Historically, ballet has been an inaccessible art form that celebrated the slender, ethereal, Caucasian woman. However, as Features writer Joel Calfee describes, social media may be a conduit through which the field can be salvaged and, quite literally, seen in color. [Content Warning: Brief mention of body image/eating disorder]
When was the last time you met someone who truly cared about ballet? I’m not referring to someone who spent their whole life practicing pirouettes and pliés, but rather someone who exists outside of the dance world. When was the last time you met someone who merely admired ballet from afar? It seems out of touch. As a métier steeped in tradition, ballet is often guilty of clinging to its dated roots. Most people don’t see themselves represented onstage, but rising industry stars have begun looking offstage for solutions.
Most people don’t see themselves represented onstage, but rising industry stars have begun looking offstage for solutions.
The truth is that authority in ballet has historically been in the hands of white men. When ballet first arrived in the U.S. in the late twentieth century, the companies were almost all male-owned, even though there were an overwhelming number of women dancers in the field. White, male directors and choreographers dictated how a ballerina should look, leading to the image of the tall, slender, ethereal-looking white woman that we picture today. The perpetuation of white authority means that beige is still the default ‘skin tone’ for pointe shoes and tights. Although brown pointe shoes are now available for dancers of color, there are only two skin tone options. Furthermore, dancers like Misty Copeland, the first Black principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre, are still few and far between.
Issues with body image are prevalent within the industry as well. Historically, dancers have been expected to squeeze into suffocating costumes that glorify undernourished appearances. This body policing has contributed to rampant body dysmorphia and eating disorders. While these standards persist in the dance world, dancers such as Copeland have become symbols of and advocates for acceptance of many body types. In Copeland’s case, she has catalyzed discussions of racial diversity, and her book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You, challenges the notions of how a ballerina’s body should look.
The heteronormative storylines of ballets also leave little space for queer presence. Chase Johnsey, a gender-fluid dancer, has made history by performing roles typically reserved for women on the stage. Johnsey mentors transgender and gender-nonconforming dancers breaking into the world of ballet. Further, by using Instagram, Johnsey shows gender nonconformity in ballet and represents a unique face in an art form defined by the gender binary.
As Johnsey’s online advocacy suggests, the saving grace for ballet may be social media. The Internet has historically been a place where marginalized individuals can find a platform, and the same can be applied to ballet. In addition to Chase Johnsey, famous ballerinos like James Whiteside and Rhys Kosakowski are using their social media accounts to amplify the voices of queer dancers. Whiteside’s Instagram account features photos of him in drag and caked in glitter. Meanwhile, Kosakowski’s Instagram bio contains a link to “Levitate,” a Youtube video soundtracked by Troye Sivan in which he uses his movement to express his queer identity which is erased in mainstream ballet performance. Likewise, Misty Copeland has leveraged her Instagram account to make the industry more inclusive. When she posts a picture, she uses hashtags such as #beautiful #ballet, and her 1.7 million followers associate these terms with a figure that has often been ignored.
While dance companies ask themselves how to keep ballet relevant, the answer lies in the positive reception these dancer-advocates have received on social media. Yet, no matter how many Instagram followers these dancers may tout, people will continue to lose interest in ballet so long as they can’t see themselves reflected onstage. As an establishment that prides itself on its history and customs, ballet often seems resistant to change — even when it comes to merely changing the color of a shoe. Yet the changes we do see are hopeful, and as ballet companies attempt to reestablish their audiences, they would be smart to follow the lead of their social-savvy Principals.
Photography by Ruochun Yang. Model: Taiana James.
Originally published in ROCKET Volume IX, Issue 2.