The Unwritten Rules of Ballet Etiquette

There are a number of largely unwritten and unspoken rules of etiquette in the ballet studio. If you break them, people may look at you funny, but they probably won’t say anything. Here are the rules in black and white so that you can avoid making these ballet faux pas. Although I do attempt to explain the rationale behind each of the rules, please keep in mind as you read through them that I didn’t invent the rules. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

1. Don’t Stand at The Head of the Ballet Barre

When everyone is standing at the ballet barre with their left hand on the barre, the dancer at the front of the “line” is usually one of the best dancers in the class. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, your studio may be configured so that there is no clear “line”. But when applicable, at the beginning of class that spot will remain open until a dancer with enough experience and seniority claims it. A common faux pas that I see new students make is that they stand in this spot, presumably because it appears to be open. In an advanced class this would be considered egregiously rude and arrogant for a new student to do, but would not impact the performance of the rest of the class. On the other hand, in a beginning or intermediate class a new student standing at the head of the ballet barre can adversely impact the entire class because, consciously or unconsciously, the rest of the class will tend to follow the person at the head of the barre. A corrolarry to this rule is: if you don’t know the combination, then please don’t go with the first group when doing center floor work.

2. Do Not Give Constructive Feedback to Your Fellow Dancers

No matter how badly you want to correct one of your fellow dancers, don’t do it. It’s not your place. Only if someone explicitly asks for your help can you reasonably say something and, even then, it should be done gently. This is rule holds even if the dancer in question is a good friend of yours. I suppose it’s a bit like criticizing another person’s home or child even when they’re openly criticizing it themselves: it’s simply taboo to follow suit. On the other hand, you’re welcome to complement anyone you want as long as it’s sincere. This is true even if you don’t know the dancer at all.

3. No Underpants or Visible Bra Straps

Underpants are not worn under leotards. This is akin to wearing underpants under your bathing suit; it’s considered hopelessly tacky. (Although male dancers wear a dance belt, which is similar to a jock strap.) Some women may need to wear bras under their leotards, but bra straps should not be visible, not even sport bras. Sports bras are fine for aerobics or jazz class, but they are not worn in ballet. Straps can be pinned into leotards so that they won’t show, or special dance bras can be purchased at your local dance boutique. In any case, visible bra straps are considered unrefined and thus unballetic.

4. Wear Your Hair in a Bun

This rule may seem silly to a neophyte but it’s not negotiable for female dancers. Long hair is the hallmark of the ballerina. A young ballerina who cuts her hair short has either given up dancing or is being intentionally impudent. Fortunately, adult female dancers are usually not expected to conform to this standard, however, to be taken seriously as a performance artist it’s advisable to have hair that is at least long enough to pull back into a bun. Furthermore, that bun needs to be tidy. Not as tidy as it needs to be for a performance, but strands of hair should not be falling into your eyes and the bun should be tight, not loose or sloppy. To tame unruly strands of hair ballerinas generally favor hair bands to the alligator hair clips that gymnasts use. Buns may be worn low at the nape of the neck but are generally positioned at the crown of the head.

5. Keep the Studio Clean

There are a number of things that you can do to help keep the studio clean, for example: don’t bring food into the studio (even a sports drink), don’t wear your street shoes into the studio, don’t touch the mirror, don’t leave your warm-ups laying about, don’t use talcum powder in the studio, etc. This is a matter of common courtesy as well as a matter of safety. Foreign objects in the studio can be distracting at best and, at worst, can cause a trip and fall accident. Along these same lines, please don’t cover a sneeze with your hand and then put your hand back on the ballet bar. Yuck! Either sneeze into the crook of your elbow or, better yet, take a quick trip to the rest room to blow your nose and wash your hands before coming back to the bar. This helps prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.

6. Do Not Ask to be “Promoted”

Never, ever ask to be cast in a specific role in a performance or to be promoted to the next higher level class. Your teacher already knows that you (like everyone else) wants to get the best possible part or class that you can. Your teacher will let you know when you’re ready. In the mean time, practice being humble. If you ask these types of questions, you only succeed in putting your teacher or Artistic Director in a awkward position, and you may even delay your promotion as you may be perceived as being cheeky.

7. Adhere to the Dress Code

Many studios have specific dress codes that you will need to adhere to, but even if they don’t have specific rules that are written down, there are still some unwritten rules. First, warm-ups either need to be form fitting, or need to be removed after plies (at the latest). Failing to do so prevents the teacher (and you) from being able to see your body, and thus give you the corrections that you need. Baggy warm-ups also impede your movement. Second, even if you’re allowed to wear any color leotard that you like, you cannot wear multi-colored leotards. They’re too loud and distracting. Third, don’t wear black footed tights with pink ballet slippers or pointe shoes. This is unsightly; it’s like wearing a plaid skirt with a polka dot shirt. (You may wear convertible black tights if they’re rolled up above your ankle or black stirrup tights that only go under the arch of your foot.) Some adult studio proprietors might instruct you to “wear whatever makes you feel comfortable” in order to encourage you to overcome your fears and attend their studio. Don’t be fooled, the rules that I’ve stated here still apply.

8. Shave Your Armpits and Bikini Line

Just as you would before you head to the beach, please shave your pits and (if needed) your bikini line before class. I understand that this hair in natural, and shaving it is an arbitrary cultural norm, but I didn’t make up the rules. They are what they are and for better or worse have become a part of our cultural psyche. It’s distracting to your teacher — and even your fellow students — to be confronted with your unsightly hair. Nothing can ruin a perfectly good penchée like an unshaved bikini line can!

9. Be Loyal

It’s considered disrespectful to your teacher for you to take classes at other studios. It’s akin to attending more than one place of worship. Fortunately as an adult dancer — especially an adult male dancer — you’ll be granted considerable leeway on this rule, but it’s still advisable to find one studio that you like and stick with it. If you have an uncontrollable urge to moonlight at another studio, then I strongly recommend that you keep that fact to yourself, otherwise you risk unintentionally offending your teacher.

10. Don’t Ask Questions

I know that this rule sounds bizarre. I will do my best to explain the rationale behind it. First, asking questions disrupts the flow of the class. Of course, different teachers have different toleration levels for questions. I’ve been to adult classes where questions of — and even chit chatting with — the teacher during the class were the norm. This can be frustrating for more serious students because it means that less time is spent actually dancing. Second, like good coaches, good ballet teachers teach to the top of the class. (It’s not like public schools where teachers usually teach to the middle, or sometime even the bottom, of the class.) In this way the performance of all of the students is improved because the “rising tide raises all the boats in the harbor.” If a question is too fundamental for the class in question, then it violates this principle.

Which isn’t to say that you can never ask questions. Senior students in particular can “get away with” asking a question now and then during class, because if they have a question, then presumably many other students in the class have the same question. Or a single “dumb” question can be posed to your teacher on your way out of class as long as it’s brief. And it’s not uncommon for students to ask each other furtive questions. Depending on your teacher, this may be considered acceptable as long as it’s done quickly and quietly, and is thus not disruptive to the rest of the class. But, for the most part, students are expected to learn by paying attention to the teacher and observing their fellow students.  If you have a complex question — such as, “can you please explain the difference between écarté devant, écarté derrière, effacée devant, effacée derrière and épaulement?” — that can’t be answered in one of these ways, then your best bet is to try looking it up on line or to schedule a 30-minute private lesson with your teacher.

11. Say “Thank You”

After reverence at the end of each class students will politely applaud. In addition, it’s important to say “thank you” to your teacher and the pianist (if you have one) on your way out. This is a common courtesy, just as it is when leaving someone’s home after a dinner party.

There are certainly some other unwritten rules that I haven’t thought to include here, but I think I’ve listed the most important — and least obvious — ones here. Most people (like me) end up learning these rules the hard way: by inadvertently breaking them, and subsequently being subjected to disapproving looks from their fellow dancers or a speedy reprimand from their teacher. Hopefully I can save you some pain and embarrassment by stating in writing what is often only implicit. And even if you and your teacher don’t agree with or adhere to some of the rules, it’s still useful to be aware of them so that you can make informed, conscience choices.

13 responses

  1. Pingback: on toning, red socks, and lifts…random mid-week ramblings | ballet, you say?

    • I promise that I wouldn’t be appalled. Anytime that I step into a studio full of adult dancers it makes me smile. I actually cried for happiness at adult dance camp this summer. How embarrassing is that?!

  2. Just found your blog page. I LOVE IT!! I teach adult ballet and just recently started a project with my students I call The Giselle Project. We are spending 8 weeks focusing on the Romantic era ballet Giselle . . . it has been GREAT! I am sharing your blog page with them. Thanks for creating this and recording your oh so true and dead on thoughts.
    Keep dancing!
    Jennifer Dournaux

  3. May I add something? If you are late (it does happen, even if it should not happen), slip quietly in at the back of the class, maybe with a polite/apologetic nod to your teacher.

    I remember a guy in a class who came in late, walked all the way to the front row, greeting all his friends on the way, and stood before the front row. Second best dancer had to recede a few steps in order not to touch his back with her nose, second row became sufficiently mixed up to miss a beat or two. The guy considered himself best dancer and probably thought he was entitled to first row under all circumstances.

  4. Pingback: Ballet Class Etiquette 101 | Bits and Bobs

  5. Pingback: Ballet Class Etiquette 101 | JOANNE NG

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