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Think of ballet and you can think big

THERE is nothing worse than adequate.

Acres of satisfaction are to be had in being spectacularly good at something and acres, or perhaps even more, in being spectacularly bad - just as long as you're enjoying yourself.

It's this second approach I take to ballet class. I was decent enough in my youth but, then, ballet is a thing that lends itself to youth - I was slender and flexible and co-ordinated, which are three useful tools for getting by.

Now I am round and wide enough that to appear in a leotard next to other women is a weekly blow to the self-esteem. I take classes at Scottish Ballet where the others are slender and supple as sea grass and move as though swept by tides. I kick my leg and am delighted by a 90-degree angle; they must take care not to break noses with flying knees. Despite ending each class feeling like a sugar-plum dumpling, I would still be too thin for Channel 4's latest reality gig, Big Ballet.

Wayne Sleep says the same of one of his auditionees, adding: "I bet she's never been told that before." Sleep, in this three-parter which trains those who dream of Odette but who have a dress size larger than 12 to dance Swan Lake, delights at sticking two fingers up at ballet's closed quarters.

This is how ballet makes mainstream TV - with a gimmick. This one reworks the classic reality wheeze of the duck-out-of-water. In this case the ducks are plus-sized swans working to perform Swan Lake. It smacks of the classic Vicar Of Dibley sketch with Dawn French and Darcey Bussell.

You'll recall that as French tries to mirror Bussell's movements, the good vicar is the butt of the joke. On Channel 4, it is ballet itself that is being given a sharp prod. It misses the mark, yet makes the point. Little girls love ballet. I imagine it's the tutus, the notion of being a temporary princess. The problem is when little girls become bigger girls, in height, weight and age. Ballet rejects those who are not thinnest and most disciplined. Ask a teenage girl what turns her head and it's rare the answer is "discipline".

Ballet is the idea of transformation, that humans can become something more perfect and refined. Ballet is etiquette, discipline, form and knowledge of yourself. There is no latecoming to a ballet class, no disrespect for the master or mistress at the helm. I would have it made compulsory in schools.

Ballet is as layered with tradition as a royal court or regiment. Its gender divisions are so absolute and prescribed I struggle with the dichotomy between ballet lover and feminist, yet love it still. Ballet has thrived on elitism. Its beauties - skill, dedication and devotion - are out of favour more generally. These things, once prized, are now seen as divisive and elitist. Sleep rejects these notions with an enthusiastic raspberry and an "up yours". He's following a wider trend, that which says we all can be anything we choose.

In this case, we can all be dancers. We can't. But we can all dance. I love the artform because of its brutal perfection. Not for a second do I think what I see on stage, the result of eight-hour daily rehearsals and a lifetime of devotion, is achievable. Sleep knows this too. What was his aim in partnering with Channel 4? Was it to bring ballet to a wider audience or, seriously, to challenge the dance's narrow strictures?

Both would be ideal. When I sit in Glasgow's Theatre Royal to watch our national ballet company, the rows are rarely full. The artform has suffered from a wider departure from civility and structure and taste. People want The X Factor, not the Black Swan.

But maybe popular culture can also be the lift ballet needs. There's Channel 4 and now the BBC has announced a ballet season to be screened in March.

Size and shape should be no barrier to enjoyment of classical dance, watching or participating. Professional ballet quite rightly belongs to an elite, but Big Ballet, I hope, may just serve to make the art that little bit bigger.

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