Katharine Morales

Erratic Thoughts on an Art Form Nobody Cares About Unless Natalie Portman is Making Out With a Girl

We’re dancers. We don’t sit still. We do the splits. We fall down a lot, so we learn to catch each other. We spend hours redefining the limits of physical impossibility, and we rarely know if we’ll make it out alive. Somehow we always do, whether or not our lumbar spine survives.

Our lives are inextricably linked to the music that drives us. Music and dance, dance and music, there never was a more perfectly natural, entangled pair. They’re like a pedicure and peep-toe pumps; the sperm and the egg, the yin and the yang, dawn and dusk, Anakin and Luke. You need both. And when I say you, I mean you. Dance fuels music more than most people would care to admit or investigate. Trust me. Oh, you want proof? In venues across America, the pay scale for live musicians works like this: they are handed a number of dollars related directly to the number of booties shaking in the audience.

I suppose we try as a group to undo the world’s dismissive attitude towards us. The physical and emotional toll on a dancer is unquantifiable, while the paycheck will never put our kids through college unless they’re shooting for a JC. At the end of our careers we could probably count our number of paying jobs on our hands. And I’m being generous in changing that from hand to hands.

So maybe we are as stupid as they say. To be clear, “they” are not just haters and naysayers, because dance hasn’t yet earned that level of recognition. See, you have to do something people notice to get them to hate you, and this world continues to content itself with the yawning masses, condemning the public for remaining ignorant while refusing to engage them in a meaningful way. So dance in this country is taking the same route as the wife who complains the magic has gone out of her marriage while she’s the one who refuses to wear mascara or a bra or sleep with her husband ever again.

About 50 years ago (around the time that ^ couple met and their sex was fantastic) concert dance adopted what was then a brand new aesthetic. They called it postmodernism. That’s what everyone else in America was dubbing the direction of literature and paintings in the middle of the 20th century, and the dance world is eager for any vocabulary which might legitimize the practice. Now that we are in a brand new decade of a brand new century, now that a new generation of hyperactive artists with overactive imaginations are finding themselves with college degrees in hand, now that we are ready, or at least claiming to be, to work, we are ready to kill a few things. For our convenience and survival, I’ve compiled a list for all aspiring dance artists to take into serious consideration upon entering the force – the fierce force.

Things That Should Have Died When the 1990’s Did:

  1. Postmodernism (By attempting “high” art, postmodern choreographers removed the dynamic physicality, the fiery musical relationship, the whimsy, and essentially the fun from the art form by making ironic statements that nobody is meant to get. You know how laymen go to the Museum of Modern Art and dismiss Cy Twombly’s work with the always appreciated scoff, “My 5 year old could do that!” or dismiss Heidegger by saying, “Huh?” and closing the book? While I would never suggest that any person or group should dumb itself down for the sake of the dumber, I do contend that pretension has done more to harm dance than any other practice. Why distance our work from the humanity available in what should be the most humanly accessible of all art forms?)
  2. Starving ourselves (This is an old school look, a tired theory, and an ultimately damaging perception. It is demoralizing enough for us to stare into a mirror all day, striving for aesthetic perfection without our bosses hinting, nay, demanding that we drop a pant size. The only people who still place value onto this standard are now old. All we have to do to change this dangerous and pointless ideal is to say no thanks, I’m eating today – maybe even 3 times – and wait for them to die.)
  3. Horton technique (Lester Horton, why did you hate dancers? It’s all the pain of a decades-long dance career in your knees and lower back in one hour long class. Any strength you gain from its insanely strenuous exercises can be achieved through ballet, with the added bonus of retaining the cartilage cushioning your kneecaps for at least a couple more years. The only people who can execute this movement with any aptitude are the superhumans from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, and that’s only because they don’t feel pain and can fly to the moon in a single bound.)
  4. Pointe shoes (Barbaric? yes. Unnecessary? of course. Inherently sexist? absolutely. Pointe shoes weren’t even invented until the 19th century, and it was only so Romantic era choreographers like Michel Fokine could make up a lot of dances about fairies and swans. People -read: male choreographers and dance critics- thought it was nice watching feeble women teeter-totter about on their tippy toes, but now that professional ballet dancers are more Herculean than they are impish, we should let pointe shoes go the way of the corset. Pull them out for a special occasion throwback, but don’t break your bones getting into them!)
  5. Competition dance (Dance is not a sport. Sports are sports, and they have a way of shaping children into athletically deft beasts in a much less horribly offensive, mentally scarring way. Competition dance coaches are evil Trunchbulls, frightening the children into never stumbling lest they be beaten and shamed. Meanwhile, mothers unleash their 8 year old daughters out on stage to prance around to Katy Perry’s “Peacock” dressed in costumes that are excessively rhinestoned bikinis and could have saved a lot of money if they’d just named their girls Candy and Stella and showed them how to use a webcam. Actually, they probably could have made money.)

As tiny and tightly knit as the dance community is, this list, when released into the wild, could invite more backlash than support. As a community, we remain rather divided in our ideals, although our experiences in training for a career are strikingly similar. Division in ideals I will accept. What I cannot comprehend are those without a stance. This willingness to stand is a distinguishing feature in the dance world, perhaps simply, and sadly, because it is one that often goes without value.

There is ample conversation in the dance community about proper stance. In particular, the beastly 5th position and more recently, a wide parallel 2nd, come into focus anywhere between all of the time and constantly. The line of energy from heels to ass, where the weight falls into the feet, the location of the spine on top of the legs, and the proper use of rotators, abdominals and other hard to find muscles are dissected thoroughly in order to maintain a suitable alignment. All this talk is rendered superficial upon the realization that for all of a dancer’s deliberate, exacting physical instruction, there is little new ground on which one can seriously stand. It is a technique built on tradition, and while this is not a unique quality, it is unexpected given dance’s recent entry into the territory of the arts. For a field that is so brand new, why don’t more dance artists make it their mission to continue to strive for newness?

There is no other technique known to man that forces one to partake in as many codified exercises. Please understand this does not mean other disciplined artists don’t practice. I would never say that (out loud.) It simply means whoever oversees the artistic growth of a musician/sculptor/animator trusts one to practice. Between ballet exercises, barre exercises, Horton exercises, Graham exercises, exercises in falling, exercises in getting back up, exercises in using the feet, small jumping exercises, big jumping exercises, choreography exercises, improvisation exercises, contact improvisation exercises, abdominal exercises, all explained in the minutest detail by an instructor who expects a flawless execution the 1st time as much as the 1000th time, there is little opportunity to check in and see how we handle falling down for real. Can we get back up?

The problem could very well lay in the mode of instruction to which we have become accustomed. So accustomed in fact, that a better word may be imprisoned. There is an underrated level of bravado required to see something once and say, “I can do that,” and a shocking level of intelligence required to then do it. What is lacking then, is certainly not ability, and it doesn’t seem like confidence. Yet there still remains the burden of an inferiority complex that convinces a dancer who ought to be a qualified expert to continue to pay for a class she could herself teach. There is a madness in settling for auditions and workshops, hoping to get noticed by somebody who can give her a job. For all of a dancer’s willingness to try anything once, it seems that revolutionizing, or at least tackling, our professional world should not be so daunting.

We are cursed by being so uncommonly adept at taking instruction. We are soldiers. Screw the adage, “I say jump, you say ‘How high?’” because we don’t even bother to ask silly questions. To jump means to go as high as I can, every time. There is a beauty to that commitment and a shame that we are not more selfish with it. The dolphins at Sea World do fabulously impossible things for the reward of applause, praise and treats, after all. Is this perhaps why the art world, the entertainment world, shit, the world won’t take us seriously? There is no more highly valued American tenet than being a self-starter, but for all the impressive traits a dancer emulates, this sentiment goes wildly undervalued.

What is required of us to undo such a destructive trend? [It pains me to say] I’m not sure. But I have ideas, which is definitely a start. Firstly, there is no reason why we should not be producing our own work and the work of our promising peers. I can’t imagine a painter who would sit in front of a blank canvas, brushes and pigments at the ready with a really great idea in his head, waiting for a phone call from a director letting him know it’s O.K. to start that next project. Musicians can record entire albums in a room with a shut-tight door and some ¼ inch cables, and there are writers writing right now without the comforting promise of a publisher. The only opportunities available are the ones we create for ourselves, and it is actually a simple (not easy!) process. Dance is inherently the most social of all the arts, and one can only enter into a studio feeling one of two ways. He can look around at all the like-minded, similarly aged dancers and embrace them as peers and contemporaries, or as competition to be squashed and outshined. The latter is unfortunately the norm, as dance teachers will constantly remind their students to treat every class like an audition. Let’s take that challenge, and use every dance class to audition each other.

Every dancer knows a ton of people who dance. It’s impossible not to, unless maybe you’re deaf, dumb, and blind and don’t notice all those people training in the room with you, in which case, the fact that you are a dancer makes you a modern miracle and you’re probably already famous. A lot of these dancers we know are usually pretty awesome at it. My question is now this: why are we paying for the classes we could ourselves teach? What if we gathered all our dance friends and had a big series of trust falls that entailed allowing our own peers to lead us in training? At the very least, our bodies would remain in enviable shape and class would not cost $18 an hour. I’m getting heated, I’m having to stop myself from cussing a lot, but I cannot be the only one who thinks it’s an absolute sin and a scam to have convinced generations of people who have chosen a career that will never make them any money that they should pay a dinner and drinks at the Cheesecake Factory’s worth for a class in something they’ve been studying their whole lives.

Dance co-operatives. It sounds like the stuff of dreams, right up there with health care for all and a black president. But we can have these things! After all the time we spend playing contact improv games with our eyes closed, we should be able to trust each other to enrich our professional lives, to fulfill lifelong goals, without the thumbs up and the blessing from a director whose only concern is filling houses. We, the young dance artists of America, are deliciously free from that responsibility. We have no responsibility! Nobody expects us to make any money, we have absolutely no audience and nobody cares what we do at all – except us. We don’t have to produce a Nutcracker every season to maintain funding, we don’t have to end every show with Revelations. We just have to show up, care deeply for our art and for each other, and beyond that, fuck it.

We got this.

This essay is an opinion about the future of concert dance in the United States. It was written by a dancer and choreographer who was disturbed by an apparent lack of interest in the art form, that is, until she percieved that this stems from the dance world’s resistance to making itself accessible. This article makes a point not to diminish the kinetic energy of the art, but to translate it to the page without any preciousness and perhaps only a slight bias. The author’s hope is that dancing and non-dancing readers can find something to discuss here.

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