The mysterious world of ballet
Finnish Premier League footballer Henri Aalto writes about his secret love to ballet.
In a world like the one you already live in, and which you believe to understand, but which is still unknown enough to be a complete mystery, is something inexplicably fascinating.
I could not predict the object of my love, let alone the power of it. However, seeing the movie Billy Elliot at about the age of eleven (in 2000) evoked a sleepy inspiration within me: an athletic leap in the film’s final scene, the young protagonist’s burning frenzy to follow his heart, the boy’s determination and elegance when practicing his movements. That boy’s compelling need to dance ballet and dedicate himself to his calling. The viewing experience took my mind over, for years to come.
In my childhood (1990s), ballet and my own sport football represented almost extreme ends in terms of approachability, from a boy’s perspective. The other was probably the most popular sport of all, while the other a marginal hobby, perhaps questioning boyhood itself (I didn’t know the word masculinity at the time). At least this was my experience. In fact, before the age of eleven, I don’t think that I heard anything other about ballet than casual side notes in elementary school recess, spoken by girls, according to my memory.
Yet I experienced strong identification with young Billy. While there was nothing potentially embarrassing about football, the attitudes toward training and dedication seemed to coincide. Perhaps Billy’s stubborn desire to go dance ballet in secret from his father represented the kind of courage I could only dream of when I was young, possibly even now as an adult. For example, I could have started playing the piano at the age of seven. But I refused because I considered it a “girls thing”. I have since comforted myself with the thought that even if it now was nice to be a masterful pianist, had I really wanted to play the piano, I would have done so. But could I have known at the age of seven what I really wanted? Or was I perhaps guided by the experienced social pressures, my own narrow-minded conditioning? “Girls things?”
I want to mention that at home I was not pressured into anything and no hobbies were forbidden, my parents have always supported me and my sister in everything we have seriously wanted to pursue.
The Black Swan
In 2010, when I was 21 years of age, I saw the movie Black Swan, and experienced something similar to Billy Elliot: infatuation, longing, identification. The dedication and the absolute way of living of the ballet world left me fevered. The customization of the ballet slippers before the start of the class, the manic repetition of the series of movements, the determination and obsession in everything. Social hierarchy and group dynamics. Extremely demanding teachers. The supernatural beauty of the movement itself. And repetitions, repetitions, repetitions.
In my mind, I could sense the flow of movement inside my body when practicing by a large mirror. In the mirror I could see my serious, proud face. I could feel how cleanliness and command infiltrated into the movements, gradually, repetition by repetition. I could sense how my muscle memory was always a little stronger after a night of sleep. I could sense self-discipline, extreme demand, and satisfaction.
I yearned to be a dancer, trained by an almost inhumanely ambitious teacher. Fragile but unshakable. I wanted to love something so much that I would dedicate all the hours of all my days to it. I wanted to dedicate my body and my mental health for my love. And my love had to specifically be something so manically demanding, athletically and aesthetically beautiful as ballet.
I’m mindful that film and reality do not meet. I acknowledge that I am romanticizing and idealizing, even greatly. However, I don’t think that my imagination and the reality of ballet world are infinitely far apart. As a professional footballer, I know how brutal the world of competitive sports can be, in different ways, and what a dedicated lifestyle is, what kind of suffering and enjoyment it can provide. So, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is ballet that evokes such intense inspiration within me. There is something highly appealing about disciplined practice, suave movement, deep awareness of your own body, and endless sacrifice. Something expressively raw, meditatively sensitive and conscientious, vigorously powerful. Something close to divinity. And in my case, perhaps something excitingly forbidden.
An open door
A few years after Black Swan, in 2015, followed the third key moment for my affection. I watched the door of a dance studio close in front of me, just as the teaching was about to begin: a determined voice announcing first instructions, a few students chatting with each other, late arrivals still looking for their places. Behind the last student to arrive, the door slammed shut and the sounds cut off. My gaze lingered on the white door. In my mind the teacher’s speech went on, and the first exercises of the lesson were called.
Honestly, I don’t know if it was a ballet class. I didn’t have time to see enough. But my mind decided it was ballet, and all my simmering admiration birthed into light from underneath the ground.
At that moment, then at the age of twenty-six, I felt as if a whole other reality was shut in front of me: a world whose stories, secrets, and everyday life I desperately wanted to both know and understand, in full depth. The fleeting moment I had time to see the lesson and its premonition, as well as the closed door in front of the classroom in a swimming and gym hall in Seinäjoki, were like an invitation to an alternative reality. A mystical gateway between me and that world. A gateway to a world and its reality, to which, nevertheless, I didn’t feel like belonging. After recovering from the bewildering moment, I continued my journey to my weekly Tai Chi qigong class. A group exercise class rather far from my common world of experience. Might I have subconsciously been gaining encouragement?
There have been times when I have ventured into playfully mimicking the bodily artists I adore. Those moments have usually taken place in the shadows of dim nightclubs, perhaps stimulated by some alcohol, in attempt for steps other than ballet. At my bravest I have been on dance floors in South America, in salsa and other partner dance clubs and lessons. Even then, however, I’ve been far from my ‘real’ everyday self. But most importantly, those moments I have lived with all my heart, with all the power of my musculature and infatuation. In those moments I’ve been alive. Alive in the way as I am at deepest in life; while laughing, crying, kissing, making love, playing football: completely immersed in and dedicated to that very moment.
The truth is that I still haven’t really dived into the world I so dearly miss, let alone figured out what exactly I wish of it. After the distant pair dance lessons, my boldest act has probably been the flowing praise of Black Swan I’ve declared for anyone who have bothered to listen (although everyone suspects that I like the film just because of one specific intimate scene). My third bravest act has been to start following two ballerinas on Instagram. Therefore, at the age of thirty-one, I still live far away from the world I so greatly admire. I haven’t been to a ballet show, chatted with a ballet dancer or a ballet enthusiast, or even seen a full performance on video. The text will not end in a climactic description of a revolutionary experience.
What could be holding me back? I know I’ve lived for years in the understanding that ballet doesn’t belong to me, and I don’t for ballet. I have always liked to dance, and I participated in a few dance performances in elementary school, but I never really missed dancing as a hobby (maybe because I wasn’t notably good at it). Perhaps I’ve considered ballet as something overly demanding, something you either do every day, or never at all.
I’m mindful that football has satisfied some of the desire of a dedicated lifestyle in my life, and provided in-depth experiences of testing and bettering mental, physical and technical skills. I have faced demanding coaches, noticed the world being full of aesthetic beauty (of movement), dealt with internal doubts. In my youth, I experienced a general fear of shame and being left out, as surely anyone else, which has undoubtedly contributed to my abstinence. Most likely my limited self-image as a (hetero) boy playing football has also contributed to the rejection of ballet, as happened with playing the piano at the age of seven.
I no longer consciously care about the reasons that affected me when I was young. But I have not made any progress in this case either. Maybe the elements I miss have been sufficiently satisfied through other elements in life? Maybe something is holding me back on an unconscious level, a whisper of shame or absence from belonging? Maybe it’s all just about a romanticized ideal that doesn’t interest me on a practical level? The ideal has been delusional, and only an ideal? While working on the text, even by harsh reflection, I couldn’t find obvious reasons for my incapability to act. So, the only thing left, is action, confronting the ideal.
It may well be that in the end I don’t like ballet. Neither watching nor dancing, or I’m not even interested in it. The same thing happens all the time, even in love: we imagine a person or relationship being a certain way, until we find that reality doesn’t match the imagination, and we’ve been idealizing. This is not dangerous. However, it is harmful to surrender to delusion, and to fail to find out about one’s true relationship to one’s dream or ideal, if privileged enough to be able to do so.
Ultimately, no one cares whether I go to watch or dance ballet. Moreover, I am sure that it would only excite and inspire those who might be interested, and who would even become aware of my doings. Finally, the phenomenon of doubt and misconceptions is regrettably common. Conditional perceptions, prohibitions, and restrictions are very typical, and basically always delusions, projections of uncertainties. They can make us give up some of the most fascinating and profound things in life. But as Antti Holma reminds those hesitant in his excellent Auta Antti -podcast: “no one gives a f*uck”. If there is an opportunity to choose in life, I see it even as an obligation to choose. To do, to act. To respect that opportunity of choice. What does someone growing or living in a much more controlled environment have to give up? Has that person ever been allowed to follow a single calling, will ever?
I wrote the first version of this essay when I was 28 years of age. In the original version I had vaguely promised that before reaching the new decade, “I will break the curse and enter the world I am longing for”. A new decade has been reached, and I have not done so. Let us agree, then, that this is the decade when I leap into the mystical reality of dance, more specifically ballet, that I have closed myself from. Specifically: a) I will go to watch ballet and b) I will dance ballet myself, at least once, on the condition that it takes place in a guided way, and in such a way that in addition to the teacher someone else sees it too. Let’s add c) I will have a conversation with someone engaged in ballet. Not many things could be equally healthy and liberating. What might happen to my love, my ideal?
I conclude the essay with the same words as in the original version:
”I invite you to take a winning step with me, to the extent of your own choice, into any world you might be longing for.”