More than Prince Charming: Equalizing the Ballet Classroom

Good morning America, and welcome to the new semester! A few days ago the dance world woke up to the fact that *shock and horror* people still believe ignorant and harmful stereotypes about boys doing ballet…. I KNOW, right???!!!

… Of course, I’m being sarcastic, we’ve known this for a very long time. To date a lot of our work towards combatting this stigma has often been to provide isolated and safely masculine experiences for boys within ballet classes and dance classes in general. This can look like a boys-only class, it might look like all the boys going at the end of the allegro line to a slower tempo… anything to prove to boys themselves, to concerned parents, to the outside world, that these boys aren’t feminine, or doing anything to endanger their masculinity. Continue reading →

Deep Waters

The news that came out of New York City Ballet this week was… not news to most of us. Yes, the names were new. The individual circumstances were horrific. But the story and the culture? Hauntingly familiar.

A little while ago I wrote about safety and sexual assault in professional performing environments, now I want to go back and talk about ballet, about institutions, and about how we can respond as peers and colleagues and leaders to individual events, and to the climate of objectification, harassment and assault that forms the deep, dark waters of our profession. How deep do those waters go? Well… Continue reading →

Boys in Dance – Too Much of a Stretch?

A few months ago a colleague sent me a flyer for a dance conference, and I sat with this post and that flyer for a long time before I decided to write about it. The Male Dancer Conference was advertised as:

…a groundbreaking, educational and social event designed exclusively for male dancers. It features education, connection and conversation all designed to improve the present skills and future lives of male dancers. It stands as one of the only large-group, multidimensional events for male dancers to gather, learn, share, and connect. MDC participants leave as better dancers who feel enriched, empowered and connected to a community.”

Focusing on conversation, connection and education, the conference held supervised discussions, panels, classes and workshops for male dancers and the community around them, there were social activities, and a visit to the pop up shop boysdancetoo [sic]. Testimonials speak to how inspirational and empowering the experience was:

This conference filled a void in the dance world. Instead of summer intensives where our boy is the only male dancer or one of a few, this conference was all about them. It spoke to the emotional and physical demands of being a boy dancer. It was a much needed safe space for them to be their authentic selves. It was a community of friendship and support, for the boys as well as their parents. It was a nurturing and empowering four days and they all left stronger dancers (physically and emotionally) when it was over.”

…. The thing is, I’m not sure there IS a void in the dance world. Or at least, I’m not sure this attempt to address the gender imbalance in the dance world was quite the way I’d have wanted to center the conversation. This conference, and others like it, and the literature advertising boys dance classes (of which there are many) focuses on a problem of numbers:

“The male dancer has been present throughout history, but the significant lack of male dancers in the field has been and continues to be a question and a challenge. From early childhood dance and movement classes through secondary education and beyond, the dance world is faced with the question of how to attract more boys and men to the field. This problem is not limited to one genre of dance, age group, or country; the dilemma is global. This symposium seeks pragmatic solutions to address the dearth of male dancers in our studios, schools, and companies as students, professionals, and educators.” – Men In Dance: Bridging the Gap Conference

The common strategy for addressing the problem seems to be to design events for boys only, and for classes to focus on fitness, flexibility, and dance forms outside of feminine stereotypes. A dance created by men, for men, separate from “girl dance,” where (or so it seems) different skills are being learned in a way that will isolate, intimidate, and otherwise alienate the next generation of Baryshnikovs, Poulins, Wheeldons, and McGregors.

At the same time, the professional dance community is speaking out strongly about the lack of female representation all over the dance world, especially in creative and managerial roles. The appalling lack of female choreographers, and the disparate opportunities and funding offered to those who do try and make a name for themselves in contrast to their male counterparts is striking. The narrative of the oppressed, isolated male dancer who needs to be given resources and a chance might be sweet, but rippling up the field it becomes the same old glass ceiling, the same old grandfathering system, the same old privileging of male authority and creativity.

So what’s to be done?

The first question we HAVE to ask is: do boys need safe, isolated spaces, and is that the best way to make dance equally attractive to dancers of all genders?

Consider a world where dance was more about what you do than who does it. Consider classes that focused on skills like dance story telling; dance making; high energy, athletic dance; or fundamental dance technique, so that students could choose the outcomes, rather than the settings that interested them. Consider a dance class in which you weren’t immediately considered to be unique or different because of your gender – it happens in other clubs and classes all the time. While most codified, examined syllabi continue to differentiate students by gendered dress and vocabulary, other forms of dance are leading the way in terms or normalising mixed groups. In what ways could more codified dance forms address the divides in their teaching, rather than doubling down on the separation?

This ideal doesn’t take into account the cultural reality of homophobic attitudes to men in ballet, and the pervasive attitude that certain parts of dance are only for men and women – but isn’t that a belief we’re supposed to be working against? Alexei Ratmansky went on a particularly vicious screed this week along the lines of “men have the strength to lift and women have lines,” which is worth answering despite how beautifully and completely it was deconstructed by other dancers, because it shows some of the quieter, nastier beliefs at play in this logic: I have met a number of female dancers who could quite easily lift me in a full press, but the effects of that training on their bodies gave them a shape outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic. Are we ok with bodies outside of the stereotypical ballet aesthetic, and if we are, why can’t we teach them in a way that builds the development of muscle? What about adopting lifts from techniques that aren’t strength dependent, or lifts with more than one base? Why is so important that one man lifts one woman anyway? As to the belief that men don’t have lines… I invite my readers to post their favorite video in the comments that disproves that old chestnut.

Secondly, I’m not flat out opposed to Male Dancer conferences, or Boy’s Dance classes, especially as dance works to change its image in public consciousness. What I find appallingly absent is a discussion of male responsibility in a world where men hold a shockingly high degree of power and privilege, as well as (frequently) control over the physical safety of their partners’ bodies. If we are teaching boys that they hold a different position in the dance world, what are we teaching them to do with that position, and how are we teaching them to view those it’s not offered to?

Here are a few examples of male dancers taking responsibility in my life:

  • Seeing my love of flight, and deliberately going across the floor with me so we could enjoy a mutual challenge of strength and power.
  • Insisting I be allowed into “boys” classes.
  • Offering to teach me “male” repertoire.
  • Creating pieces where the repertoire wasn’t gendered at all.
  • Letting me base them.
  • Showing up to pas de deux classes and learning how to dance both roles.
  • Seeking my advice on how to do both roles better.
  • Inviting me to give my perspective in classes they were teaching.
  • Comparing contracts with me so we could check we were being hired for the same wages.
  • Recognising and speaking openly about their advantages as male dancers.
  • Telling people who reached out to hire them “Actually, Fen has more experience.”

Yes, you read me right, I have had male dancers in my life turn down work because they felt it was being offered to them unfairly over their female colleagues, and in some cases over me. It’s weird, but that behaviour meant that institutions and companies had to take a step back and think about why they were offering that job in the first place. I’m not telling people to turn down jobs they’ve worked hard for, or that they’re bad if they don’t. I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to have one man lifting one woman. But we do have to think about how dance reflects wider patterns of gender discrimination in the professional world, as much as it holds the potential to subvert those patterns.

The dance communities I’m part of work hard to challenge the notion that gender defines our role as dancers, and the kinds of opportunity that are offered to us. There is a massively long way to go. But if we are going to create isolated spaces for boys and men to learn what it is to be a dancer, we ought to be taking a long, hard think about the kinds of dancers, and people, we’re teaching them to be in those spaces, and how they relate to the rest of the world when they come out.



….and what now?

…for the dancers in my life who are struggling to dance.

I can already see the theory we’ll be reading in a couple of years time – Traumatised Nation: Dancing in Post-Trump America. Things will change in light of this election, and like everyone else, dancers and artists are going to have to decide how they will move on and live in the face of the unimaginable. I’m sure I am not the only one who has doubted the significance of my choice to dance in the face of these huge socio-political events. I’m also sure I’m not the only one who’s looking for ways to do something productive. This post is about doing both.

I’ve been talking to a number of my colleagues about “breaking the movement barrier.” How do we dance now? How do we teach other people to dance now? Choreography is one thing, but how can we go through the motions of a day-to-day class leaving space for where we are, while still doing our practice the service it deserves? How can we get other people to do that with us?

I got lucky. I had to teach a ballet class at 8:30am the morning after the election. My students came to class and told me they wanted to dance. That they needed to dance. That the classroom felt safe… what could I do but oblige? When I get stuck, and I still get stuck, I remember that at least for those people in that room dancing was a way to make the world feel better, and then I can move again.

What can dance do right now? Well you can choreograph. Some people already have. If the statement you have to make is one you want to make with your body, do it. Even if that statement is confused, or personal, or you don’t know what you’re allowed to say. Watch the choreography people have already made and look at how other people are thinking.

Dance can look after you. I’ve seen so many tears since the election. So many people not knowing what to do, or how to carry on. Sometimes what you need is a reminder that you know how to breathe, you know how to move through space, and take up space, and those capabilities have not gone away. Your body is still there, and the tools you have to live in the world are still there for you as soon as you decide what to do with them.

Dance is an escape. I went to a fantastic lecture last year about tactful stuplicity – sinking into the stream of the internet and opting out of a world where too much is wrong. Right now the internet is a pretty toxic place, but can we sink into music, and clear instructions, and scripts of behaviour we understand in order to give us more energy to navigate the complicated outside the door?

Dance can build community. Under the rule of hatred, love is a radical act. In a state that polices bodies, touching each other is a radical act. At a time when words are tearing us apart, moving our bodies together in silence is a radical act. And one where we can possibly come to understand each other better. I have tried since Tuesday to keep my doors open and to offer spaces for people to gather and care for each other. The people who have come have been dancers.

Dance can protest. Dance can stamp, shout, scream and tear its hair. Dance can insist on the magnificence of its own beauty. Dance can mobilize the songs we fear to sing, and the actions we fear to take. Dance can be a space to work things out. Our dance does not have to be public: there is a powerful rebellion in turning the music up loud and moving by yourself behind your bedroom door, in full-bodied acknowledgement that things are not ok. That something went wrong, and that something has to change. In dancing, we can commit to that need for change.

As artists, we are not obligated to be political activists. We are not obligated to be leftists. There is no correct response to our new president-elect, and not everyone can do the same kind of work. I think it’s important to recognise that there are lots of very valid ways of going forward now, and we can find routes for ourselves in the practices we have spent so much of our lives building. Or we may find that we need to do things differently in order to shape the world we want to live in.

There is a sentiment going around at the moment that our protests are powerless, that our activisms are superficial, that we failed, and that we cannot do enough. We did not win the election. We will have to live for four years under whatever shape the new regime takes. But we cannot let our failures, or the incompleteness of our work, prevent us from working at all. We can keep going. We can do better. We can listen. We can speak. We can make spaces. We can work stuff out.

We can dance.

Photograph by Mike Will Art

A Holiday Guide to Dancers

It’s that wonderful time of the year: presents have been received; the carols have finished, and now comes long stretch of parties and socialising that lasts until the New Year. Here at the headtail connection we know that dancers can be difficult to entertain. We don’t like to sit down. We often have cruel and unusual dietary requirements. But most of all, we’re really hard to talk to.

I know there are plenty of people reading this blog who know, in the very depths of their soul, that this festive season their job will be reduced to a comparative analysis of So You Think You Can Dance. Again. You’ll have relatives who can’t differentiate your successes from your failures, and friends who think your backbreaking job is the last phase of an extended hobby.

Never Fear!

This year, all you have to do in advance is present your friends and family with this handy hosting guide.

Those of you here in a panic because you have a dancer coming to dinner, this is your one stop solution to stress-free entertaining: simply work out what kind of dancer you’re dealing with (spotter’s tips included), and follow these very easy prompts.

Ballet Dancerindex1

Look out for: standing on one foot while the other sticks turned-out to the side.

Wearing: a draping cardigan and heels.

Most likely to be eating: very very fast.

Favourite tipple: white wine.

Ideal Gift: pointe shoes.


Conversation Starters

Bad: Do you have to watch your weight over Christmas?

Better: What are you excited about in the repertoire this season?

Best: What do you think we should do about the lack of female choreographers?


Contemporary Dancerinvertigo550

Look out for: contact improvisation with the furniture.

Wearing: stretch fabric and leggings.

Most likely to be eating: gluten free.

Favourite tipple: artisanal beer.

Ideal Gift: studio space.


Conversation Starters

Bad: So what is contemporary dance?

Better: Whose work should I introduce myself to this year?

Best: How do you think the London/New York dance scene compares with Europe?


Academic Dancer index

Look out for: raiding your bookshelves.

Wearing: eye bags and a great scarf.

Most likely to be eating: vegetarian.

Favourite tipple: red wine.

Ideal Gift: ask to read their work.


Conversation Starters

Bad: Can you actually get a PhD in dance?

Better: What good books have you read recently?

Best: What’s the best use of interdisciplinary methods you’ve seen this year?


Dance Teacherdance_teacher_mug

Look out for: absently-mindedly marking steps with hands.

Wearing: accessories with a school logo.

Most likely to be eating: at all hours.

Favourite tipple: gin.

Ideal Gift: a spotify subscription.


Conversation Starters

Bad: Don’t you just wish you were performing?

Better: What are you proud of in your students this year?

Best: I hate that dance is losing ground as part of education, how could we do that better?


Swing Dancer7430eef44971a83cef30dfc6e499cf82

Look out for: bouncing in seat whenever anything with a swung rhythm comes on.

Wearing: vintage.

Most likely to be eating: paleo.

Favourite tipple: whiskey.

Ideal Gift: event passes.


Conversation Starters

Bad: Aren’t there better ways to get a man?

Better: When was your last exchange?

Best: Could you swing out to this?


Happy holidays readers!


If you’ve got another dancer you want to add to the guide, please leave suggestions in the comments.

Misty Copeland and the Men in Tights

I just watched Misty Copeland give Jimmy Kimmel a ballet class, and this is what I learned: Misty Copeland is a nicer, more graceful and open hearted person than I will ever be.

I’m not sure quite what it was about the segment that particularly got my goat, which you can watch here, but for me it hopped straight over spoof and right into disrespect in a way that, say, French and Saunders never did. But me not knowing doesn’t make for a very good post, so let’s work our way through some of the issues going on here.

Disclaimer: I’ve never watched a full Jimmy Kimmel. I’ve seen other clips on YouTube that other people have highlighted as particularly good. Perhaps it works better in context? For that reason I’m leaving aside discussion of Guillermo as a character, and I’m not going to comment on the wider aims and scope of the program. Just the clip.

Perhaps it’s the men in tutus getting out of the taxi? Dear Jimmy, NO-ONE wears those any more. The one-piece pink tutu combo might be a nice dress-up outfit for a 5 year-old, but you were wearing a practice skirt. A practice skirt that, I note, had been spritzed and sprayed to stick up the wrong way – you put effort into making that skirt look bad Jimmy Kimmel. Also, why do we still have this idea that men in tutus are intrinsically hilarious? Or that men even wear tutus to go take class… that ANYONE wears a tutu to go take class in? Did you think you needed to look any more silly than you were already going to?

Before anyone starts, yes I know this is supposed to be a spoof piece. We’re all supposed to laugh at the famous guy who fails completely at doing ballet, and fails so completely that he doesn’t even know what clothes to wear. So ok, I’ll let the skirt drop and lets go on with the class.

The steps you were doing. Good lord. Again, were you so convinced you’d look too good doing plies and tendus you had to go straight for the leg whacking? I mean, I can kind of forgive you if this was an excuse to let Misty show off her moves, but there’s an arrogance to it, and to my mind you’d actually have looked sillier trying to hold an extension – which you might have tried – than striving and failing for something utterly and completely beyond your competence.

But no, then you had to go and put on the pointe shoes. There’s an odd messing with gender thing you’re doing here Jimmy Kimmel, and I’m not really sure what you’re hoping to achieve. Do you think it’s just so hilariously unthinkable that men would do pointe? They’ve been doing it in the Royal Ballet’s repertoire since the 70s. Also, the Trocs would like to have a word with you. Are you trying to show that what Misty Copeland does is super hard? So why are you working so hard to be ill at ease? Guillermo isn’t comfortable – he’s in pain and he says so – so what’s with you?

Your side speech, Jimmy Kimmel, says that you’re a master of ballet. But Misty’s speech is just the opposite: today, ballet died. There’s too much conflict in how you’re acting towards the ballet, towards Misty Copeland, and what you’re saying about what you’re doing.

I feel like you went for the stupidly unobtainable because you didn’t want to be funny failing at something more basic – and perhaps this gets at why I take issue with this little segment of yours. When you turn up in the tights, and you put on the pointe shoes, you set the bar so high that excuse yourself from attention, effort or generosity towards ballet in general and Misty Copeland in particular. French and Saunders, in the name of humour, worked really hard to understand the traditions and conventions of the world they were stepping into, which is why it’s screamingly funny for dancers and non-dancers alike. You used Misty Copeland to get a cheap laugh out of cross-dressing.

There is no kind of dance that you can master on the first try, but I feel like only ballet smiles and nods and allows celebrities to pretend that they can be excused the effort. Ballet smiles, opens its doors, and puts a company on stage in a routine choreographed so that you can look terrible at doing ballet. In the same costume you went to class in – hell, you even did exactly the same steps. When you use ballet like that you cement it as this rarefied, elitist thing that no-one but the experts can possibly attempt, and you do a disservice to other dance forms, and to every amateur out there who does ballet for the sweaty, riotous joy of it.

Misty Copeland. Gloriously beautiful Misty Copeland, role model for so many young people out there in ballet and outside… your message all along has been that you should grit your teeth and work for the thing you want to do, even when everyone tells you its unobtainable. I realise you probably didn’t have much choice when some rich tv guy comes along and hands you a script where he has do precisely no work whatsoever, so I’m not blaming you. In fact, I’m sorry you had to put up with such a shallow use of your many talents. I don’t blame the dancer in the Free People ad. either, who was probably just trying to earn a salary, although I do have plenty to say to the people who wrote the storyboard pitching her as a professional, rather than an enthusiastic hobbyist.

But dear TV, and dear Jimmy Kimmel. Do better. Don’t treat any kind of dance as something you can use for a cheap gag, or a poetic moment, or a background shot without being prepared to actually respect what it is we do. Respect that people might want to get something from the dance as well as watching you laze around failing at it. Work a bit harder, and if you don’t know how to do that? Ask a dancer.

Shaking the Dancer’s Toolkit

At the Athens is Dancing CORD conference I watched a presentation by Julia Gleich on her Counterpointe project – a series of performance platforms in London and New York for female choreographers making work on pointe. It attracts a delightfully mixed bag: experienced dancers, new choreographers, medium-mixers and bunheads. It also attracts questions: why ARE so few women making work on pointe? What does pointe work mean anyway? And, deliciously, from an attendee who shall remain nameless unless they tell me otherwise: “Why can’t we just scrap the whole “classical” term, just call it ballet and be done with it?” …I had a lot of fun at CORD.

But what DOES pointe work mean anyway? Pain? Sylph-hood? The female, the fragile, the unobtainable? I KNOW that we’ve got past that place… but just in case you haven’t…

There is no good reason for pointe work to hurt if you’re doing it right. With the shoes they make now and the options for padding, combined with a sensible rehearsal schedule your feet should be just fine. If you are dancing all day every day, no matter what kind of dance you’re doing, you’ll acquire foot injuries: blisters, floor burn, ripping off callous… and that’s just for those who dance barefoot! It’s a matter of good technique and sensible protection.


If you’ve been through a dance degree, and maybe even if you haven’t, you’ve heard about ballet being a thing that women do for the eyes of men. “The Dancer’s Phallic Pointe” is a real article, which probably needed writing, but we have guys on pointe now. We have ballets about more than girl-meets-boy-meets-god/fate/magic/wizard/chickens. We have this, and much more like it.

Ok. Back to the question. What does pointe work mean?

Gleich suggested that we look at the pointe shoe as just a tool – a way of altering the gravitational/frictional relationship of the body to the floor – and this, finally, is where I come to my point(e). The pointe shoe is one fundamental tool of the art form known as dance, just as the caribina is ONE fundamental tool of the art form known as climbing. There are plenty of people who climb without caribinas, and you would look pretty silly if you walked up to a wall with only a caribina as your kit, but if you were putting together a toolbox for the concept of climbing you would expect to see on in there somewhere.

But if the pointe shoe is a tool of dance, specifically associated with ballet, what are the tools specifically associated with postmodern dance? We don’t have fancy shoes or clothes, we don’t have a technique that unites us, or necessarily a technique at all. If you were doing one of those children’s’ puzzles where you match tools to professionals you’d give the doctor a scalpel, the builder a digger, the magician a top hat… and then you’d have to take them back and put all of them, or none of them, on the contemporary dancer.

So my suggestion… the tool of postmodern dance is philosophy. Like the pointe shoe, it is both openly present and subconsciously feeding the art we make. Like the pointe shoe, philosophy changes the relationship of our bodies to the world. Like the pointe shoe, it can blur the edges of what we know to be real.

But also, like the pointe shoe, it can get tired, trite, repetitive. Like the pointe shoe it can lead to doing the same thing over and over, or falling into a habit that becomes a norm that becomes a power structure. Barefoot Martha Graham was rejected as graceless, and now postmodern dance without philosophical content (I put socio-political content under this label as philosophically derived) is citicised as bland and superficial.

Yes, yes, I hear you. All dance has philosophical content because all dance stems from some kind of belief or philosophy about what that dance should look like and how meaning can be represented. You’re very clever. But I’m talking about named philosophers, their tenets passed down from teacher to student until they’re distorted by time and tradition. We don’t remember that pointe work used to be a burlesque act on the seedy stages of Paris because we’ve been told for so long that it’s for white swans and princesses. We don’t remember that contact improvisation grew from the crash and fall of aikido because we’re too busy enjoying the slow smoosh of breathing bodies. And there’s nothing wrong with swans or smoosh. But it confuses the product of the tool with the tool itself, the planks with the saw, the program with the computer.

So we need to be careful. We need to create a counter-point. We need to see where else our tools can take us, otherwise we’ll end up skipping off merrily down a one-way street into the sunset, with Foucault on one foot and Derrida on the other, dragging us down.

This is what a dancer looks like… Why not a ballerina?

There was a bit of a furore in the UK press this week: a young girl named Pollyanna was entered into her ISTD ballet exam, and came out with a Pass. Her parents were disappointed because the rest of the class had achieved Merits and Distinctions… but then the rest of the class weren’t dancing on an artificial leg. Parents Sarah and Christopher had asked the ISTD in advance to make “reasonable adjustments,” and felt that they’d been let down, and they had… but not by the examiner.

The comments on the article in The Telegraph ranged from the deeply empathetic to the misunderstanding to the deliberately spiteful. Most focussed on the politics of disability: accessible spaces, adjusted grading, giving everyone a chance… or not as the case may be. A couple of people even went so far as to say that ballet is a particular thing and that particular thing was unobtainable by a disabled body. So first of all, let’s clean that up before it goes any further, and then we’ll look at what the main problem was with Pollyanna’s ballet exam.

No-one’s sure what ballet is. Literally.

I have recently returned from a conference of the world’s top dance scholars, and we had arguments and debates and history and culture and FAR too much coffee and all along we KNEW that we don’t know what ballet “is.” We know the history of ballet (although most people get it wrong), and we know that ballet has some no-good-very-bad problems with imposing an aesthetic standard on the body and what beauty looks like. We also know that there’s a large number of people doing a kind of ballet that’s not tied to a stereotypical body, to narrative, to “classical” music or to a set vocabulary of steps. To give an example, Irreverent Dance, a queer, a-typical-bodied dance studio has just found the funds for a permanent space to teach ballet classes (and other things). So there is ballet out there that doesn’t give a toss what people THINK that ballet is, ok? Get thee to google.

Moving on.

I’m going to make the assumption that at least some of the people reading this blog have never taken a UK-style syllabus-based ballet exam, or even know what one is, and explain first of all what it was that Pollyanna walked into. While some studios offer independent, free-form dance classes by age group, where material might change from week to week or show to show, with children progressing by age/experience/ability, the majority of teachers follow a syllabus of graded examinations. The major boards in the UK are the RAD (Royal Academy of Dance) and ISTD (International Society of Teachers of Dance), and let me tell you now that I’ve taken an awful lot of exams in both.

To take these exams, you go into a room in a group of about four (ish, less-so at the higher grades etc.), without your teacher, and perform a series of set exercises. You are marked on how well you do the exercises: technique, performance, general presentation and accuracy. You get marks for politeness, for curtseying at the right time and for having your ribbons done up right, “A polite and well-groomed candidate” was a standard phrase on the reports of my childhood. But back to those exercises.

You have to get them right.

You have to do the right steps in the right order at the right time to the specified music, which means that what teachers usually do is teach only those exercises, particularly in the run up to exams. This is at the heart of why the ISTD didn’t make adjustments for Pollyanna: their whole grading system is based on the performance of a set of exercises, from which any deviation results in a decrease in marks. When your leg is “frozen” (her father’s words) and you cannot do certain things involved in your exercises, the most suitable accommodation to make is to change the exercise in order to demonstrate your technical understanding and performance quality another way. But THAT’S the accommodation that the ISTD just doesn’t make.

This is the heart of what’s wrong with syllabus training overall: it promotes one very particular way of stringing together steps, the technique necessary to perform those steps in that order, and very little understanding of the variability inherent in ballet and performance. Over history, time and place the performance of ballet and the ideals of technique have changed according to bodies and fashion. Individuals have danced a revolution in what it means to perform ballet, driving forward the possibilities for what we can do and how we can put it on stage. Syllabus training does not truly accommodate the fact that everyone’s body does ballet differently, whether they have a disability or not, and as such often produces dancers who cannot adapt to the fluidity and choice-making needed to succeed in the professional dance world.

America is another story. In the USA, syllabus training is only just beginning to get a foothold, thanks to lobbying from the School of American Ballet and the creation of their own training syllabus. Ballet in America is driven by choreography and performance, by mastery of the skills required by a piece, rather than the checklist of steps and sequences needed to pass an exam. This approach produces very different dancers – of course with their own habits and issues, but with an attitude as well as a physicality that’s worlds away from the syllabus based model.

I wholeheartedly urge parents looking for an accessible ballet class to find someone giving a class that your child wants to take, and which puts no limits on their possibility for achievement. There is someone out there who will choreograph classwork based on your child’s physical capabilities; who will structure their training to enable them to learn, and provide standards of assessment that facilitate their need for evaluation and progression. What’s more, they’ll be engaged and enthusiastic about making that happen and be passionate that what you’re doing is really, ballet, yes really. Don’t let anyone tell you what ballet “is,” go out and find the ballet that’s right for you. I hate to share a soppy video, but sometimes that means having to go out and demand it.

That sounds like I think Pollyanna’s parents were lazy, or have an obligation to do the work, I really, really don’t. I think the teacher should have explained the exam system, and how their daughter would be graded before they decided to subject her to that system. I think the ISTD should be transparent about the fact that they will only make certain kinds of adaptations. I think the dance community should be pro-active about directing potential students to a class that will keep them dancing, even if it means giving up on some class fees. I’d like a moment here to point out the incredible work of Cando 2, and others working to provide exceptional training to young dancers with disabilities but also to ask why the ballet world hasn’t really stepped up to the plate in that regard to provide sustained, accessible training for children and young people at both a hobby and pre-vocational level. Come to think of it, let’s get more ballet classes available low-cost and for free, so that we can get over that nasty class barrier while we’re at it, and don’t get me STARTED on the whole racial divide thing…

I’m a ballet-lover, in case you couldn’t tell. I’ve also spent nearly a decade working with children with various disabilities. I see absolutely no reason that Pollyanna should have felt forced to stop doing the ballet that she loved, and I’m saddened she felt that there was no space for her in the major balletic institutions of the UK. No space for people with disabilities is a common problem, and one that’s only going to get worse if current austerity measures go ahead. With such a powerful media platform at his disposal, I URGE Christopher Hope to keep demanding that space, and those fundamental human rights that are being persistently removed and denied. I also urge the dance world to work a little harder at making that space for the next generation of artists, and to think long and hard about what dance class ought to be for.

A Dance By Any Other Name… The Multiple Modernisms of George Balanchine

I never knew that being a dance PhD had so much to do with picking the right labels: are you doing dance research or dance studies? Gender theory or queer theory? Post-colonial or pop culture? Throw out any kind of equality-minded project and someone will call it feminist – because intersectionality, and of course you could just throw in the towel and say it’s all post-structuralism, but somehow that just feels like cheating, and what does post-structuralism even mean anyway?

Dance has a serious label problem.

Not, of course that I don’t understand the purpose of these labels in general. Citing yourself in relationship to the field? Great. Contextualising your work in relationship to previous scholarship? Fabulous. Having to spend the first chunk of your article slotting yourself in amidst the labels and explaining exactly how it is you’re defining both the label and your field in general? ….I’m working on it, I promise, I promise.

Why am I starting this debate when I promised you I was writing about Balanchine? You came here for the ballet, right? The wondrous legs, the fabulous choreography! Well you can have it!

But first you have to put a label on Balanchine.

Was he a classicist? A modernist? A romantic? How about the patriarchy incarnate? A man who had a post-colonial project before the term was even floated?

For the last few years I’ve lectured at the TrinityLaban Conservatoire on Modernism. We look at (among others) Baudelaire, Woolf, Mondrian, Manet and Greenberg. Then I ask my poor students to name for me a modern choreographer. Some name Graham, some Cunningham. I offer a counter-argument.

They say “But FFEEENNN, what IS modernism???” And I reply “….exactly my point.” There was an identifiable modernist project, but then there were also several. Medium specificity, expressionism, a reaction to industrialisation, a search for the “really real,” to name just a few.

As a regular visitor and sometime contributor to the feminist blogosphere, I am familiar with the exhortation to NAME YOUR FEMINISM. I posit that Balanchine was a modernist choreographer, who gleefully and delightedly refused to name his modernism – and made his his success the greater for choosing not to do so.


Look at the final, Choleric, movement of The Four Temperaments, and you will see a laughing commentary on classical, Petipa-esque convention.


Look at the second section of Liebeslieder Waltzer and you’ll find a heart-achingly beautiful portrayal of the social dancing soul.


Shades of Ausdruckstanz writhe in the Siren’s dance of The Prodigal Son.



From using his ballet company to reflect the jazz beat of the new New York City, his coolly, intellectual restructuring of the danse d’ecole to the mystery of the final exit of Serenade, Balanchine embraces all the modernisms, and none of them. He took the pulse of his time and made dance, without doing us the courtesy of letting us know what kind or why – unless the dance itself is the message, and why-ever should it not be? He was a choreographer first after all. Perhaps what I like best is that his commentary isn’t spiteful: he cites a huge range of influences from both popular and social dance, and – as far as I can tell – his reason for citation is: “isn’t this cool!” He puts a Sleeping Beauty reference and a Charleston right next to each other, in an Ancient Greek narrative, sandwiching a transition that is absolutely his own… and it works! He builds a bricolage of..

Oh no… bricolage… doesn’t that make him…. POST-STRUCTURALIST!!!

Ok, wait, back track and bear with me a minute, I promise that my point is coming. Balanchine cited himself in relationship to the world of dance. He contextualised himself in relationship to the culture, art and social thinking of his time. What he didn’t do was attach himself to a particular theoretical or political project. His agenda was first and foremost to make dances, and comment on the field second, if at all. He didn’t have a label problem, and I’m not sure I’m motivated to make one for him now.

What does the dance tell you? What do you see? What does it make you think of?

How much story you want?

Friends at the Theatre

Today I read Balanchine in the New York public library. Balanchine both personal and professional – the choreographer and dancer, the man and the lover.

Being somewhat familiar with the material (set texts for the next semester), I didn’t try to go in chronological order – I simply worked m way alphabetically down the list: from Acocella to Gottlieb, taking notes as I went. I took a break to grab a bagel. Before I knew it, hours had slipped by – I could happily have stayed for more.

I read about his material and his teaching style, recognizing fragments from my own classes. I learned that he shared tender evenings with a young Suzanne Farrell in an inn, and later a 24 hour Dunkin’ Doughnuts, only a few blocks from where I’m currently staying. I made a mental note to try and find them on my way home.

First though, the library was showing Cover Girl, a classic film from the 1940’s with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. Too much to hope for, I guess, that they’d be showing one with Balanchine’s choreography, although I did note some of his collaborators in the credits. Since this was a free screening on a Sunday, the room slowly began to populate with individuals somewhat older than myself.

The first friend I spotted was, unsurprisingly, Martha Graham, white hair in a bun, perching a few rows behind me. A wispy John Cage sat at my left shoulder, telling jokes through the opening credits; Maria Tallchief made elegant gestures from the front row as she conversed with a companion whose face I couldn’t see.

Mr. B. arrived just as the film was about to start, slipping through the door and taking a seat far right, missing nothing over his hawk-like nose. Merce Cunningham was conspicuous by his absence, although perhaps he could have been in the back – I don’t suppose it would have mattered to him.

The credits rolled.

For me New York is always the home of dance. This may well be a betrayal of both my geographic and pedagogic origins, but I am long since past caring – I’m a modern baby. The inn and the Dunkin’ Doughnuts have sadly gone, but the city, especially at Christmas, still reminds me why I love what I love, and chose to do what I do.

From Broadway, Manhattan, happy 2015.