Rant & Rave

Is Instagram Changing The Dance World's Value System?

Social media validates extremes over clean, solid technique. Photo by David Hofmann/Unsplash

The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."

My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.

This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?


I often click into these accounts just to see what else there is—maybe the flexi-girl has real talent and technique. Unfortunately, there usually isn't much more to see. The super gumby girl is perpetually stretching, the turner has endless clips of pirouettes (often to same side and out of the context of a combination) and the girl with the crazy arched feet is always tenduing and "pointe shoe modeling" (at the barre).

As I hunt for signs of real training and artistic quality, I find myself sliding into a virtual Insta-K-hole, ending up a bit confounded and depressed.

Social media is a space where the extremes of almost anything (beauty, physique, lifestyle) are celebrated and held as aspirational, resulting in a growing lack of appreciation for the simple or average. In dance, the "average" or "simple" amounts to clean, solid technique, or a body that is well-formed and capable, or a beautifully-placed 90-degree arabesque. Everything has become so extreme that if it's not 15 after 6 o'clock or eight turns, it is of no interest.

This is a slippery slope. Surfing Instagram is like watching the virtue of dance as a high art deteriorate in real time. Who and what goes viral is a reflection of a newly-forming value system. With each "like" and "follow," we vote on the future of our field.

It's Not Just Harmless Visual Candy.

Tricks may be impressive, but dance is about more than contortions. Photo by David Hoffman/Unsplash

These sorts of IG accounts are basically dance erotica, where the physical attributes coveted by dancers are fetishized, presented in such extremity that they border on grotesque, unrealistic and—more importantly—often unuseful. When dance lovers (whether they're educators, students or directors) indulge in the reduction of our art to human caricature and tricks, turning the elite forms of line and grace into a Vaudevillian sideshow, the real danger is the effect on our sensibilities.

What seems like harmless visual candy is setting new standards for young dancers as they seek to emulate their Insta-heros, and "likes" are validation.

Think about it: How often do young dancers go to the theater to actually see live dance? This generation's primary experience of dance is via an electronic device (television, tablet, phone). They experience a one-dimensional, truncated version of dance, viewing snippets and clips of full pieces, and with diminishing attention spans. If anything over four minutes is too long, what does that do for a three-act story ballet?

Often, dance students' first contact with principal dancers is via their 'Gram. Though these stars might have lengthy careers with weighty achievements to their credit, young dancers often rate them as equal to tricksters with thousands of followers.

The Double-Edged Sword of Insta Opportunities

You can't hide your technique once you come out from behind the camera. Photo by Suhyeon Choi/Unsplash

Having an outsized level of visibility can earn these Insta-stars money, as they get sought by dance organizations and other brands to become "ambassadors." Which is all well and good. Any way an artist can find ways to earn extra money is a win.

But these brands are contracting influencers, not necessarily dancers; they could have two left feet and 500,000 followers. The ability for those new sensations to monetize their popularity has destabilized the already compromised foundation of dance's value system. More and more, we hear about students being "discovered" on Instagram and courted by serious schools.

You could argue that this levels the playing field since now anyone from anywhere can be offered an opportunity. But is this an authentic gauge of talent? Everyone's feed is edited and curated—no one is posting videos of things they can't do well. When you see that student in a technique class the truth is revealed: she can do that turning diagonal but ask her to stand on one turned out leg, and the jig is up.

One professional black ballet dancer who aggressively worked to increase her followers a couple years ago got a great deal of press, was courted by brands and became somewhat of a face for black ballerinas. However, a source informed me that when several of her followers came to see her perform, they were less than impressed and unfollowed her.

While a picture might be worth 1000 words, it is not worth 1000 steps.

Students Now Demand To Be Taught Insta-Worthy Tricks

Building the strength for a dance career requires more than learning pyrotechnics. Photo by Frederik Trovatte/Unsplash

Though most schools won't admit it, having Insta-celeb attend your summer intensive or year-round program and post about it is free advertising. However the knife cuts both ways. Insta-star followers may want study where their idols train, but they also want to learn to do what they see on their feeds. Young dancers are "customers" and teacher/studio owners can feel pressured to give them what they want lest they go elsewhere.

These tricks, in and of themselves, are not bad things. However, devoid of a codified technical progression, which builds the steps incrementally, they can be disastrous. Dancing happens in the transitions, in the pathways. The foundation of technique is in the "how" steps are entered and exited.

When you teach with the focus only on the height of the leg, the number of turns or intricacy of a big jump, you are building a house of cards. It can be hard to convince a generation that has been raised on instant gratification that slow progress is well worth the time. Too many young dance students want to be "famous" more than they want actual careers in dance.

Social Media Fame Can Impact Real-World Decisions

Should followers be able to determine casting? Photo by Erik Lucatero/Unsplash

Amassing followers can translate not only into dollars through brand endorsements and sponsored posts, but we are beginning to see its results in ticket sales.

A dancer with avid followers can post their performance schedule and fans will...follow. When a professional dancer's social media presence can attract attention to a company in ways that an expensive marketing campaign can't, one has to wonder if this new influence could act as leverage for casting and ranking? You better believe that when ticket sales spike, the head office will notice.

But if casting is driven—or at least influenced by—social media popularity, what happens to the craft? What happens to the actual artistic standard of a company? Are we soon to see a company using an Instagram poll to give followers the opportunity to vote on casting?

All attention is not good attention, appropriate or for that matter, authentic. There was a time not so long ago when professional dancers and students alike had to have official authorization before engaging with the "press." Today, every social media account is technically a press outlet. You can't prevent people from posting about their lives. Some organizations have begun to include social media clauses in contracts, but it is a roller coaster–sized learning curve that we are all strapped into. It's daunting; careers are just as quickly ended as begun on social media with a simple click.

About Those "Inspirational" Accounts

Since Instagram is a research resource, bad technique can have real consequences. Photo by Krys Alex/Unsplash

I would be remiss if I did not mention the badly-curated "inspirational" accounts started by well-meaning dance lovers who have less of a discerning eye for the dance aesthetic. My eyes have been continuously assaulted by images of dancers who have stripped down half naked in public risking life and limb to get a shot.

It's like a Dr. Seuss picture book—on a bus, on a train, on a bridge, boarding a plane—with every post hoping to garner more followers, or better yet, go viral. Some are taken by professional photographers, others by peers and parents. The results run the gambit from artistically awe-inspiring to simply awful, with questionable quality and taste levels.

Inspirational dance accounts in a sense democratize dance with the premise that everybody can dance. Which is true—it would be folly to disregard that fact that dancers come in different calibers. But when skimming through feeds devoted to inspiring young dancers of color to study ballet, I find myself conflicted. Seeing young brown ballet students wearing a tutu creeping up, bent kneed on a toe shoe makes me wonder what are we trying to have them aspire to?

Although the intention is heartfelt, the execution can be...questionable, and frankly dangerous. Inspiring young dancers of color is necessary but so is establishing standard of excellence that aligns with the professional field.

Think it doesn't matter? Instagram has become a research resource for fashion, television and more. Images for storyboards are pulled from the 'gram. Advertisers think they can pop a pointe shoe on an average underweight model have her make shapes referencing passé or arabesque and have her read as "dancer." (Remember the Free People ad, or Vogue's editorial with Kendall Jenner in pointe shoes?) When your art looks commonplace, people will believe that a pedestrian can do it, that there is no training or skill involved.

Honestly, We All Fall for It

Even the most curmudgeonly among us are wowed by what we see online. Photo by David Hoffman/Unsplash

Even the advocates of technique and artistry get wooed by the siren's song of an S-shaped supporting leg, or the gravity-defying pyrotechnical jump that we really have no name for but wish we could watch in slo-mo so that we could figure out how it's done. It's a guilty pleasure that dance folk of a certain generation would be slow to admit to.

Teachers who admonish the flexible girl for stretching all the time instead of working on strength, and then tell the turning boy that "it's not about quantity but quality" can easily be seduced by a 6 o'clock grand rond de jambe.

But dance educators would be wise to think about what they are posting, re-posting and co-signing with "likes." You can't tell your students it's not about high legs on Monday if you are reposting the rhythmic gymnast-like dancer's developpé pic on Sunday.

I Know Change Is Inevitable, But I'm Still Questioning It

What will we lose if we let our values disappear? Photo by Ryan Jacobson/Unsplash

As the world—and with it my field—is evolving, I relish the sweetness of the particular era when I was dancing (we all tend to be partial). I do not see change as negative, however with every iteration we gain and lose. I suppose I question: Can we control what we lose? In the shifting universe, can we as a community decide what is of such value that we preserve it? What is worth fighting for?

As a community, we would be remiss not to take a good hard look at how social media is changing the landscape of our field. As history has taught us, things once abandoned are hard to reclaim.

The Conversation
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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance History
Bob Fosse rehearses a group of dancers for Sweet Charity's psychedelic "Rhythm of Life" sequence. Photo by Universal Pictures, Courtesy DM Archives

In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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Wendy Whelan spoke with Balanchine legends Allegra Kent, Kay Mazzo, Gloria Govrin and Merrill Ashley. Eduardo Patino.NYC, Courtesy NDI

George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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