This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, but just couldn’t find the right words. To a point, I was concerned what my colleagues in the dance world would think. But after seeing an interview with a cool, groundbreaking choreographer named Christopher Wheeldon — who is concentrating much more on what he wants to achieve than what people think he should be doing — I think it’s time to have my say and let the cards fall where they may.
Since I was young, I’ve trained, performed, choreographed, taught and directed classical and contemporary dance. As I witness the world of dance I grew up with changing, I have very conflicted feelings. Dance is first and foremost an art form. It carries talent, story, culture, and a generation’s music through the ages and to different countries and societies. I wholeheartedly believe that the arena of competition dance is cheapening the art, and wrongly twisting the perspective we ought to have of dance itself.
Viewing the pictures from competitions on studio websites concerns and dismays me. Students are often wearing costumes inappropriate for their age; traveling to big, very expensive cities (also potentially dangerous places); and many parents have reported studios pushing injured students to compete while still recovering. Quite frankly, I feel that putting 12-year-olds on stage in something too revealing (forcing families to pay outrageous fees for what they’re not wearing, no less), and risking making sprains or mild fractures even worse, all in pursuit of a plastic trophy, is unethical and immoral.
In contrast to the world of competition, there are some very conservative dance groups, most of which are associated with particular religious beliefs. The idea of there being established dance troupes that only perform a native folk style or for spiritual celebrations doesn’t bother me at all. For thousands of years, dancing has been used in ceremonies of all faiths; and honestly, I, too, would like to incorporate an art form I love into showing gratitude to the divinity I love. But unfortunately, when it comes to what’s known as “Christian ballet,” there’s a system in place that I also don’t agree with.
While I support more modest costumes on stage, won’t argue with a religious message, and encourage performers to follow their principles, I see some major problems with the typical method of Christian dance. One is that the classes have become much more about teaching theology than proper dance technique. Both are important, and may not be able to co-exist within the same time frame. When teachers spend less time in class working on turnout and correct posture and the right way to move with props, it may very well result in injuries. (I’ve seen it happen.)
The message is important, too; but getting all “preachy” and only catering to those who already share your faith won’t help your cause. If you state it’s “Christian ballet” from the start, it turns off lots of people who are simply interested in dance. Let the message speak for itself in the performance, and let the audience take away from it what they will, not what you think they “should.” (If you’re trying to reach out to people, alienating them the minute they hear about your company or studio won’t accomplish that.)
I want to be defined as a dancer and a lover of dance first. Not as “just a Christian dancer,” or be seen as letting my spiritual beliefs compromise what I might give artistically to the entire globe. Recently I turned down a chance to work on a project involving worship dance, because the “guidelines” in place were actually pretty strict rules, and it felt far too limiting to what might be accomplished creatively and artistically.
Classical dance — especially ballet — has gotten a bad rap in recent years, for basically being “too rich and too white.” I don’t like that, or condone it. A couple of years ago, I found out about Misty Copeland, the first black ballerina to become a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre. This is awesome. While there have been many talented, barrier-breaking black dancers since the mid-20th century, Ms. Copeland has really been able to introduce ballet to a new generation of ethnically and racially mixed kids. As someone who truly loves ballet and wants to see it continue to thrive, I totally support this wonderful lady and her initiative.
The other day, I read an article about Stephanie Kurlow, an Australian young woman who is also a Muslim; she’s struggling to be allowed to wear a headscarf in dance classes. She stated in interviews that she felt very excluded, based solely on her family’s faith. Her goal has now become to start a dance company inclusive of all types of race, religion, and cultures.
This is a perfect example of the prejudice of classical dance: “the establishment” deciding for everyone else what it’s “supposed” to be, instead of sharing the art form with others and letting it grow organically. It makes me sad.
Go for it, Miss Kurlow — dance your heart out, and I truly wish you the best of luck in finding like-minded souls.
I’m rapidly becoming one of them.