Did a Famous Ballet Dancer Have a Particularly Painful Introduction to Ballet?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to dancing and dancers and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the dancing urban legends featured so far.

DANCING URBAN LEGEND: Ron Cunningham had a rather painful introduction to the world of ballet.

An interesting aspect of ballet training is the fact that almost all ballet dancers begin their training at an extremely young age, very often pre-adolescence. This is because ballet is extremely demanding on the human body, and it often asks people to do things with their bones and muscles that is just flat-out unnatural.

Ron Cunningham learned this first hand when he decided to become a ballet dancer late in his life.

Cunningham was in school in Chicago and he was almost finished with his schooling for a degree in business when, at the age of 23 (that’s about 139 in dancer years) he saw a Royal Ballet performance by legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev and that’s when he decided that he, too, was going to be a dancer.

So he dropped out of college and began taking ballet classes – he first started in beginner’s classes, he, a 23 year old guy in a room of 8 year old girls, but soon, his raw talent saw him excel at higher level classes – he soon was taking pretty much every class he could find, so he was taking beginner, intermediary AND expert classes – all at the same time!

Eventually, his resolve was rewarded when he began getting small roles in Chicago during the mid-60s.

But again, remember, a standard dancer’s body has been trained for ballet for YEARS – Cunningham was trying to get this done in much less time, so when he got a job working as a background performer in a Royal Ballet performance (starring the great Nureyev), his role was a simple one – in the final act of the ballet, Cunningham was to stand in the back of the stage during the act while holding a spear in a traditional hold position. When the curtains came down, he was to leave the stage, allowing the principals to come out and take their bows.

Fair enough, right?

Well, when the curtains came down, Cunningham went to move and discovered that he COULDN’T! His body had LOCKED itself in the hold position! As the stars came out for their bows, he was still dragging himself off stage!

Luckily for Cunningham, his career blossomed later in the decade and in the late-70s, he got a primo gig at the Boston Ballet as their principal dancer and head choreographer. Here is Cunningham in 1979.

He worked at the Boston Ballet for 13 years and in 1988, he took over as the Artistic Director (along with his wife, Carinne Binda) for the Sacramento Ballet Company, a position he has held to this day.

Not bad for a guy who was in business classes at the same age Nureyev was touring Europe as the male principal of the Russian Ballet!

The legend is…


Thanks to Emily Hite for her interview with Ron Cunningham and thanks to Cunningham for the information! Check out more great dancer stories in Mindy Aloff’s Dance Anecdotes: Stories from the Worlds of Ballet, Broadway, the Ballroom, and Modern Dance

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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