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Ballet Body Narratives

Pain, Pleasure and Perfection in Embodied Identity

Angela Pickard

Ballet Body Narratives is an ethnographic exploration of the social world of classical ballet and the embodiment of young ballet dancers as they engage in «becoming a dancer» in ballet school in England. In contrast to the largely disembodied sociological literature of the body, this book places the corporeal body as central to the examination and reveals significant relationships between body, society and identity. Drawing on academic scholarship as well as rich ballet body narratives from young dancers, this book investigates how young ballet dancers’ bodies are lived, experienced and constructed through their desire to become performing ballet dancers as well as the seductive appeal of the ballet aesthetic. Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of the perpetuating social order and his theoretical framework of field, habitus and capital are applied as a way of understanding the social world of ballet but also of relating the ballet habitus and belief in the body to broader social structures. This book examines the distinctiveness of ballet culture and aspects of young ballet dancers’ embodied identity through a central focus on the ballet body.
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Chapter 1: Ballet, Bodies and Becoming



Ballet, Bodies and Becoming

I Am a Dancer

I have become a dancer through a process of construction that began in early childhood. I was taken to ballet classes at a young age by my mother who claimed it was because I was always moving or ‘jiggling around’, as she put it. I remember that I started to really enjoy it at about 9 years old. At this time I was participating in a number of other activities – gymnastics, theatre group and swimming – but I preferred ballet. I do not remember wanting to be a professional dancer but ballet (and other genres of dance) did eventually encompass every aspect of my leisure time as I decided to reject the other activities and engaged in an increased number of classes, preparation for examinations, rehearsals, performances and an ongoing practice of steps and combinations. I do not remember being persuaded or coerced overtly to do this; I believe that it was my choice. The codified vocabulary of ballet steps were taught in French and English, with classical music played to accompany the class. I learned particular ways of being through ballet. I learned about the ideal ballet aesthetic of perfection and the discipline that is involved in attempting to achieve this. I experienced teaching methods that treated my body as a ‘petite fighting machine’; I pulled up, extended and stretched my body to achieve the necessary and purposeful tension and softness to carry the...

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