was always fascinated by things associated with being a girl and ballet for me was the epitome of femininity. So, at the age of 6, I started going to ballet classes.
The other reason why I went for ballet, I think, was the fact that at the time when I was growing up in Sicily, in the early 1970, ballet was the only dance form for which one could easily find classes to attend. I find that dance in Italy is very overlooked. In a country that is proud of its amazing cultural heritage in terms of buildings and artefacts, whose opera is appreciated worldwide and which boasts an amazing culinary tradition, dance is the only art that is neglected. It is not that Italians do not like dancing, it is that they do not take dance seriously nor they embrace it as much as other cultures do. Ballet is the only type of dance that is relatively appreciated, generally speaking. Italy used to have various folkloric dances, many of which have been forgotten. Recently, there has been a revival of pizzica and taranta in the south of Italy, but certainly the majority of popular dance forms in places like Sicily, for example, have now mostly disappeared (even though there are currently attempts at rediscovering and saving what is left).
Whatever the reason why I started practising ballet, I certainly enjoyed it and I quickly started enjoying moving to the music. After learning some basic technique in classes, what I really enjoyed was improvising to the music. As a child I used to do that at home very often; I just played some records (classical as well as pop music) and improvised freely. Ballet gave me some basic understand of musicality, movement and alignment but what I felt was missing, even as I was practising it at a young age, was the freedom to express myself. From what I know now, this is certainly one of the characteristics of classical ballet, i.e.
being very structured and seeing the dancer mainly as an executor of movements, rather than a creative entity.
However, some ballet practitioners nowadays are exploring new directions and encouraging the performer to be more involved in the creative process (one of these is Paula Salosaari with her research on embodiment in classical ballet). I guess that, if there had been contemporary dance classes available when I was growing up, I would have loved them, because of this genre’s positive attitude towards freedom of expression and improvisation and the creative agency it gives to performers.
Going back to my experience of ballet, I went to classes from the age of 6 until the age of 10 and I mostly enjoyed it. However, sometimes I would get frustrated when I could not get a step right, because I was a perfectionist, but also because I have always found it hard to get a step quickly by just looking at the movement. I have always found it easier to imitate movements of the arms and torso and attitudes, rather than foot patterns. Even today, I need to see the steps a few times, get my head around the pattern first, then practise and, only after a lot of practice, I finally feel comfortable with steps. While I was in ballet class as a child though, I found that the teacher did not seem to give enough time to children to really comprehend the movements. Also, from an early age, I realised that the teacher had her favourite students to whom she paid more attention than she did to the rest of us. I wonder if many of you have had the same feeling in the past going to dance classes? I guess it is natural for teachers to have favourites, but it is something that a good teacher has to overcome.
At the end of every year we had group performances in a theatre, where all the families came and see us. I really loved this part of the course. I always enjoyed performing and, in spite of being otherwise a very shy child, I was never afraid or shy of dancing on stage in front of many people. Rather, I used to look forward to the performance day and I liked all the preparation, the practice and preparing the costumes.
Another element that influenced my relationship with dance as I was growing up, was TV and popular culture. I think that the way popular culture influences people’s choices in the genres of dance they decide to practice is a very interesting topic to explore. An Italian ballet dancer who was famous at that time was Carla Fracci, whom I hugely admired. However, it was not only classical culture that influenced me. The 1970s were the years of disco music and dance, the movies Saturday Night Fever and Grease with John Travolta and even great dance performances on Italian TV. I will talk about popular culture and dance in the 1970s and 80s in my next autoethnography post.
Carla Fracci performing Sleeping Beauty