Defining "Ballerina"

The word’s meaning proves as debatable as who is—or isn’t—one.
Published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. Photo courtesy "Dance Magazine" archives.

The word “ballerina,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in the late 1700s and was the feminine of ballerino, Italian for “dancing master,” which descended from the Latin ballare, “to dance.” More recent definitions include Merriam-Webster’s “a woman who is a ballet dancer” and American Heritage’s “a principal woman dancer in a ballet company.” The word, one might say, dances about, never landing in a precise fifth position.

It is not incorrect, if we go by Merriam-Webster, to call a corps girl a ballerina, and those who don’t know much about ballet blithely apply the term to anyone who wears pointe shoes. Yet the more one knows about this art the more reverence one brings to the word, perhaps because it is the last vestige of those vaunted titles of yore—“prima ballerina” and “prima ballerina assoluta”—mantles of esteem that were earned like a knighthood and bestowed by queen, country or company director. Such titles are now defunct, having been replaced by the gender-neutral, everyone’s-equal “principal dancer.” (The Paris Opéra Ballet is the exception, calling its principals étoiles, or “stars,” but then, France was the birthplace of ballet and is a law unto itself.) Today, no queen is handing out diplomas in ballerinadom. It is an invisible crown that comes to a dancer on invisible hands.

There are different views, of course, as to which dancers are wearing that crown. Last July, an article in The New York Times created a tempest among balletomanes when it attempted to define the American ballerina (“ornery, direct, unaffected”) as opposed to the idealized Old World model, and went on to state that there were currently “11 prodigious American young women dancing in six  American companies, who deserve to be called ballerinas.” A correction was issued four days later when it turned out that one of the women had been born in Britain. Which goes to show how tricky it is simply to categorize ballerinas, let alone trying to define one. And yet, every little girl who ever owned a certain type of jewelry box, one that opens on a tiny ballerina pirouetting in a pink tutu, feels the meaning of the word, that this dancer is somehow more special than the rest: a precious gem, a jewel of the culture.

Certainly the first ballerinas—emerging in the early 1700s—were glittering prizes, often kept and protected by kings, aristocrats and men of high culture. Celebrities at home and abroad, love objects in the boudoir, these women had a freedom unique for their time and were the focus of aesthetic debate, romantic fantasy and adoring fans (and so it continues in 2013!). Indeed, just as thoroughbred racing has its foundation stallions—the first great steeds from whom the whole breed descended—you could say that the art of ballet has its foundation ballerinas. Françoise Prévost’s noble emotions, Marie Camargo’s feisty virtuosity, Marie Sallé’s dramatic naturalness: These 18th-century originals were the classical templates upon which future dancers would work their innovations. In 1832, for example, Marie Taglioni’s poetic rise to pointe in La Sylphide ushered the supernatural into ballet and Romanticism with it. In 1841, the artless and ethereal ballon of Carlotta Grisi, in the premiere of Giselle, brought the era of Romantic ballet to ravishing full moon. 

These epochal moments in which the woman, the role and the ballet fuse into a single phenomenon lead like stepping stones through the centuries, as if ballet is continually reborn with each new ballerina and those properties specific to her. In this century one thinks of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, Galina Ulanova as Juliet in Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet of 1940, Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora in The Royal Ballet’s 1946 Sleeping Beauty, Suzanne Farrell as the solitaire Diamond in Balanchine’s Jewels of 1967, and Gelsey Kirkland’s Giselles in the 1970s with American Ballet Theatre.

But what properties spell the difference between a beautiful dancer and a ballerina, for there are many beautiful dancers who don’t wear the crown? And technical mastery does not a ballerina make; ballet is not, after all, gymnastics in toe shoes. Each fan of ballet will have her own answer to this very subjective question. Some point to the aura or atmosphere that attends a ballerina—the perfume of her inflections, the projection of a larger spirit or deeper spirituality. Others look for command, the way a ballerina possesses the steps and the mark she leaves on them. And still others want strangeness, something they’ve never seen before, a wayward energy that carries the ballet to a place beyond.

Beyond is where a ballerina breathes. She goes beyond prettiness and perfection to make a language of ballet—not a language of words but of visions. When she is onstage you see more because she shows more—concentration, transformation, illumination, connection. Maria Tallchief, performing the Berceuse (lullaby) in the Balanchine-Stravinsky Firebird portrays the fiery bird of Russian folklore with a creaturely quiet born of her own Native American heritage. Tallchief’s Firebird pulls us into its deep-woods trance, a soundless ripple moving through the shoulders, the head dropping forward into dream. This is virtuosity turned inward, a slowed down heart in a silent glade, magic à terre. Gelsey Kirkland, on the other hand, dancing Theme and Variations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast, is so luminous, swift and committed she’s like a hummingbird darting between shadows. She is heat, flight and isolated longing—a fairy tale in a prism. And Wendy Whelan, dancing the pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, her hair loose and her legs bare, is the ballerina stripped down, contemporary, a millennial single. She expresses all the awkwardness, sadness and sexual vulnerability of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.”

Back in the 1970s, discussing a dance star he’d had the chance to hire but didn’t, Balanchine explained that she was wonderful dancing with others but that he “wasn’t interested in seeing her dance alone.” It’s yet another definition of a ballerina. Whether twirling in a pink satin box or plunging into a cutting-edge pas de deux, she is powerfully, inspiringly and unforgettably alone.

Laura Jacobs is
The New Criterion’s dance critic and a staff writer at Vanity Fair.