After about six weeks of aerial silks classes in Las Vegas, I had the pleasure of taking a class from Aerial Arts of Utah in Salt Lake City this past week. (And for anyone that’s confused, yes, this is still the Las Vegas Dance Insider … but it will have a Utah satellite until August. Check out this post for details.)

First, I was entirely thrilled to be airborne again. Hanging out in empty space was addictive from the start, so the month or so of silk-less-ness was almost more than I could handle. The second thing that struck me was more about wordage than physicality — and the bunhead in me was rejoicing.

The aerial school in Salt Lake had an established system of terminology for every movement we did. After a watch-and-learn class structure in Vegas, I was both caught off-guard but appreciated the structure. Don’t get me wrong–I’m not opposed to the mimicry method of teaching. After all, this is how much of the dance world operates. But being able to attach a name to a movement that is confusing at first somehow made it more manageable in the beginning.

This hasn’t been the only role of vocabulary in the history of dance, and ballet is perhaps the best example of a standardized lexicon. Despite the myriad flavors swirled throughout the discipline, a collective commitment to maintaining a core set of terms has preserved them. As a result, well-versed dancers can walk into a ballet class almost anywhere in the world and have at least a tentative grasp of what’s going on.

Interestingly, this rigorous vocabulary isn’t always transmitted through formal schooling. Instead, toddlers in tights are deliberately exposed to a slew of these (mostly) French verbs on a weekly basis, ostensibly with the idea that the words will absorb by osmosis. Oftentimes (and with varying levels of success, of course), they do. Teenagers that have been in dance classes since they were small can converse in foreign infinitives without really thinking about it, even without having studied the “Technical Manual and Dictionary of Classical Ballet.

This is an excellent book, by the way; I recommend it for anyone with an inclination toward the linguistic side of dance. It also proves the valid point that the language of the arts has come beneath the gaze of learned professionals and has benefited from it. While this intensity probably isn’t necessary for good dance schooling, it provides a depth to the field that has made for great staying power.

Because, after all, words are the fundamental method of transmitting culture. Evidence of artistic and creative expression is visible far before the appearance of writing and while we have the benefit of codified vocabularies now, this wasn’t the case for thousands of years. Language was the key piece instead. So next time you’re in a ballet class listening to French, Russian or Italian chatter, say a quiet thank you for the language that has helped preserve and propel the dance world toward the complex art it is now.

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