Netflix just released a new 10-episode series that gives viewers a peek behind the scenes of what it really takes to be a professional ballet dancer. Tiny Pretty Things follows a cohort of young dancers at the fictitious Archer School in Chicago as they angle to prove that they have the talent to join the company after they graduate. Even though the school itself isn’t real, the dancers’ gruelling schedules, tireless attention to technique, and strain they put on their bodies as athletes are very real. How do I know? Because I danced at various ballet schools and in companies for 16 years. And let me tell you, pointe shoes are no joke. I never had to try and solve an attempted murder, but the environment that the show takes place in, and the culture of ballet, is something I came to know very closely.
Tiny Pretty Things was adapted from a novel of the same name written by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton. In the series, the Archer School is set in Chicago; however, originally, the book is set in New York City. It’s unclear whether the authors had a specific school in mind when they wrote the book but there are quite a few with a similar setup where an exclusive academy acts as a training school for a professional dance company. In New York, the School of American Ballet has been the official training academy for the world-renowned New York City Ballet for over 70 years. There are also schools around the world with a similar model. Paris Opera Ballet School, Royal Ballet School, and Bolshoi Ballet Academy being among the most prestigious.
When the school’s late admittance, Neveah (Kylie Jefferson) is given a tour of the school, she’s quickly brought up to speed on the long hours she will be expected to keep up with as a dancer at the prestigious academy. Between technique classes, hours devoted to partnering and learning choreography from classic ballets, not to mention auditions, rehearsals for shows, and cross-training at the gym, ballet can be a full-time job before you even get a shot at it being your real full-time job.
By about the age of 12, I was in classes five days a week. Most afternoons, evenings, and Saturday mornings were devoted to a myriad of classes all trying to teach me how to get my turns and extensions just right, how to fully dance the music, and how to perfectly synchronize with my fellow dancers down to how we held our hands even for a second. During the first technique class scene in Tiny Pretty Things, I was having major flashbacks to hearing corrections from teachers about not sinking into your standing leg, closing your ribs, and not letting your second arm be late in a turn. It may all sound like total gibberish, but my muscle memory kicked right in when I heard those words even after years of not dancing.
Naturally, those long hours of training like a professional athlete – because let’s face it, we basically were – did occasionally lead to injuries. Just like Bette (Casimere Jollette), I knew multiple dancers who suffered stress fractures, broken toes, lost toenails, strained hips, knees, and ankles. Without downplaying it, it became pretty common. We all did our best to avoid injury and we all had our favourite go-to physical therapists, some of whom even specialized in dance. We’d swap tips our physical therapists gave us to strengthen our ankles while showing off our latest blisters and how we broke in our pointe shoes. Maybe that sounds gruesome, but it was kind of a bonding experience.
In interviews with Dance Spirit, some of the main cast said that they resonated with the show’s portrayal of dance. Jefferson in particular said that her character’s experiences with racism in ballet reflect experiences from “top to bottom. She mentioned instances in college when other dancers complained that she was given a part only in a bid for fairness or diversity rather than because of her talent. "Representation is so important," she told the outlet. "I'm grateful to be part of a show that's able to do that — and not just in one light."
Tiny Pretty Things also touches on the seedy deals kept as open secrets that have historically been tied to the dance world. Wealthy patrons dangled the promise of funding in exchange for access to dancers which led to countless incidences of exploitation and abuse.
Its history is briefly mentioned when Neveah speaks with a reporter about what is going on at the school. In the 1800s, when money, power, and prostitution mingled in the backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet, many of the dancers were exploited for sex work. Wealthy men “subscribed” to the Paris Opera, and in return, they were given access to young dancers just trying to get their careers started, hoping to earn long-term contracts in the corps de ballet or as a principal soloist. Some patrons were so influential that they could make or break a dancer’s career. It could mean the difference between scoring a coveted role or being fired. Some dancers couldn’t afford to choose because leaving ballet would mean a life of poverty. Dance was their only chance at stability.
Tiny Pretty Things, while being a dramatic interpretation of the world of dance, gets a lot of things right both in capturing its intensity, competitiveness and in recognising the exploitative history of ballet. It also places a priority on showing the variety of backgrounds and experiences dancers bring to the table in terms of talent and perspective that only serve to make ballet better.
Tiny Pretty Things is now streaming on Netflix.