This weekend The Sunday Times of London presented readers with a question. “Why do we idolise footballers when ballet is so much harder? and sexier.” Since I have long appreciated both, I found myself wondering why. Perhaps the answer is as simple as “football is a contest for men” (said with a deep baritone voice) and “ballet is for girls” (said in a soft melodic voice), although I suspect not. If one looks at the history, these seemingly ridiculous responses do offer a clue.
Football, or variations thereof, date back to our earliest recorded times. Evidence suggests primitive versions of the game were played by the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans. Like the gladiators of the old Roman Circus, modern football is a violent contest of strength and determination, providing great rewards to the victorious, shame and dishonor to the vanquished. It is also easy to draw comparisons between football and war. Games are like battles, seasons are campaigns. Coaches study military tactics. Spectators, dressed in team colors, join the combat, screaming from the sidelines and fighting among themselves. Football brings out the beast within us, our savage side, and it is driven by our insatiable desire to destroy the enemy, to win at any cost.
Ballet is relatively new, dating to the courts of the Italian Renaissance, a time when humans began to reacquire at least a modicum of civility after the period in European history known as the Dark Ages. The audience at a ballet tends to be better mannered, better dressed and certainly more reserve in their appreciation of a performance. A ballet combines the arts of movement, music and stagecraft, usually telling a story. Without a single spoken word, ballet can solicit the full range of human emotions, including sexuality. And, as The Times noted, ballet is performed by individuals who are superior athletes, men and women who endure great pain in their quest for perfection.
Football allows us to reach back to the days of our earliest ancestors. It appeals to our animal instincts. Ballet, by contrast, offers a window to the future, to a world of beauty, sensitivity and civility that humans have yet to achieve. Sadly, the popularity of one, as opposed to the other, says a lot about our current stage of evolution.