Career

Should Dancers Get Political Online?

Lurking on dancers' social media pages, among the video clips of superhuman pirouettes and the photos that immortalize them above the stage in grand jeté or crouched on a windowsill wearing lingerie, pointe shoes and a sultry expression, is the occasional political post.

It's hard not to have a political opinion in the age of Trump. And on social media, opinions are easy to express. We might have to thumb the history book all the way back to Abraham Lincoln to find a more polarizing president (alas, the two leaders' similarities decisively end there).


In my lifetime, no president has been so far removed from the arts as our current one. Ronald Reagan was, of course, an actor before becoming a politician and GOP deity (although he, like Trump, sought to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts). Bill Clinton had decent chops on the tenor saxophone. George W. Bush paints. Barack Obama actually wrote his own books. Trump's closest proximity to anything artistic was through the highbrow sophistication of reality television, or maybe via the foul creativity of his "locker room talk" and the free-wheeling fictions of his tweets.

So should dancers share their political views on social media?

"Dance and the arts are of no value to the current administration," Wendy Whelan observes. "Of course, I think it's up to the individual artist whether to get political or not. But I do think we, as artists, have developed a voice, and that we're capable of communicating on the deepest levels with the world around us."

Misty Copeland echoes that sentiment: "I don't think it's our responsibility to speak about politics as artists. But if you feel strongly about your opinion, I think there are people in the public that feel empowered and supported when someone that has the platform to be heard uses it."

Many dancers are troubled not just by Trump's apathy toward the arts, but by his swerve away from the progressive mores that artists largely share. "This recent election has been a huge stimulus to stand up even more for my beliefs," Ashley Bouder tells me. "I feel that too many groups, women and the LGBTQ community in particular, are fighting a war with the leaders of this country. If I add my voice to the noise, perhaps we can create real change."

Any foray into the political discussion is a kick to the hornets' nest; the reactions are swift and sometimes uncivil. But Bouder considers the stakes high enough to be worth a few stings. "I think I've alienated some followers," she says. "I've alienated some family too, actually. But, in my opinion, the political situation in the U.S. is so extreme and intolerant, I just cannot imagine not doing all I can to bring about positive change." She adds that she doesn't mind debate, but that she's received "some truly hateful comments"—mostly from individuals with anonymous online profiles.

For Copeland—whose public image, to some people, intrinsically involves politics—losing fans who reject her values isn't necessarily a bad thing; it lets the chaff winnow from the grain. "I feel like I'm very open and honest and my political views don't differ from my daily practices, beliefs, and the way I present myself to the public. So if there are people out there who support me but are bigoted and racist, then it's not a loss for me to 'alienate' them."

The alienation burns both ways. One dancer, after posting on social media in support of Trump, experienced such a backlash, online and from her colleagues, that she turned down a request to be interviewed, even anonymously, for this article. In fact, most of the dancers I contacted declined to comment. Maybe they were too busy, or they felt there was nothing further to add to this mosh pit of a conversation, or they didn't wish to estrange any fans. Or maybe they recognized the incongruity of speaking out against a right-wing administration while performing in a theater named after a powerful right-wing figure.

Professional ballet, at least in the U.S., exists because of the generosity of patrons. By voicing their views publicly, do dancers risk losing not only fans but also sponsorship, guesting opportunities, or endorsement deals? Where should dancers' primary loyalties lie? Is it in poor taste to publicly oppose a patron's views—or is it, in some instances, a moral obligation? (Is taste now a moot consideration, given the leader of our country's boorishness, the savagery of the political discourse, and the sense of urgency many people feel about our planet's problems?) The answers to these knotty questions are as elusive as certain income tax returns.

I think we can all agree that a beautifully danced and crafted performance will always be the strongest argument for the value of ballet. And maybe, in a way, it can offer a gesture toward a broader kinship. "I think artists hold a lot of power," Copeland says. "Speaking or not, performing in times of stress, weakness and turmoil, we definitely can bring people together." I agree. Watching a ballet is a shared experience. A theater is a kind of church, where folks gather to examine or escape their world, and—to paraphrase Oskar Eustis—to remember the dream of who they can be. For a few magical hours, as they wax into a single audience, the distinctions between right and left, red and blue fade away.

So how to lure President Trump into a theater to see a ballet today? Do we get tricky and tell him he's attending a beauty pageant or Wrestlemania? The man adores Twitter, so maybe dancers' political posts will find him, after all. But let's be real. The only way President Trump will ever attend a ballet is if Putin takes him to the Bolshoi.

Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
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Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

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