The Dance Book Saving Ballet From Itself: A Reckoning With One of Our Most Beloved Art Forms
This article is also available in 영어
This article is also available in 영어
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If there was ever a book I needed when I was a young dancer, it was Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal.
Addressing complex issues like gender, racial, and class inequality, the book reckons with many of the significant issues that dancers grapple with today. Because discrimination finds fertile ground within the rigid constructs of ballet, the artform has grown increasingly out of step with the modern world. While Angyal never became a professional dancer, like many young girls, dance– particularly ballet– was a huge part of her upbringing. As a journalist today, Angyal uses her political, cultural and media expertise to confront the well-known negativity within ballet.
Because I believe this is a book every dancer should read, I wanted this to be the first book I share with the dance book community. From ages 6-18, I almost exclusively trained in classical ballet. I’m thankful and privileged to have ballet in my life, but I won’t pretend that it hasn’t invited some unwanted beliefs, behaviors, and experiences into my life that overshadowed the joy of dancing. Below are my biggest takeaways from Turning Pointe. As you read, I hope your love for ballet is reignited and realigned.
After graduating in 2018, I moved to New York City. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I only had about a year and a half to pursue my professional dance career before the pandemic would begin and stop my world. As Angyl highlights in her book, this was the case for many other dancers. In this book, she follows up with choreographer Katy Pyle of Ballez, who was preparing for their rendition of the Romantic ballet Giselle. While preparing for their show in 2019, though, the entire industry shut down. Nonetheless, dancers are adaptable–so, Pyle moved rehearsals to Zoom, then when it was safe to do so, moved rehearsals outside. But sooner or later, lack of revenue led to pausing the work, as Pyle was unable to pay their dancers for their work. Many artists have suffered a similar fate, and still haven’t fully recovered from the economic impact of the pandemic. However, instead of highlighting the tragedy of the global pandemic, Angyal exemplifies how resilient and adaptable dancers are. In many ways, this perspective can bring hope for ballet’s future, and for the dance world as a whole.
With opportunities slipping away left and right, I spent so much time in my New York City apartment wondering how I would keep pursuing a career in dance. Over time, I lost interest in trying to take class in my living room every day on an unsprung floor with limited space. This time really made me reevaluate my relationship with dance and rediscover other interests that bring me joy, like taking walks in my nearby park, acting classes, and cooking. Now, I’ve realized that I don’t have to feel guilty when taking time away from dance; that having additional interests ultimately brings forth more inspiration for art; that taking time to rest prevents burnout. Turning Pointe reminded me that dancers are adaptable and multidimensional, and it made me reconsider my own resilience.
If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t have danced. When I was 3, she signed me up for my first ballet and tap classes. She drove me to all of my classes and rehearsals before I learned how to drive. She pinned my gigantic mass of hair into a ballet bun before I learned how to do it myself. She paid attention to the details and sacrificed her schedule so that I could go to dance classes and have an end-of-year performance like she dreamed of when she was a little girl. Growing up, the lobby at my small-town ballet school was always filled with moms. At every end-of-year performance, the backstage and running of the show was powered by moms dedicating their time to ensure the sparkles of their little girls on stage.
Angyal touches on the financial and time-consuming hardships that often come with letting your child dance. It isn’t just the classes that add up over time, but the cost of attire, leotards, tights, ballet slippers. Then, if your child progresses to dancing en pointe, there is another frequently added cost. If your child does competitions like Youth America Grand Prix, then there are costs for new costumes, choreography, coaching, and travel. When you consider how demanding the artform is financially and how it demands free labor from our mothers, then the class divide within ballet becomes obvious. In this artform, you can only succeed if you have quite a lot of money and if you have a stable home life that can support your sparkle.
As an adult, I am so thankful for my mother, while simultaneously recognizing that others do not come from the same background. Turning Pointe argues brings the inaccessibility of ballet to light, and what we can do to fix it.
In order to remain relevant, we all know that ballet must change. Angyal suggests inviting change through choreography. In a female dominated field, the majority of celebrated choreographers are men. The majority of them are also white. For dance and ballet to move forward in our time, they must represent their industry accurately and inclusively, instead of reverting back to 18th century ideas about gender, sexuality and race.
This means encouraging and seeking out choreography from women and POC for regular programming. Simply casting women or POC can become tokenizing rather than inclusive–and organizing all-female or POC choreographed programs only goes so far–especially when the ballet company goes back to performing works by Marius Petipa and George Balanchine the next week. Across the world, there are many works still performed that include racist and sexist tropes that keep ballet frozen in time. Turning Pointe argues that we must be choreographing for our time and for justice–not just reperforming archaic works. The future of ballet cannot only be about preserving its history, but making it a living, breathing artform that reflects the world that we want to live in.
In addition to pointing out male dominated choreography, Angyal also highlights male power dynamics in the dance studio and company settings. In an industry that is female-dominated by a large percentage, most of the positions of power, including artistic directors, choreographers, and board members are held by men. Naturally, this can become a breeding ground for sexual harassment and assault. Angyal touches on the recent scandals involving prominent men in major ballet companies, and how cyclical the abuse is. Because these men are still revered, it’s difficult for victims to come forth about abuse without fear of retribution, which in turn allows the abuse to continue.
Angyal also touches on ballet’s gray areas where mistreatment, physical and emotional cruelty are excused as “weird but normal” occurrences. A teacher or director who humiliates students in front of classmates or roughly “corrects” students’ bodies is labeled as a “tough” or “strict” teacher in the dance industry–but in any other healthy industry, that same behavior is labeled as abuse. Turning Pointe distinguishes the difference between a teacher who is “tough” or “strict” and a teacher who is exploitative and abusive. Consequently, I encourage anybody who has experienced this level of trauma to be wary of their triggers while reading this book. At the same time, I really commend Angyal for including these topics in her book. By doing so, she is furthering a culture of accountability that is desperately needed in ballet and dance as a whole.
I grew up in a small town that was predominantly white, and most students in my class were also white girls. Admittedly, I didn’t have to think about how racism affected ballet growing up because I had the privilege of never experiencing it. Now having grown up and experienced life outside of a small town, I am more aware of racism’s existence in my life–though it may not be pointed at me.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a student of color in an artform that historically and presently values whiteness. I have never had to scrounge for the correct shade of tights, leotards, and pointe shoes, but so many others do. I have never had anybody comment on the texture of my hair or the shape of my body, but so many others do. I have never had my culture or ethnicity embarrassingly interpreted or sexualized by a white person onstage, but again, so many others do. By giving voice to the lived experiences of POC and surveying systematic oppression within ballet’s history, this is another way that Angyal encourages accountability in ballet. If I had read a dance book like this as a young dancer, I could have been more actively anti-racist and given less reverence to dance that contributed to racism.
Growing up in a small rural town, my ballet classes almost always consisted of all girls. Every year for our annual performance, my studio would hire a prince to fill the hero role in whatever binary fairy tale we were reenacting that year. A guest dancer was the only way to fill the role, since no boys ever stayed long enough at our studio.
Most of my ballet and dance teachers, in general, have been women, and ballet class was where I became most aware of how to “act like a girl.” It was in the studio that I learned manners, etiquette, work ethics, and professionalism, but as I grew older and started dancing in classes with more boys present, I realized that there were different expectations for different genders. Angyal examines the perspective of both masculine and feminine presenting dancers in her book, and finds that both experience different challenges from the expectations placed on their bodies and identities in ballet class and in society.
This, however, does not give voice to trans or gender non-conforming identities. While I recgonize that I have privilege as a cis-gender women, I know that the artform is very harsh to those that don’t conform from not fitting the specific expectations for how a “ballet body” should look. My gender identity has never been questioned in dance class and in society, and I have always had role models to look up to. This is not the same for everyone.
The gender binary has traditionally been central to presentation in ballet, and the artform emphasizes outdated versions of hyperfemininity and hypermasculinity, refusing to acknowledge any other identity. As most dancers will also become teachers, these are important things to confront in order for students to feel safe and accepted in class. In both choreographic themes and in the classroom, ballet needs to become gender-inclusive. Many have no interest in an antiquated artform that doesn’t accurately represent the values and identities of its workers and the general population.
Throughout my dance upbringing, there seemed to be positive acknowledgment whenever dancers pushed through pain, fatigue, or illness for the sake of art. In the dance industry as a whole, there’s an ideology that you have to put up with extreme discomfort in order to be successful. I, and many others like me, internalized this idea, and I found myself hoping that teachers and choreographers would notice how much I’m willing to put up with. On the other hand, I thought if I decided to rest or call out sick, then I would be seen as weak and unable to handle being a dancer.
In reality, whenever I came into class sick, I was only exposing other dancers to illness. Whenever I continued to dance with an injury, I was only putting myself at risk for more damage. Of course, sometimes there are situations where there is simply no choice but to push through, but this should not be an everyday expectation. Even today, this is a core behavior that I am continuing to work on. My hope is that Turning Pointe, and books like it, will teach younger dancers how to recognize burnout behavior. Most importantly, I hope they learn that it’s okay to rest or step away from ballet for overall health and longevity.
In ballet, there is such an emphasis to preserve history and tradition. I am fascinated by dance history–I think knowing where we come from is important–but the point is to not repeat history that negatively impacts society. I want ballet’s future, and the future of all dance, to be colorful, inclusive, new, and accountable. I want to see myself in the future of ballet and I want others to see themselves. Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself by Chloe Angyal shows dancers how to collectively move forward with ballet in today’s dance world, while reminding us of the places we never want to go back to. If you’re looking to heal a damaged relationship with ballet and move forward in a new direction, give it a read!
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