Arts essentials: Ballet

From the December 7, 2011 edition

When BalletMet dancers Gabriel Gaffney Smith and Jimmy Orrante talk about what’s required of them physically, it’s clear that ballet dancers are expected to be both athletes and actors, able to smile even when they hurt. The two explained how difficult it is to look so elegant.

Is there a word that’s the male equivalent of “ballerina”?

Smith: I just say that I’m a male ballet dancer. There’s not a “ballerino.”

How do you move so gracefully?

Orrante: That’s what got me hooked on dance. It looks so easy when you see it done, but you have to make it look that easy, and that’s very difficult. Unlike an athlete who gets to show how painful the marathon is on their face, they don’t want to see that when they come to see a performance. (Laughing) I wish sometimes the audience could see what goes on after a dancer exits the stage and goes, “Oh my gosh, that was so hard!”

How are women able to wear pointe shoes?

Smith: They have really strong toes, but a lot of it on pointe is having a really strong ankle. That’s what’s going to hold you on balance. The box [of the shoe] cramps your toes together so they’re smushed together, and you build calluses on your toes like a farmer does on his hands.

When you’re watching someone dance on pointe, are they in pain, or are they just used to it?

Orrante: I don’t know if they get used to it, because I always hear how their feet are just killing them. Especially when they’re in them for a full long day; their feet get swollen and start to throb.

What’s the point of the shoes?

Orrante: It’s just a whole different look. Women are able to turn multiple times, and it gives more of a vision of floating that you can’t get without the pointe shoe.

What does it mean if a dancer has “good feet”?

Smith: It’s the amount of curve of the foot. It’s the hyperextension of the knees, and it’s also how your muscles are toned. It makes a line in your body and your feet that looks like it’s longer. If it’s a beautiful, elegant line, it’s almost like it goes on forever. It’s just beautiful to watch someone with an elegant facility move because the shapes and the positions they make from an art perspective is gorgeous, unbelievable. So it’s not that you’re looking for a specific thing, but it’s how they present themselves that matters.

It’s easy to be entranced by dancers’ feet. What should people notice about what you do with your arms?

Smith: With the arms and hands — the port de bras, it’s called — it’s just about telling the story. We’re not speaking anything, so our hands and our arms are telling the audience, “OK, look over here.” It’s guiding the movement, saying come here, OK, now we’re going to go there. It’s allowing us to speak without words, and it’s letting us speak emotions through our bodies.

What does it mean when people talk about a dancer’s turnout?

Smith: Turnout is if you basically look straight on in the mirror and you turn to the side and then you turn your feet heel to heel, basically making yourself a flat piece of paper. Having good turnout is when you’re in heel-to-heel positions, your hips and your knees go to the opposite walls. So you go down and make a flat line. It can make you look taller. Having good turnout allows you to make more shapes with your body because you physically are going to have more range of motion.

There’s a lot of ways with your feet and the extension of your legs, there’s little tricks pretty much like any sport. It’s just a matter of finding how you turn and how you can make positions look like other people. You’re not going to do it the same exact way, because no two bodies are the same, so you have to figure out how to do those positions with your body. It’s really being in tune with your limitations and where you can go.

It must be very demanding physically.

Smith: Injuries happen, because we beat our bodies up in every aspect for six hours a day. So then you have to figure out how to keep going even though it hurts.

What should people expect when they go to see a ballet?

Orrante: Body language is so, so easy to read, so it’s not difficult to understand out what’s going on on stage by the person’s interactions, the person’s facial expressions. All of those things come together to tell a story. Don’t be intimidated like you’re not going to get it, because you’re always going to get something from it.