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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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