Ballet: Sports or Art?

Picture of By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

By Gökçe Bayramıçlılar

You might be wondering why we are discussing whether ballet is a sports branch or art.  Trust me, I am also wondering the same thing… Up until now, I have always thought that ballet was the perfect balance between the two, being both physically demanding and visually appealing. But, it is currently being undermined through the new directory by allowing unqualified individuals to have a certificate to teach ballet. 

What Happened?

Much like anywhere else in the world, ballet is accepted as an art form under the Turkish Constitution. In Turkey, ballet education is continued through State University Conservatories affiliated to the Higher Education Institution, or through private ballet schools that follow the curriculum identified by the Ministry of National Education (MEB). Those who are selected into the conservatories after a strenuous selection process follow undergraduate and graduate programs and are trained by experts in the field. Meanwhile, through the MEB affiliated ballet schools, a student who wishes to graduate and obtain a diploma would have to complete 14 years of education, and assessments containing applied and theoretical knowledge. Following these 14 years, upon obtaining the successful completion diploma, one could have the prospect to become a certified ballet instructor, and/or open up their own ballet studio.

A few weeks ago, the Turkish Dance Sports Federation (TDSF) announced that they have now defined ballet as a sports branch, and that they will be opening ballet coaching courses. This announcement further mentioned that within 56 hours of training (7 days), one can become a ballet instructor. Actually, they called it ‘becoming a ballet coach’, which is a term that doesn’t even exist. The only requirements to sign up to become a ballet coach was to have a Turkish passport, to be above 18 and to have graduated from high school. Previous ballet experience is not required.

Following the announcement, the Ballet Artists Association (Bale Sanatcilari Dernegi) put out a press release shaming this decision and started a hashtag: #balespordegilsanattir. This hashtag states that ballet is not a sports branch, it is instead an art form. The spread of the hashtag caused artists, educators, and lovers of ballet to become aware of the announcement and, needless to say, everyone was enraged. The Ballet Artist Association even initiated a petition, with nearly 10 thousand signatures already. Following the furious reactions from the community, the Federation postponed the implementation of the change.

Obviously, if you’ve ever seen ballet being performed, you would know that becoming a ballet instructor with 56 hours of education is simply not possible, it is even laughable. Not only that, it is disrespectful to those who devoted their entire lives to the art form. Additionally, this is potentially dangerous to those students who would ‘learn’ ballet through these so-called ballet coaches. Without properly learning the precise techniques that take years to master, they could easily be vulnerable to physical injuries.

The weird thing is, even for more traditional sports like basketball or tennis, 56 hours of training would not be nearly enough to be a trainer. So why are they assuming it would be enough for ballet? Ballet takes years and years of discipline, dedication and passion. It is also physically demanding as you would need to train continuously. It is very precise, with an extreme focus on details, and although it gives the illusion that it is effortless and elegant, it is in fact very tough. Mila Kunis gave a few interviews (on Vogue, Collider, NME) about her role in Black Swan, stating her newfound respect for ballet dancers: “I never quite understood how rigorous it was and how much work actually goes into it.

How Do I Know All This?

To no one’s surprise, I’ve done my fair share of ballet, maybe even a bit more. Of course, I had to call my mom to ask when I started ballet (which was when I was four, apparently) because for me it feels like it’s always been a part of my life. From the ages of four to thirteen, I was dancing three to four days a week for hours, preparing for recitals and exams. At the end of each year, we would perform in a recital, whether it is The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty or Don Quixote in front of at least a thousand people. With the other girls, we spent so much time together that I felt they were my family. At this point, I loved ballet so much that I even ended up auditioning (but didn’t get chosen) for the ballet conservatory. 

Not much later, life took an unexpected turn and I had to quit ballet. Among other reasons, one of the most important ones was to focus on the upcoming high school placement exam. I remember missing my ballet family, the girls I danced side by side for years. On the back of my head, I knew that I wanted to eventually go back. 

A few years later, I went back, but ballet was unforgiving. I wasn’t able to do the things I used to. It was never the same after that, I couldn’t keep up with the time, effort and dedication it took to redeem my condition. As you would expect, I am no longer a ballerina. In fact, I haven’t even put on my pointe shoes in the last six years, although I am hoping that once the dance studios open up (fingers crossed for the end of March), I can finally step on pointe again. 

Years of learning how to accurately count steps and music, choreography, making sure everything looks the way it should be, being in sync with everyone else, looking effortless when your toes are in pain, all at the same time… It can’t be taught in 56 weeks, let alone 56 hours.

Truth be told, I feel that what you learn from practicing ballet stays with you your entire life. Years of learning how to accurately count steps and music, choreography, making sure everything looks the way it should be, being in sync with everyone else, looking effortless when your toes are in pain, all at the same time… It can’t be taught in 56 weeks, let alone 56 hours. That’s why I am simply angry and utterly disappointed at this news. 

More Perspectives from Ballet Dancers 

When I decided that I wanted to write on this topic to shed some light on it, I reached out to the girls I danced side by side for years. Aydan, Sara, Avital and Nur have all shared the same thoughts and feelings. 

Aydan, who practiced ballet for around 12 years said that it’s straight out disrespectful to the community and is discouraging for those who are actually training night and day. She added: “You would have to pack for it, commute there and back, eat right for it, so basically your whole day would revolve around dance training. It is not that easy.”

Sara, who has had 10 years of ballet education said “I was very disappointed in the fact that people cannot see and appreciate the true meaning of art. Ballet is not something you can learn in a few weeks or months; it takes years of hard work, dedication, creativity and passion.”

Similarly, Avital, with over 14 years of ballet experience, said she wouldn’t call herself qualified as a ballet teacher even though she graduated and got her diploma. Finally, Nur, who has been actively practicing ballet for 20 years (she’s a teacher now!) said, that she can’t consider herself as a professional and that the idea that someone with 56 hours of education can even reach a professional level is absurd.

At the end of the day, I sincerely hope that this decision is reversed as soon as possible. It is shameful how the authorities undermine the effort and work it takes to become a ballet dancer, let alone a ballet educator. If you feel like you want to know just how cut-throat ballet can be, or if you’re not convinced yet, I recommend watching the docu-series On Pointe on Disney+. That says it all. 



Cover: Nihal Demirci on Unsplash

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