I have always been a perfectionist. In every facet of life I’ve aimed to succeed beyond expectations and prove that I was capable of anything I could imagine. This may be part of why classical ballet has always had such an appeal to me – because no matter how brilliant a dancer’s technique may be there are always opportunities for a dancer to improve.
“Perfection,” as my teacher, Sharon Randolph, described, “is an ever changing pursuit.” Every day our eyes are opened to new information and our perception of perfection evolves to reflect that new understanding. For me, this understanding means that every day I can challenge myself to reach new heights, taking pride in milestones achieved along the way, but always looking towards something greater.
The complicated element in assessing perfection in ballet technique is that, to a degree, it all comes down to aesthetic taste. There are several recognized schools of training that dictate how to perform pirouettes, fouettés, port de bras, etc., and while one instructor may praise your technique, another may find fault in your choice or arm positions or foot placement. For a long time I tried to appease all sorts of differing opinions, and the stress of trying to find a perfect balance between them all became a burden. That was when I discovered hip hop dance.
Hip hop dance, in many senses, is the opposite end of the dance-scale from ballet technique. While ballet is founded on centuries of tradition, structure, and refinement, hip hop is barely half a century in its development and prides itself on originality and diversity. While a ballet corps strives for each dancer to perform in perfect unison, hip hop dance crews develop routines that are precise but allow for individual flare. Ballet technique has well defined and internationally recognized vocabulary, while hip hop dance vocabulary changes from city to city. The differences between ballet technique and hip hop dance opened my eyes to an entirely new understanding of movement and self-expression through dance, helping me rediscover myself in the process. Click here to see Ben break out a few moves.
I realized that in my pursuit of ballet perfection I had started valuing the opinions of others more than my own. I was fighting so hard to be someone else’s projected ideal that I no longer reflected my own self. It wasn’t until I discovered hip hop dance that I found the value in adding an element of my own personality to my movements. Instead of worrying about how critics may rate my performance, I started asking myself how I wanted to perform. I found a sense of empowerment in my capacity to make decisions artistically, allowing me to be myself on stage. Dance was no longer just a physical practice, but an expression of my inner being. I found with hip hop dance that I could be unique, I could be an individual, and embracing those personal differences gave me more pride in my own abilities than I had ever known.
I feel incredibly fortunate as a ballet dancer to have found hip hop dance. I love the structure of classical ballet, its technical demands, and aesthetically I believe ballet is one of the most beautiful displays of human physicality. But I also love that hip hop is so free. The individuality that is expressed through hip hop dance reminds me that what makes someone special, what makes a dancer worth watching, are those qualities that make them unique. For me, these two dance forms have served as the perfect balance to guide my dance career – they are my dance yin and yang. Both come with their own merits and values, but the combination of the two has helped me understand my body better than I ever anticipated. Life is full of differing opinions. Regardless of where you are from or what profession you are employed the ability to understand differing opinions on a single matter – in my case, dance – can be an amazing tool in finding new ways of living more successfully. My definition of the perfect ballet dancer changed drastically when I discovered hip hop dance, and that new perspective has helped me succeed far more than I had ever anticipated. My personal definition of perfection continues to evolve each and every day, and I can’t wait to discover what new challenges lie ahead. Click to see Ben in his self choreographed pieces Let it Go and We Run the Night
– Written by Ben Needham-Wood
* It is also important to note that our founder Michael Smuin also used hip hop artists in the 50th Anniversary gala of San Francisco Ballet, when he was co-directing the company. He was one of the very first to embrace the hip hop dance style.
** Read The Telegraph‘s article on Ballet vs hip-hop in BBC’s Young Dancer competition