NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next on The World and Everything in It: the power of dance.
A famously beautiful and precise form of it is ballet.
That precision has also given the art a reputation for demanding perfection at all costs. The quest for perfection can turn into problems for some.
EICHER: WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg met a ballerina in Salt Lake City, Utah who is working to change that. Here’s her story.
SARAH SCHWEINSBERG: The Rise Up School of Dance has been closed since March. This is the first week students are back.
AUDIO: [Sound of ballet music]
RUESCH: Hi, Alydia!
Ballerina and teacher Alyssa Ruesch greets her students at the door with bright blue eyes, a big smile and a temperature check.
RUESCH: Nate, are you or anyone in your family experiencing symptoms of COVID-19? Fever….
It’s a hot day so the studio’s fans are running on full blast. This is an intermediate ballet class. The girls have come dressed in black leotards and white tights. The lone boy wears basketball shorts with tights.
The two-hour long practice doesn’t begin at the ballet barre. It starts with Ruesch and her four students sitting in a circle on the shiny black dance mat.
RUESCH: So I would love to hear something that you are loving about your life right now and a challenge that you are facing.
Alyssa Ruesch very intentionally starts class this way.
RUESCH: So in a normal ballet class, I have been told verbatim, leave your life and your feelings at the door. That is really hard when you’re struggling. And it’s just really prevalent in ballet culture.
There are several aspects of ballet culture—especially elite training culture—that Ruesch is trying to change in her studio.
Growing up, she loved her ballet classes.
RUESCH: I had a really positive experience with ballet. It was like this amazing gift and it was very life giving…
Then Ruesch went to university on a full-ride academic and ballet scholarship. She began to realize her experience wasn’t as common.
During her freshman year, teachers pushed Ruesch to perfect her turnout… that’s where a ballerina opens their hips 180 degrees from their body.
RUESCH: If my turnout didn’t improve, I wasn’t going to be allowed to continue in the program…
So Ruesch went to work. But she worked so hard that she developed shin splints, which turned into multiple stress fractures. But for Ruesch the worst part was seeing how the push for perfection was affecting her classmates.
RUESCH: I was coming to see that my peers were really, really struggling emotionally and mentally from damage done in their training. We had a number of attempted suicides, and within a pretty short period of time.
Just by the nature of how difficult and demanding ballet is, Ruesch says unhealthy habits can make their way into the studio.
RUESCH: There’s a lot of shaming that can happen about weight or your feet or your legs or your build. And then to be comparing yourself to your peers constantly and then comparing yourself to what you think you should be constantly.
Alyssa Ruesch wanted to teach ballet professionally after college, but she only wanted to teach the best parts of it.
After her sophomore year, she asked her pastor if she could teach free ballet lessons at their church on Saturdays. He said yes.
RUESCH: I wanted to see if we could take ballet and make it something that I hadn’t seen it be before. We had, like, 11 kids that summer. And by the next spring, we had 35. And by the next spring, we had 60. And by the next spring we had 80.
Today, Alyssa Ruesch is 25. Besides free weekend classes, she trains students during the week at her professional studio.
BALLET MUSIC, RUESCH: A 5, a 6, a 7.
After sharing time, the students take their places at the barre. Ruesch guides them through exercises for the next hour.
RUESCH: Oh those toes were so good. Yes, Sol, that was right! And a 1, 2, 3 closed 5th.
One student is a bit hunched over and relaxed. Reusch encourages her to tighten, extend her arms, lift her chest and bend even deeper into her plies.
REUSCH: See if you can make your plies look super generous. So it’s not a stingy kind of thing. It’s very abundant and gracious as you go.
I could say, extend your arms a little further. But if I say, Be generous, they’re attaching that movement to a character trait that we really do hope they’ll develop.
While Ruesch wants the studio to be a positive place, she also wants to push students. It can be challenging to accomplish both.
RUESCH: So for as much as we’re really positive, and are really trying to lift kids up, we’re also very honest. If I’m going to be a little more harsh or be critical, it’s going to come from a place of really knowing the kid and being really thoughtful about it.
RUESCH: That’s a good one to finish on.
At the end of class, the dancers sit in the circle again. This time each student tells another dancer what they saw them do well.
Fourteen-year-old Nate has been training here for the last three years.
NATE: I really just enjoy having the structure, and I feel like it’s a really good way to express myself.
Nate says it can be tough being a middle school boy who loves the arts, music, and drama. Ballet has helped him like who he is.
NATE: I feel like I’m a lot more confident in myself and just like how I look and just everything about myself. It really helped me accept who I was. And all of like my differences.
And that, Alyssa Ruesch says is the power of the art of ballet.
RUESCH: If they can leave more confident and more willing to put themselves out there, that makes a huge difference. And hopefully they also leave with fabulous technique.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Salt Lake City, Utah.