I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I climbed the four flights of stairs to K-Classic Ballet Studio that first Friday night in September. Still, having taken ballet classes since the age of four at varying degrees of frequency, I seem to recall feeling pretty excited–but not at all nervous–about the prospect of taking ballet class in a foreign language for the first time.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. Once I’d explained myself to the petite, gently smiling woman whom I encountered just outside the door, I followed her inside–where my jaw promptly dropped. Plaques, award certificates, and trophies from Japan’s most prestigious ballet competitions lined the walls and covered several shelves of a bookcase, while about fifteen elementary-school-age girls diligently practiced their changements and glissades in the center of the room.
But it wasn’t until class actually started that the real surprises began. I would soon learn that the seemingly mild-mannered woman whom I had encountered at the door was in fact O-sensei, the owner/operator and head teacher at K-Classic Ballet Studio. Not only that, but she utterly transformed into a strict taskmaster the very moment she commenced the class with a simple and elegant upward twist of her right wrist.
Now, I studied ballet on the pre-professional track in the United States from about age eight to age fourteen–I thought I knew what a serious class atmosphere looks like. But the laser-like concentration of my fellow dancers here in Japan puts many of their American counterparts to shame. Throughout the class, no one speaks except for O-sensei. There are absolutely no private conversations held, except perhaps for a whispered confirmation or two that one is standing with the correct group in preparation to go across the floor. Despite this apparent lack of student-to-student communication, the hour and a half of practice always runs smoothly, with none of the interruptions (such as clearly incorrect execution of the given steps or trips to the bathroom between combinations) that can sometimes plague American ballet classes.
The students may not speak, but O-sensei certainly does–and there is no ambiguity about what she means. Words of praise are seldom heard, and corrections are given in the Japanese language’s direct style of speaking, rather than in the more polite distal style. For example, if a dancer is behind one count in a fast-paced jump combination, O-sensei is far more likely (based on my observations thus far) to simply shout “Osoi” instead of “Osoi desu yo.”
I fear that, up to this point, I may have portrayed K-Classic Ballet Studio as a somewhat stressful and uninviting environment. That could not be further from the truth! While the goal during each class is clearly to improve one’s ballet technique by whatever means necessary, outside of class my fellow dancers welcome me every week with “Ohayou gozaimasu” and broad smiles. Furthermore, O-sensei and T-sensei have both been remarkably patient and understanding in helping me work out the scheduling and payment aspects of my participation.
As the semester comes to a close, I feel incredibly grateful to everyone at K-Classic Ballet Studio for allowing this rather-out-of-shape ryuugakusei (study-abroad student) to invade their ballet classes on a regular basis. Thanks to their warm welcome, I’ve been privileged to see a whole new side of my favorite hobby, and have become more inspired than ever to work as hard as I can to do justice to ballet, the art form that always manages to transcend linguistic and cultural obstacles in surprising and beautiful ways.