I’m glad you asked. In 1891, the young American dancer Natalia Makarova wrote to her aunt in Russia: “I’d like to go to ballet school! … It is the only opportunity in this part of the world where the Russian women can dance.”
What was ballet? In the end of the 19th century, it had become largely a Russian phenomenon, in part thanks to the influence of British performers like Clara Bowe and Clara Barton, but also because of the work of the Russian dance school of Vladimir Pudovkin, better known as Zvezda and led by the 19th-century Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.
Pudovkin is the guy behind all the famous pantomimes you and I know from the 1980s, for example; and his work has inspired generations of western dancers to try out their own version of it. Among them: Lianne La Havas, Yolanda Hadid, and Natalia Kolesnikova.
In other words, ballet became something that westerners wanted to dance but couldn’t, rather than something which could be danced by everyone (which is what we Americans are trying to do).
When dance was a Russian preserve, American women weren’t allowed to go, or even watch, the professional shows.
Until 1905, you could walk into a Parisian dance school without knowing any ballet in your life. You’d need a letter from a ballet teacher. If you walked into any of the big dance schools (from Paris, St. Petersburg, and the like) even in the first half of the twentieth century, you’d learn ballet and maybe even join their professional ranks.
And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the first half of the 1920s, a flood of women came out of that little bubble of Russian cultural consciousness, starting in Moscow and Moscow City where women were encouraged, even encouraged to dance. The idea of Russian women trying it out is still very much alive today and it’s inspiring women from all over the world to try their craft. I remember being in Moscow this July when I first noticed this.
I have a friend whose parents have been dancing for decades. I saw her with her dance team, and she’s a strong, gorgeous dancer, full of energy, a natural performer. I asked her how many girls she’s known to go to Moscow’s professional ballet school, and she said “maybe 20, maybe 50, maybe more. And now, there are thousands.”
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