… Or Are We Dancers?

Back to the question of dancer-identity, and that of choreographer-identity, this morning, even though half an hour ago I was standing in the kitchen sort of floating on the idea that all this wrangling for identity is a symptom and the disease is illusion; qv Everything the Buddha Ever Said, Ever, not to mention quite a bit of what other great spiritual figures have said.


I think a great deal of this rests upon the question of legitimacy.

Most cultures have quite a bit to say about which pursuits are and aren’t legit for adults within their purview. In the United States, ballet (and probably most or all other concert/theatrical danceforms, really) is in a weird grey zone.

It seems that it’s mostly regarded as totally legit (perhaps even intimidatingly awesome) if you’re a professional dancer or someone who otherwise makes money in the field of dance, or a university-level student or apprentice preparing to do so. Meanwhile, it’s significantly less legit but probably still within the unspoken Tolerance Specification if you’re an adult student who goes to class once a week for fun (ideally as a way to pass the time while your kid(s) is/are in their class).

However, if you’re you’re a wacko who eats, sleeps, lives, and breathes ballet (or another dance idiom) and doesn’t make money from it, you’re out there in cloud-cuckooland, far from the borders of legitimacy. In short, people generally don’t get it (and aren’t sure you actually have the right to do what you’re doing).

I think it’s that sense of perceived illigitimacy, maybe, that leads so many of us to question our right to call ourselves dancers.

After all, it’s a rare bird who questions the right of an adult amateur who likes to fish to call herself a fisherwoman or an angler; likewise, anyone who plays the piano can call himself a pianist without raising more than the occasional eyebrow. Ditto guitarists, singers, cyclists, runners, car enthusiasts, birders, gardeners, and (to a lesser extent) painters and writers (I think there’s a little more policing of these last two).

I think the difference lies in the fact that the above pursuits are Within Spec in our culture, while formal dance (excepting, possibly, ballroom*?) isn’t. If you schlep over to the town square and set up your easel, almost nobody thinks you’re out of line — even if you’re a terrible painter, really. If you break out your ballet moves in the town square, meanwhile, you’d better bring the skillz, or people will definitely tell you (in one way or another) that you shouldn’t be dancing in public**.

*You guys, why does SwiftKey think badigeon is a more likely choice here than ballroom? Seriously — or, as SwiftKey belittle helpfully suggests, serially, stylishly, or sorely.

**I just realized that there’s an identity-policing component here that’s not dissimilar from saying, “People your size shouldn’t wear leggings.” It’s that whole, “You should totally be you unless I find you unattractive, in which case you should either cover up or maybe just try being someone else” thing. Feh.

Basically, adult amateur dancers experience a strange kind of pressure from both sides: the dance world doesn’t always regard us as legit, and the broader culture thinks we’re cray.

And so legitimacy becomes immensely important to us (after all, we spend considerable amounts of time and sums of money on this thing of ours, and the broader culture really kind of demands that we justify that somehow), but we struggle to determine at which point we can legitimately call ourselves dancers in the context of the medium of concert/theatrical dance .

I am, frankly, all for the notion that if you dance, you’re a dancer.

I’m all for the idea that if you dance, and you feel a desire to or see an opportunity to create a performing group, doing so is a legitimate pursuit, and you don’t have to get permission from the Powers That Be even if you’re freaking awful at dance.

In fact, there’s probably a great deal to be said for dancing badly. When you do something badly, people think, “Huh, I could do that,” and maybe they give it a try, and maybe they discover a passion and buy season tickets to the local company that’s struggling to survive in an age that isn’t sure ballet (or whatevs) is even relevant anymore. Or maybe they just get a good chuckle.

Sure, haters gonna hate — but they’re already hating away at home, and they don’t get to tell us who to be.

Likewise gatekeepers gonna gate, but I’m pretty sure that, on the whole, innovation tends to spring from the ranks of the gate-crashers.

So go assemble your dance peeps and crash some gates.

And know that if you’re dancing, you’re a dancer***.

***Full disclosure: I know that this kind of thing is much easier for me to say and do as an educated white male from a privileged background who walks around in a body that largely matches conventional ideas of what a “dancer’s body” looks like. And I also totally get how ironic it is for me to give you permission to crash the gates, amiright? Like, here I am, unintentionally acting like a gatekeeper for gate-crashers.

This stuff is complicated, y’all.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2016/04/15, in balllet, life management, modern and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I completely agree with this except for this part:
    “It seems that it’s mostly regarded as totally legit (perhaps even intimidatingly awesome) if you’re a professional dancer or someone who otherwise makes money in the field of dance, or a university-level student or apprentice preparing to do so.”

    From my experience, not necessarily :-/

    • This is an interesting point — my social circle is tiny and seems to be comprised entirely of weird people, so my sample is likely very skewed.

      I would really like to hear more about your experiences — what kinds of reactions have you encountered? Do you run into that thing wherein people ask (directly or otherwise) when you’re going to get a “real” job, for example? (That one seems to plague writers frequently.) Have you noticed differences in different places, if you’ve lived in a few?

      • Yeah, the “real job” thing is a big one. Right now, I’m mostly experiencing in academic settings where there’s kind of an implicit hierarchy of majors based on perceived difficulty and projected income (lots of people here go into finance). There’s a bit of stigma attached to all arts and humanities majors, but dance usually ends up at the bottom of the pyramid in terms of prestige.

        Some other reactions I’ve gotten to telling people I’m a dance major:
        “Oh that’s so cute. Must be a good way to get exercise.”
        “So you get to dance all day? That must be fun!” (Not false, but people not recognizing professional dance as work turns pretty quickly into people thinking that dancers don’t need to be payed)
        “So basically majoring in unemployment.”
        “So you’re gonna be making my coffee.” (Actually entirely possible, but why does that have to be a marker of personal value?)
        “What a waste, you’re smart!” (Or conversely, expecting you not to be smart if they don’t really know you)

        That’s not to say that many people don’t find being a dance major/dancer really cool, but it’s harder to get people to recognize it as a legitimate profession. (It’s like professional dancers are seen as hobbyists and actual hobbyists are just seen as bizarre.)

      • Oh, yeah — I’d forgotten about the “real job” thing. I’ve encountered that in other settings (notably when I had a job caring for and exercising seven very fine horses); I suspect that the scope of my current social circles rather prevents me from running into it now, but I imagine my Mom would probably think something very much along those lines if I wasn’t trying to somehow moosh dance and neuroscience into one career (qv: I’m afraid to tell her that I’m considering skipping the neuro bit for now and forging forth with an MBA.) Everyone’s parents love to say, “My child, the doctor;” not as many are all that keen on bragging about, “My child, the underpaid/underemployed professional dancer.”

        And you’re right — there’s definitely a perception out there of dancers as empty-headed twits, which is something I often forget (a number of members of our local dance community have PhDs in such easy-A subjects as neurology, linguistics, physics, and biological morphology). That’s one of the ones that I have occasionally encountered (usually in the context of some gay-community event thing, wherein the fact that I’m a dainty little pretty boy means I’m automatically cast as an adorable idiot; combine that with “He’s a dancer,” and guys assume you have the IQ of a not-particularly-gifted cactus).

        You’re also spot-on about the wildly-erroneous perception that dance (because it can be and often is fun) isn’t hard work and doesn’t require reasonable remuneration. (I wonder if this idea is more likely harbored by people who also don’t realize how much working dancers have to eat…). This one plagues other artists and writers, but I think it may be worst for dancers (maybe people [presumably those who have never priced pointe shoes or studio time] think we don’t have as many expenses?).

        And, wow. The comments 😦

        I don’t even know what to say (but I’m going to try anyway, evidently). I can see, “So basically majoring in unemployment” as an attempt at humor related to our ridiculous economy, and the “What a waste…” one as frustratingly ill-informed but bluderingly well-intended … but the coffee one? Wow, that’s just dickish. It sounds like something that you’d hear from a dudebro who’s doing an MBA because he thinks it’ll “set him apart,” when in fact basically every dudebro in town has an MBA at this point.

        I mean, not that’s there’s anything wrong with being a barista, but the assumptions implicit in that comment … Blech.

        (As for being a dudebro with an MBA … Hm. Jury’s out on that one.)

      • Also, that last (parenthetical) sentence is brilliant,and probably an exceptionally-accurate summary.

  2. In fact, there’s probably a great deal to be said for dancing badly. When you do something badly, people think, “Huh, I could do that,” and maybe they give it a try,

    That would still imply that dancing is for other than the dancer and can be judged objectively. You’ve sent it off to chase legitimacy again. And you’re seeking identity through the (imagined) eyes of others.

    Would you still dance if no-one ever watched?

    • Ha, yes! Another excellent point!

      To answer your last question first, I would totally still dance if no-one ever watched — and most people that I know of find themselves doing things like dancing to music in the car or bopping along while they sing in the shower. I think that says something powerful about the essence of dance; that it’s not some contained thing separate from the rest of human existence that should be formalized and locked into canon.

      As for the rest: your comment, here, really clarifies an important thing. You’re precisely right — objective judgment is irrelevant to the human drive to dance, as are the opinions of an audience or, indeed, even the existence of an audience.

      Dancing that defies established standards (also known as “bad dancing”) also transcends them and reminds us that dancing, at its bones, isn’t about standards or legitimacy; it’s about being human (or, well, maybe not — so many species dance) and alive.

      Dancing that defies established standards also helps keep the kinds of dance that exist within the bounds of established standards from drying up and blowing away, which is something I’ve been thinking about all day.

  3. Maybe you could try adopting a god of dance and dancing as an act of worship.

    • Curiously, I’ve been thinking about doing something rather along these veins, though with less formal god-adoption: just starting a group of people who get together and dance as a form of spiritual exploration, worship, and what have you.

  4. Love this: ” In fact, there’s probably a great deal to be said for dancing badly. When you do something badly, people think, “Huh, I could do that,” and maybe they give it a try, and maybe they discover a passion… ”

    … and it’s not that different for a visual artist–though maybe more exclusively internalized. I put myself through that wringer 6 x a day.

  5. Lucky for me, I was already out on cloud-cuckooland even before I took up ballet… if anything, ballet is one of the most “normal” things I do or like…
    That said, it makes it no less embarassing to be teased about it. Oddly enough, in my neck of the woods, at school among other dancers (yes, I will call myself a dancer), it is seen as more respectable to do modern or jazz, and ballet is only for those that have been doing it since they were three and have a chance at going pro, or looking to use it to help their technique in their chosen form of dance. As a ballet-obsessed adult beginner, who also doesn’t have the typical ballet body type, it does get me raised eyebrows and comments occasionally. I used to care, a lot. But some of my teacher’s supportiveness, actually taking me serious as a ballet student, has really made me change my mind. I felt a weird form of almost… respect… from her

    • I’m so glad that your teacher takes you seriously! I think that may be one of the critical pieces of the puzzle for me — I dance best in the classes of the teachers who seem to have the most faith in my dancer-ness (and in that of adult students in general).

      I’ve noticed that modern (for all that it can be just as technical and demanding as ballet) seems to make room for a much broader age range of performers — and especially if they’re performer-auters, so to speak. I wonder if that might play into the dichotomy you’ve encountered?

      I think its less-strict body-type policing probably doesn’t hurt, either. I’ve so often heard things like, “I switched to modern because I just don’t have the body type for ballet.” FWIW, I think it’s really awesome that, even though you don’t necessarily fit the perceived classical ballet mold, you’ve stuck with it. If more of us did that, I think we’d see a more diverse artform evolve out of it, and that might do a lot to combat the perception that ballet is an effete discipline that has outlived its time.

      • Yes, you nailed it exactly!
        I hear a lot of things about not having the “right” body type (from kids/young adults who are looking to dance for a living), or ballet being too specific, too technical, too demanding, whereas modern is more “free”. I’ve also heard that (presuming you are an already somewhat athletically inclined individual) the learning curve in modern is faster than ballet. And, a specific comment I overheard (but do not quite understand since I did not grow up in the dance world at all), “In modern, I get treated like a *person*.”
        But among newer/much more beginner dancers, I’ve noticed that there is a higher amount of interest in ballet, though perhaps still not as much as modern, jazz, or hip hop. And, perhaps since they did not grow up in the dance world, and thus had no idea the body “standard” even existed – as I didn’t at the time I started ballet – they don’t let that deter then from at least *trying* ballet. Had I been more aware of the whole body type issue befofe starting, I have to admit it would have been a factor in my decision to take ballet classes in public. This is one of those times that I’m glad I’m so oblivious that I just did it anyway, without noticing these things until late. And in that case I don’t think I would have even danced at all, since at the time I was only specifically interested in doing ballet, not other styles. Anyway, at the beginner levels I’d say plenty of people of all body types *try* a class or session of classes, but don’t stick around.
        As self-centered as it sounds, I often hope that by being around and being helpful it creates a more welcoming ballet class environment for the more “unconventional” ballet students.

        But, off my ramblings and back to your post topic, sort of, I do think lack of support from family or peers (if not specifically disapproval, because that just makes me say “screw what they think!”) does play a factor in the high quitting/low retention rate of ballet class. Like, people not taking it seriously that you take class, and trying to convince you to blow off class constantly to hang out with them, whereas if they took it seriously they would be willing to schedule around it as with a job. Or being surprised/annoyed that you want to do it more often than once a week (like you mentioned in the post) or whatever time frame sounds suitable to them. Luckily for me, Boyfriend is supportive of my ballet class addiction, but most girls I’ve met in class who didn’t have a supportive boyfriend or husband (and weren’t single) did tend to miss class quite often, further slowing their progress, and then they tend to get discouraged and quit.

  6. I got the occasional raised eyebrow even when I was young and slim. Now, I am middle-aged and chubby, and the question has become: What, are YOU dancing/still dancing? Yes, I am, and I will continue to do so as long as my body and my brain will let me.

  7. I’ll never forget when I moved to New York and I was at Chase opening a bank account. The form asked for my profession and I left it blank. The woman who was opening my account for me asked my profession. I mumbled incoherently. She said “what was that”–I said again, a little louder, but tentatively, “I’m a…dancer?” She said “Welcome to New York Honey, I don’t know where you’re from, but here, that’s a profession!”

    Thank you for giving us permission to call ourselves dancers!! Next time someone raises an eyebrow at me when I say I’m a dancer, as if to say “still?”, I’ll reply “I dance, therefore I’m a dancer.”

    • Ha! What a great story!

      And you’re welcome — I really hope that thought will get through to people! I think it’s a game-changer for so many of us. If we can call ourselves “dancers,” Then we can take ourselves seriously, rather than sort-of dismissing ourselves, and I think that comes through in our dancing.

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