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Where is the Art of Ballet Headed?

I came across this article the other day that brought up some interesting issues that have been rolling around in my head lately. In light of what this article talks about, I thought it was fair game to bring them up now.

Let's talk social media and reality TV. Are they helping or harming the dance world? You might think at first glance that by driving more attention towards dance they are helping make it more accessible to the public. True. However, with the popularity of shows like Dance Moms and SYTYCD where drama and flashy tricks are glorified, along with the Instagram craze of posting freakish flexibility pictures, you might wonder what kind of an impression and expectation this is creating. It's not only affecting what the audiences will come to expect from dance but also what dancers will aspire to and the standards they may hold themselves to.

"They may be setting themselves up for careers that are nearly impossible to achieve - both physically and realistically." - Leslie Scott, Founder of the Youth Protection Advocates in Dance

While it's great that there is certainly more popularity and awareness around dance, what price is the art and dancers themselves paying for it? As dancers compete for more followers and "likes" with their tricks and contortion pics, it's assumed that the more wow-factor these posts have, the better. And, what happens when we try to compete for this shock-and-awe reaction? We wind up pushing our bodies out of disregard. We see this slew of images coming our way, and we feel constant pressure to one up them in order to stay ahead in the game, in order to be seen as important and talented and liked. And so, we push and force our natural limits more and more to get these fleeting moments of fame from our followers. We are no longer connected to who we are as artists as these external images become our basis for creating our sense of value, not our deeper self expression. It's the competition with these external images driving us, rather than the pure passion inside aching to come out through our art.

Not only is this type of thinking detrimental to our physical bodies (as studies are showing dance-related injuries, especially in young dancers, are on the climb), but it is damaging to us mentally as well. Young dancers are starting to feel worthless if they can't build up a following on social media. They idolize the "popular" girls who display their ever-increasing flexibility and tricks. And, they get discouraged and depressed if they can't match what they see.

I'm not saying these extreme talents and tricks aren't impressive. I'm totally impressed by how the human body just keeps adapting and increasing its tolerance for the physical demands put on it. Look at any other sport and how the physical capacity of its athletes has improved dramatically with the decades. Take the Olympics, for example. The fastest 100-meter sprinter maxed out at 10.2 seconds 50 years ago. Now, the world record is 9.58 seconds...that's practically minutes in sprinter-speak. The same story goes for swimmers, and ball players, and gymnasts - compare what they were doing 50 years ago to where they are now, and it's remarkable. It's really a beautiful thing to see the human body advance and adapt.

But, this is not ordinary athletic progression we are talking about for the ballet world. When it gets to the point where career threatening injuries are taking out dancers even before their careers have started, you have to question if pushing the limits of the human body on this social media stage is a detrimental trend that has gotten out of control. And it's not just careers that are being jeopardized here. Some of these injuries and practices cause lifelong damage and pain. Sure, dance may seem like everything right now, but 20 years down the road when a dancer can't bend down to pick her baby off the floor because of the disc damage in her spine, she might regret forcing that scorpion over and over again when she was younger.

Besides the mental and physical harm, let me also implore that we not lose the art in all these tricks and contortions. Sometimes more can be said with a simple movement than with the most dynamic, explosive trick. The key lies in where the movement comes from. Is it motivated by competition and the desire to wow and win over the audience? Or, does it come from deep within the artist's soul; an expression of who she/he is; a pure passion exposed through vulnerability.

It's the difference between your dancing coming across as just movement in the physical realm or as real art with the power to touch, connect, influence, and transform the world.​

Also, a word to all you aspiring young dancers out there: It's fine to immerse yourself with all these pictures and videos of "greatness"...as long as you don't use it to beat yourself down. Just because you can't do a scorpion or a 230-degree tilt doesn't mean you are worthless and that you don't have a chance to make it as a professional dancer. And, props to the dancers who are accomplishing these amazing feats of the human body...but, don't fall into the trap of thinking that determines your worth as an artist either. Art is so much deeper than that, and it is unique to each individual. So, in the sea of hashtags, YouTube videos, and reality TV, never cease your pursuit of finding your own voice, your own art, your own precious self that doesn't have to prove anything to anyone, show off in front of a crowd, or create a massive following. Just acknowledge the light that is within, and then share it with the world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts here. This is potentially a hotly debatable topic, and I don't mean to offend anyone. But, at the risk of making myself vulnerable, it's worth talking about. Please comment below.

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