Why Does the Media Think Dancers Are Stupid?

Usually, we love when dance makes headlines. But unfortunately, the art form is often stereotyped by the media—sometimes in offensive and damaging ways. This time, dance has found its way into the presidential election, and it isn't pretty. Melania Trump gave a speech at the Republican National Convention earlier this week, and was accused of copying sections from one Michelle Obama gave several years prior. A Trump staffer named Meredith McIver took the fall, but it's not how or why she plagiarized the first lady's speech that has us talking. It's the way the media is treating McIver's background as a dancer.

According to her speakers bureau biography, McIver studied at the School of American Ballet as a teenager, and performed in one Broadway show, Can-Can, as noted on the Broadway website IBDB. However, McIver is in her 60s now, and appears to have been worlds away from dance for many years. She earned an English degree from the University of Utah, has worked for Trump since 2001 and has enjoyed an impressive career on Wall Street and in politics (that the media is largely ignoring). So why is everyone pegging her as a ballerina?

Vanity Fair ran a piece titled "Is a Ballerina to Blame for Melania Trump's Plagiarized Speech?" and dismissively added, "It seems almost unbelievable that the Trumps would put what would be one of the most important, closely watched moments of the convention in the hands of a ballerina who read books in college." A New York Times piece describing her as "an ex-ballerina who loved writing, " opens by saying she "danced under the limelight with Balanchine," when in fact she never danced for New York City Ballet. Almost every article about McIver mentions the fact that she's a ballerina before mentioning the relevant facts—like that she ghost-wrote many of Trump's books.

Dance Magazine contributors Siobhan Burke and Brian Schaefer weighed in on Twitter:

As they point out, pegging McIver as a ballerina is about more than click-bait. There's an unfounded stereotype that dance—and particularly ballet—is a purely physical form. That ballet dancers are bodies, not brains. Ballet's identity as a highly feminine art form, too, plays into this stereotype: Surely, McIver's gender has everything to do with the condescending way political reporters speak about her. These journalists invoked ballet so strongly because they wanted to present her as stupid.

As we all know, though, dance is as much about the mind as it is about the body. Dancers are instilled with a sense of discipline from a young age that makes them competitive members of other fields, and excellent students should they choose to pursue a formal education. The fact that most ballet dancers don't attend college before beginning their professional careers has nothing to do with their intelligence, and everything to do with the fact that their careers begin before the average person graduates high school.

But McIver isn't even a ballerina. For all we know, she hasn't danced in nearly 40 years, and had a very short professional career as a Broadway dancer. Conflating studying ballet as a teenager with successfully landing a job as a professional ballet dancer erases the insanely competitive nature of our field, and the unimaginable amount of hard work it takes to actually be a ballerina.

So often in politics a single detail about someone's past can be used to disparage them. But by misusing McIver's brief ballet background to paint her as incompetent, these journalists are actually demonstrating their own laziness and lack of knowledge about dance.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021