[Part4]Russian ballet powerhouse where regular people also tread the boards

photo:Sekine Kazuhiro

Russia, home of the Bolshoi Theater, is the world's ballet superpower.

Traditionally, Russians have regarded ballet as an art form in which audiences take in the performances of an elite group of top dancers.

But that is changing.

Increasingly, ballet schools aimed at the general populace are opening across Moscow. One could say the age of ballet performed by "ordinary people" has arrived.

After passing through a bustling main street lined with cafes in central Moscow and heading down an alley, a four story-high building surrounded by an outer wall that was once a printing plant heaves into view. The sound of classical music can be heard faintly through a door on the dimly-lit second floor.

"Raz, dva, harasho!" (1, 2, well done!) The voice of coach Lyudmila Peregontseva, 35, resounds around a 100-square-meter room lined with mirrors.

Seven men and women in ballet gear are lined up against a wall and repeating a basic movement called a plie. This requires them to bend their knees while checking their own form in the mirror.

It is a class for adults at dance school "Tsekh," which opened two years ago. The youngest student is twentysomething, and the oldest is over the age of 60.

They come from different walks of life: office worker, lawyer, accountant. Some simply love ballet, while others are here for their health or to lose weight.

Sporting a stern expression, 49-year-old Larisa Petukhova is engrossed in the lesson. She took up ballet six years earlier. Her clerical job at a financial institution requires her to be seated for most of the day, and she had been troubled by pain in her upper and lower back.

She saw ballet as a way to make up for her lack of exercise. "Dancing makes me feel like I'm a ballerina," said Petukhova, who rarely misses a lesson.

Moscow has several hundred ballet schools that cater to ordinary citizens, and it is said that the number is rising each year. Ballet schools for ordinary people began to sprout about a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Ballet was introduced to Russia in the late 17th century during the Czarist era. During the reign of Empress Anna, instructors were brought in from France and the nation's first ballet school opened in St. Petersburg. Ballet music composed by Tchaikovsky contributed to its popularity, and Russia became one of the world's foremost ballet nations in the late 19th century.

After the Russian revolution and the dawn of the Soviet era, ballet received even greater support from the government. When children who displayed an aptitude for ballet turned 10, they were recommended to attend boarding schools for prospective ballet dancers where they received special training.

In addition, the Russian people developed a passion not only for performing ballet, but also for watching it. The country is home to some of the world's greatest ballet theaters, including the Bolshoi in Moscow and the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg.

However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, market economics took hold and people's view of ballet changed. According to Tsekh coach Peregontseva: "The economy ceased to be controlled by the state, and began to respond to demand from people who wanted to dance. I imagine that more schools will emerge from now on, but they will be faced with the problem of how to assemble a faculty of high quality instructors."


photo:Shinya Wake

Applications are being explored for dance in the field of medicine. Dance therapy, used as a kind of psychiatric treatment, is drawing attention for its healing potential and is being tested to help cancer patients cope with their disease, and to assist people who have difficulty adapting to society. In the United States, it is not only being offered in hospitals but also in nursing care facilities for the elderly and private dance studios.

Maimonides Medical Center in New York is actively engaged in art therapy, and dance therapy is among the treatments it offers. For the last 30 years, Tricia Capello, 59, has been leading dance therapy sessions for people suffering from depression and schizophrenia.

Patients move their bodies in time with pop music played on CDs. By the time the one-hour session is over, participants who looked initially apprehensive end up smiling at each other.

"Dance is just a momentary thing," says Capello. "After the time is over, it's gone. But this experience, this joy and smile, it stays somewhere in your body."

Capello explains that this therapy is based on the idea that it fosters the co-operation, understanding, and respect necessary to dance in a group with strangers. Therapists assert that its essential purpose is to help people express their feelings physically, especially those that are difficult to explain verbally. It also helps to instill a positive self-image.

Dance therapy in the United States is said to have begun in 1942 when modern dancer Marian Chace taught dance to patients at a hospital in Washington, D.C.

At present, the American Dance Therapy Association has 989 officially certified therapists on its books, and around 10,000 people are receiving treatment. "We still have a lot of work to do to make it more available," says association president Sharon Goodill, 57.

Therapists in the United States cite the potential of dance to strengthen the immune system and increase the neurotransmitters in our brains that ward off depression. That being said, there is still little scientific evidence that supports its therapeutic efficacy. Instead, there are more and more examples of dance therapy being put into practice.

(This story was written by Kazuhiro Sekine, Moscow bureau correspondent, and Shinya Wake, GLOBE staff writer.)

The Asahi Shimbun GLOBE

Translated by The Asahi Shimbun AJW. More related stories available at

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