We Are Not All Black Swans: Ballet in Popular Culture and the Media, Part 1: Introduction to the Issues

I just have so many feelings about this that I can barely be coherent, so I apologize in advance.

Ballet is one of my great passions – I’ve loved it for as long as I can remember. I loved it first for its beauty and its grace, its boundless energy and athleticism, its lyricism and its romanticism. And when I started to dance myself, I loved it for its discipline and demands, its perfection and its imperfection.

I love it for the indescribable combination of joy and fear that leaps up in me when I step out on stage. I love it for the incredible range of emotions that dancing or watching dance evokes in me.

I even love it for the blisters and blood and late nights and early mornings…most of the time.

And that is why I am so, so torn about the depiction of ballet in popular culture.

On the one hand, I am glad that there is interest, and exposure. Ballet has a -somewhat unfair- reputation of being “boring”, or “elitist” or “only for old people”. Perhaps not as much as opera, but the feeling is still there. In this day and age, where accessibility is emphasized above all else, where you can tweet a celebrity and the people on TV are “just like you”, the dancer is something of an anomaly.  The intense, long-term training, the separation of audience and stage, the price of the tickets (although this is changing) and at the most basic level the use of objects (pointe shoes) and movements (eg, turning out) that are completely foreign to the ‘normal’ experience, all conspire to put distance between the general public and the world of ballet.

So I’m glad that there is awareness of, and renewed interest in, ballet as an art form as a result of recent aspects of popular culture and media. And yet, at the same time, I wonder if these portrayals are doing more harm than good. There is a line between “any press is good press” and negative portrayals hurting the art form. I don’t think we’ve crossed it yet – hopefully – but we’re certainly headed in that direction.

It’s not that I’m advocating a universally positive view of ballet. It’s true that its nature lends itself to certain challenges. For example: ballet is an aesthetic art form in which the body of the dancer is the instrument – this necessitates a certain physique. You have to be athletic enough and strong enough to actually dance – and that’s hard work, people, it’s not just twirling around with your hands above your head – and you have to look pretty doing it. Of course, when taken to the extreme you have dancers – natural perfectionists – obsessing over their weight and appearance, possibly leading to eating disorders or depression or a myriad of other issues. And there are certain companies or directors who, intentionally or unintentionally, contribute to that sort of thing. Dance puts a lot of pressure on the dancer, and it’s hard.

So I’m not saying ballet is perfect.

But there seem to be an awful lot of people who associate ballet  or ballerina with anorexia, bulimia, eating disorders, conceited, snobby, elitist, girly, (and with it the eternal girly=less valuable/worse), gay, restrictive, socially stunted…

Why does the art form that makes my heart sing evoke such responses?

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4 thoughts on “We Are Not All Black Swans: Ballet in Popular Culture and the Media, Part 1: Introduction to the Issues

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