It would be fair to say that ballet in the United States is big. Most cities have companies, most of those companies have schools, all backed up by many private studios with superb facilities. But how did we get to where we are? What have been the issues along the way? What are the issues today? That’s where Melissa R Klapper’s new book, Ballet Class: An American History, comes in.
Klapper pulls together information from an array of oral histories, archives, dance magazines, children’s books and memoirs. As a professor of history, she may have an academic background but the book never feels like an academic tome. A few more illustrations would not have come amiss, although I acknowledge it’s not the easiest subject to illustrate, but it is very approachable, very readable, almost conversational. When it first arrived, I found myself flicking in and out of pages finding something interesting on each one. I was hooked.
Klapper opens with a reference to a 1913 McLure’s Magazine article in which Willa Cather noted that few American girls were interested in taking ballet class, and those that were generally met with dingy studios and difficult to understand foreign teachers. How different are things today!
The ‘Overture’ that follows is a brief look back at her own childhood classes. Full of reminiscences that will be familiar to many, it’s easy going nature sets the tone for the book.
In the ‘First Movements’ part of the book, Klapper considers ballet’s rise to its position today. It’s a walk thorough of the social history of ballet and the ballet class from its earliest beginnings through its mid-twentieth century explosion and on to today, even if it is still an art form that struggles with gender, class, race, and sexuality.
She opens with what she freely admits is a very selective history of ballet in the United States. Selective it may be, but it’s also commendable for its conciseness. It’s a great primer that will send many readers scurrying off to discover more about some of the names and companies described.
George Balanchine may have become almost synonymous with American ballet but Klapper reminds us that it existed in the country as early as the mid-nineteenth century, long before he arrived. Even indeed before Fanny Essler’s tour of 1840-1842, which sparked something of a ballet craze. Klapper tells of names often forgotten such as Ruth Page, director of the Chicago Grand Opera, who founded several companies in the 1930s. That may have been the decade of the founding of Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, but Klapper reminds us that it was relatively unimportant for some time afterwards, the centre of ballet on the east coast being Philadelphia and especially Catherine Littlefield’s company and school. Over in the west, meanwhile, the Christensen brothers who were turning San Francisco Ballet into a major force.
As she moves on, Klapper walks us through the motivations for taking class, how and why adults started to find their way back to the ballet studio for recreational purposes. Dressing for ballet class is there too, although there is almost no mention of how the regulation leotard has embraced ideas from fashion and can now be found in a riot of designs and colours.
Next comes a look at the impact of European teachers on the American ballet class and of the battle between various styles. An interesting section discusses how teachers had to adapt their teaching style from that at home. The traditional idea of the teacher having absolute authority, the student being totally submissive, simply did not cut it in the US, especially with recreational dance students. Faced with adapt or fail, they adapted!
Much of the final chapter of the section looks at the impact of the Ford Foundation which began funding gifted students in 1959, and that in 1963 gifted a ten-year grant of nearly $8 million to ballet (that would be around $70 million today). Besides improving the lot of selected companies and vocational schools, the funding facilitated some recreational classes too, including a first racially integrated class in Bristol, Virginia.
In the second half of the book, ‘Themes and Variations’, Klapper turns to specific topics including body image, gender, and race.
There is a look at the business of teaching, a fair part of the chapter dealing with teaching organisations and teacher certification. She notes a 2008 survey by Dance Masters of America that noted accreditation for ballet teachers offered many options but little oversight. It is a difficult area. How do you ensure good quality teaching while avoiding overly imposed regulation? Remember that ballet schools in the US do not largely follow external syllabi in the same way that local schools do in the UK via such as the Royal Academy of Dance, who require certification if students are to be entered for exams.
While Klapper acknowledges the role of ballet in providing challenge, discipline, artistry and empowerment to generations of children, girls especially, she does not shy away from the problems. She considers the unhappy history of race and American ballet. She does think times are changing although, and while acknowledging the sterling work of such as Dance Theater of Harlem over the decades and the mergence of a few role models, there is clearly much still to do.
There is a look at boys in ballet too. But while Klapper notes the lack of boys attending classes and stereotyping they receive, and touches on the heavy preponderance of female ballet teachers in most recreational ballet classes, she doesn’t really connect the two.
After a consideration of ballet in higher education, Klapper looks at the rise of ballet competitions, an unintended consequence she considers of the passing of legislation in 1972 that banned discrimination on the basis of gender by federally funded bodies. It had the effect of opening up a wider range of extracurricular options for girls, sports especially, and in doing so sparked a drop in numbers attending ballet classes. Perceiving that girls wanted competitive activities, ballet responded.
However, Klapper only briefly questions what has become an integral part of ballet in the US (and in Asia, albeit for different reasons), merely touching on question of whether artistic expression can or should be scored, the sexualisation of students it can involve, and the intense pressure it can put on young dancers. It is a complex area. Students often claim to enjoy performing and the competitive aspect. But what of the wider effect on training and understanding? It’s not touched.
There is a look at the complicated relationship between ballet and the body, as perceived by dancers, teachers and audiences. She notes that the association between eating disorders and ballet seem particularly to affect female vocational students. Later in the chapter, Klapper brings her feminist credentials to the fore as she looks briefly skates at questions of whether ballet (which she calls “deeply anti-feminist, even misogynist” at its core) empowers or oppresses women.
The book concludes with a look at ballet and girl culture, then at ballet at popular culture more generally, including its frequent appearances in film and television.
Klapper’s Ballet Class: An American History is a lively read. As its subtitle suggests, it is as much an American history as a history of the American ballet class. It shows how ballet class has changed as America has changed. While there are issues, she has no doubt that it will remain a central part of American childhood.
It would be easy to nit-pick, to feel there should have been more discussion on this or that, but it is a fascinating read. Perhaps even more important, however, is the way it provokes thought about ballet and the ballet class present and future as much their past.
Ballet Class: An American History
Author: Melissa R. Klapper
Published: April 30, 2020, by Oxford University Press
Cover price £22.99