A few weeks ago I slid into a sticky leather booth in Espresso Royale. It was almost 8 p.m., and my energy levels for the day were nearing critical condition, but I’d rallied for this one last meeting. Amidst a sea of subsequent smalltalk, I met someone who said he liked to dance. Salsa dance, specifically, but I went ahead and shared that I was a ballet dancer in hopes of forming a connection.
I wanted to keep going and tell him that I’ve actually always wanted to learn salsa, but he cut me off. He raised his nose and told me that ballet was boring and stiff. That it was only for old people, that his chosen form of movement was far superior.
Stunned, I laughed. I explained that I didn’t think I was old, but I definitely enjoyed ballet. Plus, I stretch enough not to be stiff. He shook his head. Salsa is romantic, he said. And then, through the ebb and flow of conversation, our group found a different subject.
I don’t recount this story out of existential bitterness. The same way the Super Bowl will always garner critics, ballet will never resonate with everyone. However, my new acquaintance’s final comment — that salsa is romantic with the implication that ballet is not — stuck with me. When I came home that night and opened my computer, an unfinished video of the balcony pas de deux (a ballet couple’s dance) from Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet” started to load in an open YouTube tab. The intimate music of Sergei Prokofiev’s score filled my living room, and I thought again about that comment.
After all, what does it mean to make a movement romantic?
Through a Google Search I found a different video, this one of a couple dancing salsa on the streets of Miami. Through the shaky hand of an iPhone camera, a man and a woman shared three minutes of casual happiness set to the background of a city completely oblivious to the dance’s occurrence. Cars passed and pedestrians wandered as the dancers’s fleet footwork dissolved into the street’s ongoing bustle. The haphazardness of it all created an intimacy that gave way to an idyllic romance. I could see what my acquaintance was talking about.
I’d expect myself to struggle when comparing this to “Romeo and Juliet.” After all, the pas de deux clip I watched came from the Royal Ballet, one of the most elite companies in the world. Their theater, the Royal Opera House, literally has a box reserved for the Queen herself. With the exception of her, the live audience pays hundreds of dollars for their tickets and iPhone cameras are strictly prohibited. No aspect goes unplanned or unperfected, and yet when I watch the dance unfold my heart fills with the same sense of intimate spontaneity as the salsa street dancing from before.
Romeo and Juliet are only 14, both suffering from an all-too-familiar sense of juvenile confusion. Neither of them know what they want and both of them live life with an underlying nervousness for upcoming adulthood. When they find each other, their young hearts shift to focus solely on one another. Through their love, they find a drive far more mature than their years. The pas de deux on Juliet’s balcony is a manifestation of that new focus.
Within the performance, I feel those moments of desire alongside the young couple: Juliet’s beaming chest, Romeo’s outstretched hands, their luxurious makeout session and weightless, slow motion lifts and turns.
It’s a spectacle of teenage melodrama and through its display the planning melts away. Suddenly, I see a casual meetup on the streets of Italy. It’s two people — two kids — intensely focused on enjoying each other while an entire city continues to pass by.
I can’t help but wonder what my acquaintance would think if he peeled back the technique to see this side of ballet. Whether onstage at the Royal Opera House or on an unnamed sidewalk in Florida, I still find that intangible sense of effortlessness dictated through non-vocalized movement. They might both be romantic, but above all they’re both human.