The Dance Gene

Watching ballet, as I often do, I find myself wondering about how amazing dancers come into being: do they come into existence fully-equipped or are they the product of good training, discipline and mentoring? Dance, like everything other human activity, can be examined as part of the nature or nurture debate: is a Margot Fonteyn born or made?

While not in direct correlation with dancers, the best actors are those who barely do anything: they don’t actually act, they just are. Sadly you can’t just stand on stage and exude the quality of a classical variation, you need to get on and execute some actual steps. What actors and dancers of excellence do have in common is an intangible quality that has nothing to do with the lines/steps that they deliver, but something else.

A person can be brought into this world with every desirable physical attribute that a ballet dancer could wish for: if this person should end up in a ballet class, they will look like a dancer (a concept I have issues with, but that is for another time) and their journey through classical technique will be decidedly easier thanks to these innate gifts, but they are in no way a guarantee that they will make a dancer.

Equally, but slightly more conceptually abstract, no amount of teaching can ensure a dancer will be the result. Even those who can achieve technical proficiency can still fail to garner that indescribable quality that turns academic steps into dancing.

I don’t use the word dancer to describe anybody who practices dance, but that special person who exudes movement from every pore. A true dancer will dance every step they encounter: they can turn the mundane into the sublime. Being a dancer is not a prerequisite for getting a job with a dance company – sometimes those with the physical gifts or those strong-willed and schooled to the right level can get through the net: directors are looking for different things, and sometimes looking right or doing the tricks is enough to land the contract.

The more I watch and learn, the more I have to come to the realisation that dance is not so much a skill as an instinct. To get it to the upper echelons of the classical world, this instinct must be schooled and certain attributes will enable progress, but the quality that links the steps and the body, that which we call “dance”, is something that you cannot teach: it must be in the genes.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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