Suzanne Farrell partnered by Peter Martins in "Diamonds," Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

The word “ballerina,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in the late 1700s and was the feminine of ballerino, Italian for “dancing master,” which descended from the Latin ballare, “to dance.” More recent definitions include Merriam-Webster’s “a woman who is a ballet dancer” and American Heritage’s “a principal woman dancer in a ballet company.” The word, one might say, dances about, never landing in a precise fifth position.

It is not incorrect, if we go by Merriam-Webster, to call a corps girl a ballerina, and those who don’t know much about ballet blithely apply the term to anyone who wears pointe shoes. Yet the more one knows about this art the more reverence one brings to the word, perhaps because it is the last vestige of those vaunted titles of yore—“prima ballerina” and “prima ballerina assoluta”—mantles of esteem that were earned like a knighthood and bestowed by queen, country or company director. Such titles are now defunct, having been replaced by the gender-neutral, everyone’s-equal “principal dancer.” (The Paris Opéra Ballet is the exception, calling its principals étoiles, or “stars,” but then, France was the birthplace of ballet and is a law unto itself.) Today, no queen is handing out diplomas in ballerinadom. It is an invisible crown that comes to a dancer on invisible hands.

There are different views, of course, as to which dancers are wearing that crown. Last July, an article in The New York Times created a tempest among balletomanes when it attempted to define the American ballerina (“ornery, direct, unaffected”) as opposed to the idealized Old World model, and went on to state that there were currently “11 prodigious American young women dancing in six  American companies, who deserve to be called ballerinas.” A correction was issued four days later when it turned out that one of the women had been born in Britain. Which goes to show how tricky it is simply to categorize ballerinas, let alone trying to define one. And yet, every little girl who ever owned a certain type of jewelry box, one that opens on a tiny ballerina pirouetting in a pink tutu, feels the meaning of the word, that this dancer is somehow more special than the rest: a precious gem, a jewel of the culture.

Certainly the first ballerinas—emerging in the early 1700s—were glittering prizes, often kept and protected by kings, aristocrats and men of high culture. Celebrities at home and abroad, love objects in the boudoir, these women had a freedom unique for their time and were the focus of aesthetic debate, romantic fantasy and adoring fans (and so it continues in 2013!). Indeed, just as thoroughbred racing has its foundation stallions—the first great steeds from whom the whole breed descended—you could say that the art of ballet has its foundation ballerinas. Françoise Prévost’s noble emotions, Marie Camargo’s feisty virtuosity, Marie Sallé’s dramatic naturalness: These 18th-century originals were the classical templates upon which future dancers would work their innovations. In 1832, for example, Marie Taglioni’s poetic rise to pointe in La Sylphide ushered the supernatural into ballet and Romanticism with it. In 1841, the artless and ethereal ballon of Carlotta Grisi, in the premiere of Giselle, brought the era of Romantic ballet to ravishing full moon.

Margot Fonteyn as Aurora, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives

These epochal moments in which the woman, the role and the ballet fuse into a single phenomenon lead like stepping stones through the centuries, as if ballet is continually reborn with each new ballerina and those properties specific to her. In this century one thinks of Anna Pavlova in The Dying Swan, Galina Ulanova as Juliet in Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet of 1940, Margot Fonteyn’s Aurora in The Royal Ballet’s 1946 Sleeping Beauty, Suzanne Farrell as the solitaire Diamond in Balanchine’s Jewels of 1967, and Gelsey Kirkland’s Giselles in the 1970s with American Ballet Theatre.

But what properties spell the difference between a beautiful dancer and a ballerina, for there are many beautiful dancers who don’t wear the crown? And technical mastery does not a ballerina make; ballet is not, after all, gymnastics in toe shoes. Each fan of ballet will have her own answer to this very subjective question. Some point to the aura or atmosphere that attends a ballerina—the perfume of her inflections, the projection of a larger spirit or deeper spirituality. Others look for command, the way a ballerina possesses the steps and the mark she leaves on them. And still others want strangeness, something they’ve never seen before, a wayward energy that carries the ballet to a place beyond.

Beyond is where a ballerina breathes. She goes beyond prettiness and perfection to make a language of ballet—not a language of words but of visions. When she is onstage you see more because she shows more—concentration, transformation, illumination, connection. Maria Tallchief, performing the Berceuse (lullaby) in the Balanchine-Stravinsky Firebird portrays the fiery bird of Russian folklore with a creaturely quiet born of her own Native American heritage. Tallchief’s Firebird pulls us into its deep-woods trance, a soundless ripple moving through the shoulders, the head dropping forward into dream. This is virtuosity turned inward, a slowed down heart in a silent glade, magic à terre. Gelsey Kirkland, on the other hand, dancing Theme and Variations with Mikhail Baryshnikov, in a “Live From Lincoln Center” broadcast, is so luminous, swift and committed she’s like a hummingbird darting between shadows. She is heat, flight and isolated longing—a fairy tale in a prism. And Wendy Whelan, dancing the pas de deux in Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain, her hair loose and her legs bare, is the ballerina stripped down, contemporary, a millennial single. She expresses all the awkwardness, sadness and sexual vulnerability of Carrie Bradshaw in “Sex and the City.”

Back in the 1970s, discussing a dance star he’d had the chance to hire but didn’t, Balanchine explained that she was wonderful dancing with others but that he “wasn’t interested in seeing her dance alone.” It’s yet another definition of a ballerina. Whether twirling in a pink satin box or plunging into a cutting-edge pas de deux, she is powerfully, inspiringly and unforgettably alone.

Laura Jacobs is The New Criterion’s dance critic and a staff writer at Vanity Fair.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Lopez in Circus Polka. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB.

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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