Dance studios and world-renowned theaters are sometimes characterized as “ivory towers,” where serious artists do serious work, far away from the hoi polloi. Even within the field, certain dance figures and pieces can suddenly fall out of fashion. Nevertheless, we found 11 professionals willing to defend their guilty pleasures and pop-cultural obsessions—on the record.
“Turn It Off,” from The Book of Mormon, is one of the more brilliant tap numbers I’ve ever seen—so fun, so well constructed, so filled with irony and wit, and there’s a costume change built in!
If you’ve studied concert dance, there’s often the belief that to work in popular entertainment is to negate that education. Earlier in my career, I might’ve taken being called “accessible” as a criticism, but now I find it’s flattering to think that I might be able to help people become dance fans. I recently went to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Walt Disney World, and there was a 20-minute revue based on the Bette Midler movie Hocus Pocus. It was cheesy, certainly, but honestly? It was really well done! The dancing was spectacular.
I also have a real weakness for watching Justin Bieber dance. He’s such a natural. It looks effortless. —Larry Keigwin, choreographer
Richard Simmons inspires me.
—Kelly Anderson, artistic director, Kelly Anderson Dance Theatre
I’m a “Dancing with the Stars” superfan. I even follow my favorites on Instagram.
—Jessica Deahr, artistic director, Chicago Dance Crash
I love a good syllabus meeting. All 20-plus faculty members sit in a circle, on chairs, and it only takes two minutes for the shoes to come off, and I’m demonstrating the “perfect” sur-le-cou-de-pied, three times with my foot, and several more times with my hands. We’re all big on port de bras, épaulement and pas de cheval. And do not get me started on proper placement of the thumb. What I love is that we are all “right,” which can prompt some pointed discussions—which continue for weeks.
—Peter Boal, artistic director, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and director, Pacific Northwest Ballet School
It’s hard to have “guilty pleasures” when I’m very proud of mine: the boy bands and girl groups of the late ’90s and early 2000s. *NSYNC and the Spice Girls were major sources of dance inspiration. I taped their performances, and taught myself their choreography. Their impact on me as a dancer, even today, is undeniable, and I’ve found myself less and less embarrassed by my teenage fascination with pop icons. When dance is prevalent in pop culture, that’s worth celebrating, so I say: “Thank you, *NSYNC, and thank you, Spice Girls.”
—James Whiteside, principal dancer, American Ballet Theatre
Years ago, I told my students at Northwestern University that it was foolish, or passé, or not “serious art,” if they choreographed to music with lyrics. Then I became so entranced with pop from the ’80s and ’90s, those incredibly catchy songs, that I used it for my own work, which of course made me a hypocrite. I consider my piece Sharks Before Drowning, which included music by Whitney Houston, a kind of breakthrough for me, because I let myself love what I loved.
I’ve also fantasized about being a judge on “So You Think You Can Dance.”
—Molly Shanahan, artistic director, Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak
I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say I think Ludwig Minkus is a highly effective dance composer. Is his music great? No. Is it profound? Not at all. But a lot of choreographers will tell you that “great” music is not always the best music to choreograph to. Minkus is great second-rate music. It’s catchy, often washed with local color—I especially love the fandango from Don Quixote—and it practically begs to be danced to.
—Marina Harss, dance critic
I’ve cried watching videos of flash mobs. Music starts, one person starts doing something, all alone, and the other people are thinking, What is that weirdo doing? Then another person joins, and then a third, and a fourth, and everyone gradually becomes aware of what’s happening. It’s often a combination of older and younger people, people of color, business types and people in sweatshirts, and look: They’re all dancing together! It expands into an almost utopian moment, a fleeting glimpse at something shared and serendipitous which, inevitably, ends just as soon as it began.
Flash mobs were of course quickly co-opted, and used to spread the most commercial choreographic dreck. But even the worst flash mobs carry within them some connection to that idealism. When I’m in a horrible place like Penn Station, I often find myself wishing—hoping—Please, let a flash mob start happening right now.
—Sydney Skybetter, choreographer and arts management consultant
My kids first tried to get me to watch “Dance Moms“ three years ago. Of course I refused at first. Then I lost a bet, agreed to watch an episode and, right away, I was hooked. Abby Lee Miller says things to parents and students that dance teachers can only dream of saying.
—Winifred Haun, artistic director, Winifred Haun & Dancers
An Unexpected Obsession
Big Dance Theater’s Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson explain their fascination with baseball.
For me, baseball is a long-form tone poem. The structure itself is poetic: The game is built around threes—three bases, three strikes, three outs. The “music” of the game plays in slow motion, with quick, dynamic accents.
I love how the batter who hits a home run will casually jog around the bases, a direct contradiction to the muscular power he has just displayed. The catcher’s gestural language, told in the proscenium of his crotch, is a coded, specific and complex system of signs that only the pitcher knows, which has a shelf-life of just one game.
But the painful part, the tragedy that is sewn into baseball, is how deeply human it is. Even the most graceful outfielders will stumble and drop the ball. Virtuosic hitters in their prime statistically fail more than they succeed, literally swinging at empty air. The greatest pitchers will suddenly and inexplicably crumble, and get deposed from their thrones, in full view of us all. They walk away, shrunken and self-hating, or reluctant and raging. This is high tragedy. They stand in for us, for our own strivings, successes and failures.
As I observe all of this, my body sympathetically knots and unknots, and happily, guiltily exhales. Because it’s only a game.
—Annie-B Parson, choreographer and co-director, Big Dance Theater
It’s all about the batting stances for me. I could reenact the stances of any of the players I really love, starting from about 1971. Batters are all trying to do the same thing, more or less: hit a very small object, moving at high speed, with a narrow stick. And yet each of them approaches it in a unique way, right? Each batter has his own strange, bizarre way of preparation. They’re widely varied, like tropical birds.
Both pitchers and batters are, to me, the pinnacle of an alert readiness that’s right at the threshold of motion. That transition from alert stillness, into motion, back into stillness, back into motion—it’s a substantial amount of contained energy that’s just looking for a vessel, for a moment of opportunity.
Kate Valk, of the Wooster Group, and I made a little dance project once and, during the process, I enacted a few of these batters’ stances, which ended up making it into the piece, called Relaxing Classical Bach Exercise. As soon as you assume someone’s body posture, you can start becoming them, from the outside in. Simply emulating one’s physicality can bring all sorts of insight. I like the idea of “reverse engineering” movement in that way.
—Paul Lazar, co-director, Big Dance Theater