I was at a party this weekend, and of course the question came up: “What do you do?” The moment I said, “I’m an editor at a magazine for dance educators,” I found myself waiting for the typical, non-cultured response. I’m sure you’ve experienced it: The person before you rises on his toes, knees bent and arms awkwardly posed overhead, as he blurts out, “Oh, like this!” But this time, to my delight, the person I was talking to responded with an enthusiastic account of his addiction to “Dancing with the Stars,” and his sister’s fondness for “So You Think You Dance.”
This exchange got me thinking about a phrase I’ve been hearing a lot: the democratization of dance. With the deluge of dance-inspired television shows and performances broadcast on YouTube and the like, there’s no question that there’s been a cultural shift when it comes to dance’s role in popular culture. But as I watch these shows, I can’t help but wonder: How far are we from democratizing ballet? And does ballet want to be democratized? Its sheer ethereal and regal nature—plus the fact that a good dancer makes it look easy despite the muscular prowess, control and balance required—makes this particular dance form even more difficult for the average person to fully appreciate.
Certainly this debate is not a new one: Danny Tidwell’s participation in last season’s “So You Think You Dance” sparked a New York Times article that debated ballet’s place in the mainstream. Some believed that Tidwell was selling out, and that ballet and pop culture should remain distinct; others deemed it smart publicity.
While I’m not quite convinced that it’s so black and white, there’s one thing I know for sure: The lessons taught in ballet—namely the value of hard work, discipline and grace—are ones we could all stand to benefit from.
November 29, 2001