It is one of the oldest forms of dance that also gave birth to the likes of jazz and contemporary dance moves.
The word Ballet comes from the French and was borrowed into English around 1630. Its origin can also be traced to the Italian balletto, a diminutive of ballo (dance), which comes from Latin’s ballo, ballare meaning to dance. Ballet also has different styles within it; classical, neoclassical and contemporary ballet.
Many people still do not understand what it represents and why its followers and dancers are so moved and intrigued by it. When a woman is a ballet dancer it would be referred to as weird. If it is a man it is even worse. He is dismissed as a sissy but the physicality around it for the men who lift the women and lift weights to keep fit brings in a different argument. Ballet is a mystery, especially in Botswana but believe it or not its existence dates back to the 80’s.
One of the pioneers of the ballet although she does not want to be regarded as such is Rita Lee of Risa Ballet. She tells BG Style of the rocky journey that has been starting a ballet school in Gaborone. In the 80’s this was not a popular form of dance in Botswana. Although she is a qualified teacher having trained at the Arts Educational Trust in England, she did not know where to start. She had to adopt students who were left stranded when an earlier ballet school closed.
Lee, born in England where she trained as a child, says she remembers one parent approaching her about taking up the then 10 students only having heard that she once danced. Her school of dance Risa Ballet grew bigger and bigger and only by word of mouth and today constitutes 90 percent Batswana.
“We cannot keep up with the demand in fact we have stopped enrolments,” says Lee whose student complement stands at 150.
Lee says ballet is a classical form of dance whose training is best at a tender age of five because of the physical exercise that goes into it. She says at this age because of the stretching, ligaments are still tender to allow the body to get used to these kinds of exercises. At this age, she says, they do not necessarily dance to any music but any sound even just clapping and by so doing they want to make it fun than structured to keep the young ones interested.
At this point their training sessions only last 30 minutes covering the basics such as positioning of legs as turn out from the hips and how to bend the knees to push the weight up, posture and placing to help with the balance. The toe muscles are also trained as the toes are used a lot in ballet movements. As the training progresses a dancer goes on to the jumps that are four and named according to how one jumps and how many feet they use to land.
There is a two-to-two (jumping on two feet and landing on both), two-to-one (jumping on two and landing on one foot), one-to-two (jumping on one leg and landing on two feet) and one-to-one (jumping on one leg to the other).
From the five-year-olds there are stages that the ballerinas are taken through, qualifying by taking examinations through the Royal Academy of Dance every year to move from one level to the other. There is a pre-primary, primary and then grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5,6,7 and 8 levels.
“They go through a set of exercise for a year and I always tell them there is no multiple choice to it. It is either you can do it or not because you cannot do it in a certain way,” jokes Lee. Ballet though very unpopular in Botswana has also caught the hearts of young Batswana. Marothodi Ntsiane is one of the young people.
Just watching this 18-year-old in training, exuding so much confidence, moving with so much grace makes anyone ignorant on this form of dance understand why they just do it. She tells BG Style that it is a form of expression that she fell in love with at the tender age of six.
“It is a way of self expression. When I am angry, happy or just idle I just dance. Its habitual,” enthused Ntsiane, a form-five student at Maruapula. Ntsiane is in grade 8 of her qualifications, a stage where one can take up dance as a profession.
When the students undergo their examinations, they have to have the right costumes for their levels. These are differentiated in colours from purple, pink, and mulberry and at the highest level they can either use black or white.
Charlene van Riet-Lowe has found a market locally by selling ballet attire, which she orders from CMT Factories in South Africa. The attire includes ballet shoes whose price range from P250-P280 and then there are costumes and ribbons.