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The Beautiful Illusion: Alterations of Perception in Classical Ballet

aeraeber's picture

Ballet is all about illusions. Dancers trick themselves and their audiences in order to produce a time-honored art form based on unnatural and highly ordered movements and positions. Much of what the audience sees is a trick or a distraction, because what they think they are seeing is impossible. Really, much of what dancers expect of themselves is impossible, because what they expect is perfection. In this quest for perfection, there is pain and often injury, but to a dancer, that is simply part of the cost of creating their art. Dance creates a very different perception of self than another sport or art form, perhaps because it is a combination of both.

Dancing en pointe is painful from the moment one starts learning until the last performance one gives. Nevertheless, ballerinas smile through the pain and put the shoes back on for each class and performance, despite the blisters, jammed toes, blackened and lost toenails. Dancers have different ways of coping with pain than other people, even different ways than other athletes. Studies have shown that both professional and recreational ballet dancers have a higher pain threshold and a higher pain tolerance than non-dancers, though it is more pronounced in dancers of higher skill level (Tajet-Foxell and Rose, Paprizos et al, Ecarcion). Interestingly dancers also report experiencing a higher degree of pain than non-dancers, unlike other athletes (Tajet-Foxell and Rose, Paprizos). This is likely because some level of pain or at least discomfort is inevitable, but a ballet dancer, especially a professional, must know the difference between the normal soreness and the kind of pain that could signal an injury.

One of the first things young dancers are told is that they need to ‘make it look easy.’ No matter how much effort or pain is required, the audience must always be made to believe that ballet is as simple as breathing for the dancer. The audience knows that what the dancer is doing is difficult, that it is something they could not replicate themselves, but still, while watching the performance they buy into the illusion that the dancer creates. Dealing with pain quietly is part of the culture of ballet. Dancers often feel pressured not to talk about their injuries, for fear of losing a role in a performance or being seen an unprofessional by chorographers and colleagues (Mainwaring et al). As a result dancers learn to push the pain away; they experience pain, but make the conscious decision not to react to it.

In some ways the audience drives the need to create the illusion. Aesthetics change over time, and because ballet is based in centuries old postures and sets of choreography, the changes are displayed in limited ways. Many positions in traditional ballets have shown a progression toward more extreme angles in the elevation of the leg. Though this may be at least partially a result of increased strength and flexibility of dancers, the change in elevation is present in movements where dancers should have been able to raise their leg to a higher level even in earlier times. Also, modern people tend to prefer more vertical positions, as shown by a study in which participants were shown stick figures in historical(less vertical) and modern (more vertical) postions (Deprati et al.). The increasing extremity of ballet postures, which often require increased training, make it more likely that dancers will be injured and causes more day to day discomfort.
The body can only be twisted to a certain point; there is a limit to human flexibility. The brain, however, sees an educated guess, a story, or what is actual present. With that in mind, a dancer can use angles and movement to provide a more impressive story. Bourré, “a series of small, even steps with the feet close together,” looks like hovering when the audience is distracted from the dancer’s feet (American Ballet Theatre). Movements of the arms and of other dancers provide good distractions. A skilled dancer seems to float in the air for a moment during a grand jété, a movement in which “the legs are thrown to 90 degrees with a corresponding high jump” (American Ballet Theatre). Choreographers have always used illusions to amaze their audiences, but modern choreographers have access to new information about how the brain processes what it sees in order to create their illusion. Who knows what they will use that information to create.

Perhaps the cruelest illusion in ballet is the standard of beauty it perpetuates. Ballet students are much more likely than the average high school student to incorrectly perceive themselves and their classmates as overweight. Even more frightening is the fact that a large percentage of ballet teachers incorrectly identified their students as overweight (Vaisman et al.). When a dancer looks in the mirror, she sees the flaws in her body because they are emphasized by teachers and colleagues. The line of the body is an important element of ballet, and a body that is something other than ideal means incorrect lines (Martin). A non-dancer may look at a professional ballerina and see someone who is in very good physical shape, but the ballerina is conditioned not to notice the things she does well, only to find the imperfections and strive to correct them.

Dancing can convince you just how reasonable many of the seemly strange ideas we discussed this semester really are quite sensible. You create a story for your audience, knowing full well and taking advantage of the fact that what they perceive is not an exact replica of what you are doing. Pain is in your mind, not your muscles, it can be pushed away or remain outside the I-Function until the end of a performance, when it comes crashing back. Most strikingly, the seeming distinction between body and brain and mind is completely absent when you are dancing. Descartes did not believe that brain, a physical thing, could be responsible for higher mental functioning, for art, but most dancers would disagree with him. When you are dancing you are your behavior; the movement of your body is you. There is nothing else.

As much as lies and illusions are a part of ballet and quite probably many other types of dance, some of it is real. Not every seemingly impossible jump or turn or extension is faked, many are the result of years of training to achieve an exceptionally high level of strength and flexibility. The smile on a ballerina’s face may hide the pain of new pointe shoes or an old injury, but it is also a reflection of the real joy of performing. No one undertakes a career in dance for the money, because there isn’t any, or because it is easy, because it will never be, no matter one’s level of talent. Professional and even recreational dancers, dance because they love to do so. A dancer’s reality is much different than most people’s reality, but the way they experience and interpreted the world, the stories their brain tells them, allow them to perfect their art. Most of the illusions mentioned in this paper are present in this video (, but even if you look for them when you watch it, you will still, hopefully, be touched by the beauty and the emotion of the piece. That’s the point of course, the reason behind all the illusions, to create something beautiful. Sometimes it’s wonderful to be able to trick our brains.


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