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Two worlds apart – ballet and pop culture. They may come together from time to time but in spite of increasing popularity over the past fifty years ballet is essentially an elite art form appreciated by relatively few. It’s also an expensive art form. Expensive to stage and expensive to see due to the inevitably high ticket prices.
Without a mass market for ballet there’s not so much money in it for dancers when compared to the mega bucks that top pop performers can make, so it’s interesting to take a look at some of the stars who trained as classical ballet dancers but went on to achieve fame and fortune in other spheres of the entertainment world.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Born in Belgium, the star of martial arts movies first studied karate at the age of ten and after two years enrolled in the National Centre for Karate where he trained for four years and earned a place in the Belgian Karate Team.
Then at the age of 16, he took up ballet, which he studied for five years and became good enough to be invited to join the Paris Opera Ballet. But he wimped out, opting to return to the less tough sport of karate. In his own words: “Ballet is an art, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports. If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.”
Jean-Claude went on to win the Mr. Belgium bodybuilding title and in 1982 moved to the United States to pursue a career in films. His first success came in 1988 with the movie Blood Sport and his biggest box office success was the 1994 movie Timecop, which grossed over $100 million worldwide, earning him money that dancers can only dream about.
Patrick Wayne Swayze
This sadly missed star was born in Houston on August 18, 1952. His mother was a dancer, instructor, choreographer and head of the Houston Jazz Ballet Company, so it is not surprising that he followed in her footsteps and became a dancer. However, dance was not his first choice of career. During his teens, in addition to studying classical ballet, he trained in ice skating, gymnastics and acted in school plays. He also played football for his high school until a knee injury ended his hopes of a career as a professional player.
In 1972, at the age of 20, he moved to New York City to complete his dance training at the Harkness Ballet and Joffrey ballet schools. His first professional appearance was as a dancer for Disney on Parade. He then starred in the long-running Broadway production of Grease and went on to make his film debut in Skatetown, U.S.A. He made a name for himself as an actor in movies and TV, enjoying his first big success in North and South, the 1985 television miniseries about the American Civil War.
His breakthrough role was as dance instructor Johnny Castle in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, which made him a world famous movie star. His next big hit came in 1990 with a starring role in Ghost alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Demi Moore. In 1991 he was chosen by People magazine as that year’s “Sexiest Man Alive”.
In 1998 his career took a setback when he was seriously injured while filming in California. He fell from a horse and hit a tree, breaking both legs and suffering four detached tendons in his shoulder. It took him two years to recover and resume his career. Returning to the stage in 2003 he appeared on Broadway in the musical Chicago and in 2006 made his debut in London’s West End starring as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.
Patrick Swayze met the girl who was to become his wife, Lisa Niemi, when she was taking dance lessons from his mother. She was 14 years old at the time and he was 18. They married five years later in 1975 and remained together for 34 years until his death from pancreatic cancer in 2009.
British actor Jude Law had no early dance training and only studied classical ballet to prepare for his role in the 2001 movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence as Gigolo Joe, a male prostitute robot on the run after being framed for murder. He also studied the acting of Hollywood greats Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. So, perhaps ballet can take a tiny bit of credit for the movies success in taking a total of $235.93 million worldwide.
Evidently very thorough in his preparation, Jude Law learned to play the saxophone for his role in The Talented Mr. Ripley. His daughter is now studying ballet.
Beautiful Spanish actress Penélope Cruz studied classical ballet for nine years at the National Conservatory in Madrid. Initially she had no ambition to be an actress and was focused on dance, but while still a teenager she became interested in acting after seeing Pedro Almodóvar’s film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Looking to a change of direction she underwent four years of theater training at Cristina Rota’s school in New York.
She continued to attend dance classes while in New York and speaking of those years she said: “I worked so hard that I washed my feet in blood and wanted to tear my fingers off because they hurt so much. But if it were not for the years of discipline in the dance world everything in my career would have been much harder.” She acknowledges this by saying that if she ever has to write her résumé for a job she will state as her education “The school of ballet at the National Conservatory of Spain.”
Actress, film producer and former fashion model, Charlize Theron was born in South Africa where she grew up on her parent’s farm near Johannesburg. Intended for a modeling career, after winning a local competition at the age of 16 she went to Milan on a one-year contract. She then moved to New York on a contract with Pauline’s Model Management.
After this contract ended she decided to remain in New York and attended the Joffrey Ballet School. Her budding career as a ballet dancer ended with a knee injury when she was only 19 years old.
Acting seemed the best alternative so Charlize took a one-way ticket to Los Angeles and after only eight months in the city landed her first film part. Although it was non-speaking role it led to bigger and better things until her career really took off in the 1990s with a string of box office success. So once again, ballet’s loss was the movie world’s gain.
Real name Louise Ciccone, the global show business phenomenon known as Madonna, was born in Bay City, Michigan. Dancing was her first love and she persuaded her father to let her take ballet lessons. After graduating from high school she received a dance degree from the University of Michigan. Her ballet teacher, Christopher Flynn, considered Louise talented enough to pursue a career as a dancer and at the end of 1977 she dropped out of college to seek her future in New York. Arriving with only $35 in her pocket the future Madonna worked as a waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts and with modern dance troupes. She also worked as a backup dancer for established artists.
Her career as a singer came about as a result of performing as a dancer for French disco artist Patrick Hernandez on his 1979 world tour. She became involved with musician Dan Gilroy and they formed her first rock band, the Breakfast Club, with the multi-talented Madonna performing as singer, drummer and guitarist. In 1980 she left Breakfast Club and formed the band Emmy, which led to a singles deal with Sire Records, a label belonging to Warner Bros. Records. Her debut single, “Everybody” became a dance hit and today, having sold more than 300 million records worldwide, Madonna reigns as the queen of pop culture. Among the artists who have influenced her, Madonna includes Martha Graham and Nureyev.
Born in Athens, Georgia, USA, Kimila Ann “Kim” Basinger was a very shy child to the point where her parents even suspected a mental disorder and consulted a psychiatrist. To overcome the shyness her mother – a model, actress and swimmer who appeared in several Esther Williams films – sent the three-year old Kim to ballet lessons, a course of “treatment” that continued for more than ten years. On the surface this seemed not to work because her classmates at school thought she was not right in the head!
However, her ballet training must have done some good since the lovely Kim went on to win the Athens Junior Miss contest, which she followed up by winning the Junior Miss Georgia title. This qualified her to compete in the national Junior Miss pageant resulting in her being offered a modeling contract with Ford Modeling Agency, which she turned down in favour of becoming a singer and actress. However she changed her mind and went to New York where she became a successful Ford model and cover girl.
In 1976 she revived her ambition to become an actress and moved to Los Angeles where she acquired fame and fortune as a movie star. In 1997 her role in L.A. Confidential won her triple honours with an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the Golden Globe and the Screen Actor’s Guild Award.
Very much in the news for her role in Black Swan, actress Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem as Natalie Hershlag. Her Israeli father is a doctor and her American mother works as her agent. On her mother’s side, her ancestors were Jewish immigrants from Austria and Russia, while her father’s ancestors were Jews who emigrated to Israel from Poland and Romania. She is a dual citizen of the United States and Israel.
Natalie started dancing lessons when she was four years old and at the age of 10 turned down an offer to become a child model in order to focus on acting. At the same age she auditioned for the off-Broadway musical show Ruthless! She and future pop star Britney Spears were chosen to understudy the show’s star. She made her film debut at the age of 13 in Léon (The Professional) and shortly after took her grandmother’s maiden name Portman as her stage name.
Prodigiously talented, she studied psychology at Harvard and as a student co-authored two research papers that were published in scientific journals. Languages are another gift and she has studied French, German, Japanese, and Arabic.
No doubt her Bachelor’s degree in psychology helped her to prepare for the role of Nina when she returned to ballet in the psychosexual thriller Black Swan, for which she went through five to eight hours of classical ballet training each day for six months. Natalie lost twenty pounds in weight but gained a husband when she married the film’s choreographer, New York City Ballet principal dancer Benjamin Millepied, and won the Best Actress Golden Globe Award.
Incidentally, the title role in Black Swan was offered to Diana Vishneva but our beloved prima ballerina turned it down, preferring to tour with her ballet group. There’s true devotion to art.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Now here’s an actress who not only trained as a ballet dancer but actually performed in classical ballet. Sex in the City star Sarah Jessica Parker was born in Nelsonville, Ohio, the daughter of a nursery school operator and a journalist. As a child she trained in singing and ballet and when the family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, she attended the School for Creative and Performing Arts. At the age of eight she danced in The Nutcracker and La Sylphide with Cincinnati Ballet.
Later her parents relocated the family to to Dobbs Ferry near New York City so that she could get specialized training and, with her mother guiding her career as a child actress, Sarah Jessica won a role in the Broadway revival of The Innocents. While in New York, she attended the School of American Ballet in New York City and later moved to Los Angeles where she studied at the Professional Children’s School, Hollywood High School.
Before becoming a movie star she appeared in stage productions of plays and musicals, and also in a TV sitcom titled Square Pegs. After this her career began to take off, eventually leading to the leading role of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City, for which she won an Emmy.
Sarah Jessica Parker still loves ballet and on May 1, 2010, along with Natalie Portman she attended NYCB’s Spring Gala.
Unlikely as it may seem, pop diva Britney Spears was once another budding ballerina. Starting at the age of three she attended dance lessons in her hometown, Kentwood, Louisiana, and performed a solo at the school’s annual concert. There are photos to prove it! She also trained as a gymnast. Ballet may not have lost a great star but one thing’s for certain, Britney sure has lost her ballet figure.