The Rise of Popular Ballet

Dance in media

By Natalie Tsay

Patrick McDonald

Ballet has always had a very specific reputation: fruity, prissy, proper, stiff—many other adjectives that, frankly, don’t even begin to take into account the incredible scope of the whole art form called ballet. It is not all smiles and tutus. It is blisters, sweat, and strength. It is mind-numbing dedication. It is grace under pressure. It is unlike any sport or art, and the world is finally starting to pick up on that.

Years ago, ballet hardly got any attention in the media. Though there were a few select movies about ballet (good ones, that is), a non-dancer had almost zero chance of running into an image of a ballet dancer on TV or in the movie theatre. Aside from the typical nod to ballet, usually consisting of what I’d call a cringe-inducing, laughably poor imitation of dancing, ballet had no presence in the real world whatsoever.

However, that all started to change with the startling success of the 2010 film, Black Swan. The dark, psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman undoubtedly put ballet in the spotlight, especially because her dance double was Sarah Lane, a member of one of the most prestigious companies in the country: American Ballet Theatre. Representation for ballet dancers wasn’t the only thing the movie accomplished—it also revealed a different side of dancing. Black Swan showed the public that ballet could be sensual, powerful, and scarily intense.

Following Black Swan’s success, a series on the CW, Breaking Pointe, and a film featured at Sundance called First Position gained wide popularity inside and outside the dance world. Breaking Pointe followed dancers in the Utah-based company Ballet West, and ran for two seasons in 2012 and 2013. From a dance perspective, it was met with both enthusiasm and mild disappointment. On one hand, finally! A series about dance that features good, real dancing! Hallelujah! On the other hand, it tended to focus on relationship drama, leaving us dancers wanting more “action” sequences. Breaking Pointe was more successful with dancers than non-dancers according to reviewers, and it presented the darker side of ballet by showing the sheer amount of work and commitment a dancer’s career demands.

The film, First Position, is a documentary about the Youth America Grand Prix, a major international ballet and contemporary competition based in New York City that advertises itself as “the world’s largest global network of dance.” First Position features six young dancers preparing to compete in the final round of YAGP. The film was later released in select theatres, and while I can’t say how many non-dancers have seen it, I can tell you that almost every serious ballet dancer out there has. I can also tell you, having participated in the 2013 final round of the competition firsthand, that the movie did an excellent job of capturing the spirit of the months of preparation leading up to the event. First Position gave a firsthand look at a young dancer’s life: a life filled with ballet and not much else. It showed audiences just how hard it is, specifically for ballet dancers, to willingly surrender oneself to an art that can totally break you physically, mentally, and emotionally, all for a dream that ultimately might not pan out.

“The world is finally starting to catch on—ballet is so much more than tutus and toe shoes.”

Ballet’s newfound media presence didn’t stop at TV and film. In recent years, major companies have increasingly embraced using the many dimensions of ballet to create novel advertisements. Though it was truly abominable in every way, Free People’s commercial featuring a “ballet dancer” demonstrates ballet’s new mainstream status. I use quotation marks because it is clear they didn’t bother to hire a real dancer—the young woman could have snapped her ankles in the pointe shoes they put her in, and her dancing was nothing but a poor imitation of ballet. The company’s blatant choice not to hire one of the many dancers looking for work garnered a huge wave of dancer outrage, causing the company to yank the ad.

Though you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together, Under Armour pulled off an excellent advertisement using ballet. Their commercial featured Misty Copeland, an American Ballet Theatre dancer praised for her incredible combination of grace and strength. She is known for being the first African-American soloist with the company in the past 20 years. The minute-long commercial featured shots of Copeland’s incredibly toned legs, high extensions, tight turns, and explosive jumps, while a recording of her reading a rejection letter from a training institution played in the background, listing all of her physical flaws. Though short, this campaign, titled “I Will What I Want,” was incredibly moving and serves yet again to prove to the public that ballet is not for the weak.

One last example of ballet’s new visibility in the public eye was the viral video for Hozier’s “Take Me To Church,” starring dancer Sergei Polunin. It racked up 7 million hits in just a few weeks and was shared by sources such as the Huffington Post, Today, and US Magazine under sensational headlines. The primary reason for this video’s massive success is that Polunin breaks the ballet stereotype. He dances, tattooed and shirtless, to the dynamic song, showing off his athleticism, flexibility, and power, and proving that ballet has a sensual, gritty side.

The world is finally starting to catch on—ballet is so much more than tutus and toe shoes. Classical ballet is upright, poised, and controlled, but that doesn’t mean it’s stuffy and confined solely to that. Its recent spike in popularity indicates that people are finally becoming interested in what ballet can really be.

So, is this a good thing? The obvious answer would be yes. Isn’t it great that people are starting to give ballet the credit that it so rightly deserves? Isn’t it fabulous that ballet dancers are being legitimized and lauded? Isn’t it cool that a young dancer can finally watch TV shows and movies about good dancers? If my friends’ opinions represent others in the dance community, then maybe not. Sure, it’s nice that people are taking ballet seriously—or at least more seriously than they did before. But at the same time, it’s like some secret has been spoiled. The dance world has always been mysterious to outsiders, and with all of the attention that ballet’s been getting lately, it feels like dance has been infiltrated by unwelcome guests.

There is some hesitation from within the dance community about the rise of popular ballet, but I’d say that on the whole, it’s a welcome change. Even if non-dancers are no more knowledgeable about ballet now versus a decade ago, at least it’s more likely that they’ve seen it cast in a different, truer light. For people to understand what ballet is really about, we need TV shows, movies, and advertisements that depict it as more than just prim and proper. We need media that displays it in all its sweaty, powerful glory to show everyone what it’s really like to be a ballet dancer.

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