Young ballet dancers practicing in studio, wearing N95 masks & tutus

Ballet explainer for ballet-illiterate ballet parents

Published 2022-05-27

It took me like 5 years to figure out ballets have plots in the same sense as Fast-n-Furious movies. You don’t have to understand “what’s happening,” you’re not here for the plot. You’re just here for a specific kind of technical mastery.

For example: when dancers are on their toes they aren’t on TIPtoes they are on the literal ENDS of their toes. It takes a ton of core work. Be impressed!

This is called en pointe and it means they are hovering. Like fairies or birds. Ever wonder why there are so many fairies and birds (and snowflakes and petals) in ballet? Why are there so many cars in a Fast-n-Furious movie?

Anyone in a tiara or covered in sparklies == Magical being. Dryads and phoenixes and such.

The guys are there mostly to fling the gals around. When they lift up a bird or fairy or sky spirit or whatever, that other dancer is flying. This is a pas de deux and takes a lot of strength & practice. Be extra impressed! Even if (especially if) they flub it a little.

If your ballet kid is a boy OH WOW ARE YOU LUCKY. Totally serious. There are like 10 girls to every boy in kids ballet, your little dude is gonna get so much attention & stage time.

Ballet is gendered as heck. This is changing though! Larger/stronger dancers are eventually gonna get roles where they hoist smaller dancers around, regardless of anyone’s genitalia. Bottom line: big dancers can’t stay en pointe for 3 minutes & little ones can’t jeté 20 feet.

When a big group of dancers perform together, that’s the corps de ballet. They might swirl around a solo or just do something fancy. Solos are nice and all but it’s the corps that makes a ballet an event. They are showing off their timing and choreography. It’s cool to watch a car jump over a train but it’s cooler to see 10 cars drift across a parking lot without hitting each other.

Be ready to clap. A lot. At random times. Like using the weird fork at a fancy dinner: do whatever everyone else does. I actually practiced my ballet clap because you do a ton of clapping.

OK, the clapping isn’t random. You clap when an important character enters or leaves, for solos & pas-de-deux, when a scene ends, other moments of technical mastery, and pretty much constantly for any dancer under ~12yo.

You will also clap for like 10 solid minutes at the end, when everyone bows and gives each other flowers.

Most ballets have a recurring comedic duo. Usually animals or comedic villains or sidekicks or comedic animal villain sidekicks. These dancers are traditionally allowed to bend gender expectations. They are audience favorites, bc a) they are funny and b) they explain the plot in gesture.

Gestures — and the playbill — are the only way you’ll know “what’s happening,” if you’re the sort of weirdo who cares about the plot in Fast-n-Furious movies. Plot relevant gestures are usually performed with two hands across the front of the body (e.g. “I’m going to give you this magic flower”), or miming a future action (“biting this apple will make her fall asleep”). This is the ballet equivalent of acting. And as with Vin Diesel: you have to appreciate the acting for how it moves the performance between set pieces.

As near I can tell any given role requires either impressive technical mastery or acting chops but seldom both. The exception is the main character, provided they actually do anything. Often the main character is a plot chew toy who just gets dragged between set pieces.

Arms are really important. This is the first thing little dancers practice, along with turning their feet out (first position). It’s easy to get distracted with footwork but the real mark of a great dancer are perfect arm movements, even when they are just standing around. They spend so much time getting the arms just right. Those long smooth S and C shapes, all the way to the fingertips. It seems trivial but is hella hard to do correctly.

Just like a car chase.


This is all about classical ballet, not more-modern styles like contemporary or fusion. Those are very different and fun in very different ways. But if attending a classical ballet is like eating at a fancy restaurant with linens and four different forks, those genres are more like attending a barbecue. You can eat with your fingers i.e. clap when you feel like it.

Big thanks to Sissy at Classical Ballet Academy for ending the Spring Contemporary show with a 9 minute Tool song. That one was clearly for the Gen-X ballet dads & we felt it.