Translating Practice

How do you create a ballet class that is accessible?


Happy world ballet day 2020! Before access worker Millie left Stopgap, she was really interested in how we could translate classical ballet and make it accessible. This blog contains some of her research and ways to approach translating ballet.

A lot of dancers would consider ballet as one of the foundations of dance, it gives you strength, technique, musicality and balance, all these things we utilise in each style of dance.

When I was training no one in my college had the “body” to be professional ballerinas. We were too tall, too curvy, had too much muscle, had flat feet, weren’t flexible enough or didn’t have the right bone structure (!). It was obvious that only an elite selection of dancers would be ballerinas. However, we practiced ballet because it gave us the tools to support the other styles that we thrive in.

From French, to English, to Open Language

One of the main things that makes ballet inaccessible to people is the language. For starters it’s in French, which is not everyone’s first language! If you’ve been taking ballet classes from a young age you may be used to hearing a lot of the French terms and some teachers may have translated some words into English for you. But if you’re new to ballet, using the terminology is going to be useless, unless you demonstrate the steps to your class.

Then, when you have a room full of different bodies, this is not always going to be helpful. You need to go further. Talk about the qualities of the movement, why we do a particular move and the reasons behind the exercise you’re teaching. (Click here to check out this blog on the principles of translation)

For example: Tendu which means a ‘stretched’ action of the gesturing/working leg, from a flat foot to a pointed foot, the toes remaining on the floor.

You can change a few of these words to make the explanation accessible for more people in the class.

For example: Tendu – The working limb is stretched as far as you can today in any direction using a surface to apply pressure, so you engage/work your muscles.

At Stopgap we call this tool Open Language.

Open Language is describing and talking about movement in order to make it accessible for all. It can involve images, action words and visualisations or descriptions. Open language does not need to be bland – it can be quite specific and in doing so supports the dancer to really grasp what you, the teacher, is after. Read more here

Working & Supporting Limbs

Within ballet there is a great focus on the supporting and working leg – the supporting/standing leg is usually the one that takes your weight and leaves your other leg (the working leg) free to do another step.

However, how does the supporting leg and working leg work for translations?

After discussing this through with a few dancers who use wheelchairs, we developed the idea that actually, this invisible line that cuts us in half with the working and supporting side will differ for each person. For most standing dancers it goes vertically right down the middle of the working centres which gives them a right side and a left side. For wheelchair dancers this could mean that it goes horizontally through their centres, so they have a working half and supporting half. We then discussed further and decided that this invisible line would shift each day for every dancer depending on how their body was feeling.

When you start to break down a style of dance that has years of history it brings up many questions. I have a lot of research to do and will need lots of contact hours to really get to the bottom of translating ballet so it can be accessible.

These are some of the things we’ll be considering…

  • The structure of a ballet class and look into how useful a barre warm-up is for dancers who use wheelchairs
  • “Shape making”; If we all need to look the same to achieve classical unity, are we just making shapes or is it about looking different but using the same qualities?
  • Ways to equip dancers to go out to other companies and classes that may not be taught in an inclusive way.
  • Travelling exercises and their possible translations!

To be honest teaching ballet inclusively comes down to using good inclusive teaching tools. As a teacher, learning to use open language is the biggest thing that needs to change, but it won’t happen overnight. To begin with keep your exercises short and simple so everyone has time to work out their own translations and remember them. Give yourself and your class time to explore a new way of working.