Does anyone still consider tattoos the exclusive province of sailors and outlaw bikers? The inked are everywhere among us, loudly baring their personalities or quietly concealing them, Clark Kent–style. These days, a Burmese python might have slithered under your internist's lab coat or a Japanese koi fish could be trapped beneath your professor's tweed. Your mom might sport your name on her biceps, not the other way around. And the Giselle whose fragile heart gave out last night at the Met? She could be the girl with the dragon tattoo.
Dance and tattoos both date back to prehistoric times, and both have come a long way since. Ötzi the Iceman's 5,300-year-old charcoal etchings resemble contemporary skin art about as much as a Copper Age fertility dance might resemble Balanchine's Theme and Variations. Ötzi's 50-odd tattoos were efforts to ease the hunter's arthritis, an affliction to which dance—healing or shamanistic numbers aside—could only have contributed.
Today's motivations for dancing and getting inked seem more closely linked; if dance is an outward expression of our innermost emotions—the “hidden language of the soul," as Martha Graham called it—then the tattoo is as well. Dancers use their bodies to interpret that language just as the tattooed use their skin, only the latter medium doesn't require a theater, peculiar female footwear, or unfortunate male undergarments to function.
That said, my own dalliances with tattoos have been aimed more at charting meaningful moments in my life than at rendering my body an art gallery. I see tattoos, with their permanence and modest rites of pain, as small sacrifices, pieces of myself surrendered in recognition of experience. To me, they are tributes, totems, artifacts, admonitions, and filigreed scars. They are love letters and revelations. They are yawps, barbaric or otherwise, sounding over a living, writhing world.
I got my first tattoo 14 years ago, at age 22. I'd always wanted one (or several). I remember admiring, as a kid, the Northwest Coast Native American–style thunderbird that fanned defiantly across the back of Anthony Kiedis, lead singer of The Red Hot Chili Peppers. That bird was beautifully and powerfully drawn, its wings seeming to manipulate Kiedis' every movement. It also evoked some of my greatest heroes: free spirits like Crazy Horse and Geronimo, who, in accordance with their respective spiritual directives, would paint themselves and tie talismans to their bodies before battle. I saw tattoos as an extension of that custom—as talismans that couldn't untie, as war paint that wouldn't fade. If I got inked, I'd be prepared for anything.
Of course, tattoos have now gone so mainstream in Western society that the more radical choice is probably to remain without one. Their rebel cachet has sunk as their popularity has surged. But they aren't widely accepted in dance, despite the growing number of dancers who have them. Unless a ballet features pirates (ABT's tattooed men and women love Le Corsaire) or Maori warriors, or is created by someone who is especially ink-friendly (Stanton Welch doesn't make us cover our skin in his ballet Clear), many choreographers with whom I've worked don't allow exposed tattoos in performances, and for good reason: They can be distracting in contemporary works and inappropriate on the classical stage.
I (obviously) believe that dance and tattoos can coexist, with the simple caveat that dancers conceal their artwork when necessary. When that line between individual expression and professional responsibility is clearly demarcated, I can't find a conflict. Certainly, dancers wishing to festoon themselves with sprawling tattoos might want to carefully consider their venues and genre of performance. Are revealing costumes, sustained physical contact, and period storytelling involved? Does the theater lack an orchestra pit to separate stage from audience?
Those who answered yes to these questions should probably hold off, say, on sleeving out their arms or getting a back mural—lest they cast us all in a negative light. There is no holy grail of cover-up; no foolproof time machine–cream that can buff liberally illustrated skin back to neonatal form. I know; I have quested after such treasure for 14 years. What I have discovered are cover-ups that are effective if color-matched to the skin and patiently applied. PAX acrylic adhesive-based body paint is one; Skin Illustrator alcohol-based paint is another. These products aren't cheap, they're sensitive to humidity, and often require mid-show touch-ups, like normal stage makeup. But used correctly, they work well.
I have given myself over to dance while trying not to let it narrow my range of experience. It can be a wobbly balance to strike. Some of my favorite pursuits—motorcycling, martial arts, backpacking—involve elements of risk. But by venturing into their rich and invigorating realms, I hope I've become a fuller artist. Tattoos are comparatively benign, and powerless to affect my dancing. Still, some in the dance world just don't approve of them, even if responsibly concealed. Every so often I'm cornered into mounting tired, self-evident defenses of my artwork: how it carries personal significance, how it has no bearing on anyone else, how what I do with my own skin is my choice, just as what others do with their clothes, noses, ears, hair, toenails, navels, or nipples is theirs.
Tattooed and not, we are all transient creatures that strive and evolve and inevitably—like the sun and stars—decline. Why squander any moment of that exquisite arc on scorning our superficial differences? Tattoos don't alter what's beneath the skin—those parts that we all share, by which our worth is really measured. If Giselle wants to wear a dragon under her peasant dress, who cares? The audience can't see it. Live and let live. Besides, maybe Albrecht is into ink.
Above: Sascha Radetsky, Photo by Renata Pavam, Courtesy Radetsky
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT