I’m gripping Louis XIV’s pole like I’m trying to strangle it. I’m not sure it’s Louis XIV’s. I’m not sure I even know what’s going on. It’s a length of wood. Hurhur. That we grip. Double hur. Not too tightly though. We let our fingers and hand glide back and forth along its length—Ok, So we’re just done with “phrasing,” right?
We use the barre to: keep our balance for, while we work our legs for, as we warm up through various exercises to prepare us for … something something. I don’t think we know why we’re using it, except out of habit. We use it because we’ve always used it, because ballet uses it, because it’s the ballet barre part of a ballet class, because it’s ballet. So we grip it and strangle it and caress it and our eyes glaze over whenever we get near the question of why we use it because that original answer is lost.
I think it’s in lieu, of a hand, of another’s hand, of another person. It’s in lieu of our partner, with whom we dance. But we no longer dance with a hand and arm and partner who moves and dances with us; we hold onto a fixed wooden pole. I’m only presuming this because I thought the question of when the barre was codified was a straightforward one, but what I found was a complete absence. Nothing in Louis XIV’s time. An early mention seems most of a century later with Gennaro Magri in the late-1700s, or Carlo Blasis or Giovanni-Léopold Adice in the early-1800s, where a chair was used for support, subsequently to be replaced by our barre.
Whatever, the barre serves another purpose now, for another kind of ballet.
Michel Serres in Genesis talks about ballet, the barre, the body thinking—one of the only philosophers to seriously and genuinely engage with dance. I may disagree with him and others now somewhat in that I do not think that ballet is unnatural, a torture. It is a poor habit to regard that which oneself is not capable of, which one does not understand, as monstrous. On the other hand, he writes that the dancer is the possible: “Dance is to the body proper what exercise of thought is to the subject known as I.” I would go further, and say there is no subject which thinks, outside of the body. Thinking is the domain of the body and dancing is as much thinking as thoughts which form themselves in words around a thing we think of as I.
What thoughts come when a body exercises while gripping a barre?
I had one teacher who encouraged us to hang onto the barre, use it because it’s there. This in lascivious opposition to the statements of the majority that the hand must lie delicately on the upper surface, thumb next to index finger, and not wrapped around, to slip forwards and backwards with each change of weight. I’m sure I’ve done both, and I’m not sure there’s fundamentally much of a difference. The illusion of choice, to use or not use the barre, is just that. We use it, have used it, before we even recognise we need it. At this speed, our body preempts our thinking, and the fine detail of caring for balance within a body is overthrown by the hand always getting there first. Using the barre depends on an artificiality that has nothing to do with a body standing on one or two feet.
Early last week I’d been watching Ballet Company Reality TV. Horribly awful and impossible to look away. I’d followed that with one of the most frustrating classes in a long time, and as usual when frustration and desperation meet, crazy, wild, revolutionary things happen: I took my hand off the barre. Faaark. Radical shit right there.
Seriously. I felt like a menace to society.
I’ve done it before too, recidivist that I am. When I first started dancing I experimented with it as a fast-track, quick-fix. It’s neither. And occasionally teachers mention in passing the benefits of not using the barre. Though not in a serious way, not in a, “Let’s fuck shit up right now! Take your hands off, youse!” More of a proposition no one was actually expected to commit to. Or if they do, then the barre itself, the class is changed, it’s a special “Barre without the barre” barre, and not simply doing the barre without holding onto it. If you get what I mean.
So I let go of the barre, what happened? Craaaazy shit! One of my life-long bad habits is holding superhero levels of tension in my shoulders. And I’ve had years of “Shoulders down, Frances!” blahdiblah only to work out it’s not the shoulders which are up, but my head which is down, retracted all turtle-like. Yanking on the barre only exacerbates this. The amount of tension you can put into your shoulders is only limited by how securely the barre is bolted down. You have two of the most opposite ends of your body, a hand and a foot holding on and wedge in for dear life while you wave the rest of your body around in the mad panic called ballet, and hell yes will your shoulder and neck do the job of battening the hatches.
And then you get into the centre, the bit of the class without the barre and first thing expected of your body is to do dead slow shit on one leg. Shoulder and neck are all, “We live for this shit!” But they don’t. Cos there’s nothing for them to hold on to. You’ve spent 45 minutes diligently training yourself out of your body, out of coordination, out of balance and all the rest, and now you’re gonna turn it all on? Nope. A whole body’s worth of uselessness, and simply “not doing” that isn’t going to magically transport you into the necessary physical state. And what kind of caricature is all roid-raged in their neck and shoulders? The scary, uptight type. It’s a two-way street. Just as much as stress builds up in this location, so does tension there set off all kinds of emotional and mental bollocks. It’s exhausting stuff.
Last night I watched the Royal Ballet taking company class, and the barre was mentioned, as a device that enables the dancers to concentrate on the accuracy of their feet and legwork. They’re all fucking amazing so probably all isn’t really applicable to dancing at that level, but it occurred to me that the barre exercises in themselves—and not the aid of the barre—prepare that physical accuracy, the balance, control, coordination, strength, mental and emotional states, so when you get to the centre you’ve already done the basic work and you’ve already been dancing for 45 minutes with yourself, so things like that first adagio make sense as a coherent, logical progression, and not a bizarre leap from one physiological state to another.
This is just my experience of not using the barre: I have to rely on myself, through the pliés, tendus, all those little steps, my body has to discover how it balances and stands, where to hold and where to release, how my weight shifts forward and back, side to side, where my ribs are, how my spine assembles and rights itself. Without the noise of tension in shoulders and neck that comes from the deceptive security of holding onto something, there’s far more to hear within. My body sways far more, probably excessively right now as it adapts to this new regime, seems to work harder, or have more demanded of it, yet remains calmer and recovers from exertion quicker. Ballet forms itself more easily from this state, things like turnout result from this, or are more understandable within the physical logic of the system, rather than being something we—or I—do. Movement that often thwarts me in the centre comes together, patchily for sure at the moment, but inevitably also. Speed is sometimes not possible; at other times almost too easy. Things, by which I mean chronic injuries I’m still getting over, nag less, I think because the barre aids in going too far in movement, and not far enough in maintaining balance, causing overloading or counterbalance compensation stress and tension. It becomes a constant, personal experience of balance and movement. Tough also, definitely the toughest thing I’m doing right now, harder than climbing and cyclocross. Sort of a meditation, maybe because without the barre ballet is easier for me to see as a mental discipline.
An addendum: All this is part of a question of why do I keep dancing, for which I think the only real answer is: because I love it. It’s a question for which that answer is insufficient, particularly while getting older. It’s tied up in that word, ‘keep.’ Keep dancing. Keep doing ballet, when most professional ballet dancers have retired by my age and most professional dancers don’t really commit to the regularity and discipline of class either. Keep putting myself into a physiological state far from the everyday. Why? For what? Again an insufficient answer: for the thing itself. For whatever other reason, I continue doing ballet because it’s not finished with me yet.