Career Advice

Top Artists Confess Their Guiltiest Pleasures

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.     

The Book of Mormon. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy The Book of Mormon.

“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

Photo by Adam Taylor, Courtesy ABC.

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

Spice Girls. Photo by Eric Mutrie.

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

Houston performing "Saving All My Love for You." Photo courtesy HBO.

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.

London's "Dance the Dream" flash mob. Photo by Jenna Lee, courtesy Dance the Dream.

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.

Parson and Lazar. Photo by Eric Roman, courtesy Big Dance Theater.

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

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Dance in Pop Culture
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Including, of course, Center Stage (Screenshot via Vimeo)

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Health & Body
Photo by Jim Lafferty

Do you have a sprained ankle that won't heal? It's not that rare. Studies have shown that 10 to 30 percent of sprains will have symptoms later. So what is a sprained ankle anyway? It's the most common injury in all of sports and dancing.

Dancing pushes your body to its limit. If you roll over on your ankle when landing from a jump, you can sprain or injure the ligaments on the outer (lateral) side that hold the joint together. This is different from a "strain," which affects your tendons and muscles. An easy way to remember this distinction is this: You sprain your ankle, but you strain your Achilles tendon. The degree of injury varies, depending on the damage to the ligaments. We determine this by a physical exam and X-rays that help us classify the ankle sprain as Grade I (mild), II (moderate), or III (severe). The most serious sprain involves a complete tear of the ligaments with marked instability that often requires surgery. Fortunately, most sprains are Grade I or II and heal in three to six weeks. The exceptions are those that continue to cause trouble. This is the "sprained ankle that won't heal."

In medical circles, residual problems from sprained ankles cause considerable angst, because they can be hard to diagnose and difficult to treat-especially when telltale signs are ignored by stoic dancers. Problems with old sprains tend to fall into three categories: swelling, pain, and instability ("giving way").


It's normal for a sprained ankle to swell, sometimes for four to six weeks, or longer. But swelling that persists for more than three months may be a sign of trouble. The lining of the capsule surrounding a joint is called the synovium, and anything inside the joint that irritates the synovium will cause it to secrete fluid. Swelling inside of a joint is often a sign that something is causing irritation. (The swelling that is seen from the outside is a combination of soft tissue swelling around the joint and fluid within the joint itself.) In the ankle there are several reasons for this condition. While these may seem alarming, treatment is possible. But first, let's take a look at the culprits.

Chronic synovitis Sometimes there is damage to the surface of the joint that does not show up on any tests, such as an X-ray or MRI, even though it continues to cause irritation and excess fluid.

A bone chip At the time of injury, a bone chip may have been knocked loose, leaving a "loose body" floating around inside to cause trouble.

An OCD lesion "OCD" in sports medicine stands for osteochondritis dissecans (not obsessive compulsive disorder). The easiest way to think of this is like a cavity in a tooth. It is something that leaves a small hole in the surface on the ankle bone (the talus) with a dead piece of bone in it. An MRI study will usually pick this up.

A bone bruise This is not black and blue. Instead, it feels like an achy pain that is difficult to explain and lasts for months. There is edema, or fluid, within the bones themselves that we can only see on an MRI study. Fortunately, it is rarely serious and gradually fades away.

What can you do? Treatment for chronic swelling, no matter what the cause, usually requires sleeping with the leg elevated on a pillow at night and putting on an elastic ankle support in the morning when you get out of bed. If the swelling is minimal and is slowly going away with no other symptoms, it is OK to dance, but go easy on the jumps and grand plies till all the swelling is gone. However, if it doesn't feel so good then don't do it! An ankle support (no need for metal hinges, etc.) usually feels good at this stage.

It also helps to avoid the saltshaker, which leads to water retention. With diligence, the swelling should go away. However, if the leg is swollen up the shin, something else may be happening, and it needs to be checked out by your doctor. Swelling that does not go away is a sign that something more is wrong. Normal joints do not swell.


There are several common causes of ankle pain that does not go away:

The sinus tarsi syndrome Lingering inflammation, scar tissue, or a partly torn ligament can occur in the hollow place in the side of the anklebone called the sinus tarsi (sinus in Latin means hollow or sunken and the tarsus is the ankle). This is the most common cause of the sprained ankle that won't heal. While it can be difficult to discern this problem on an X-ray or MRI, a physical exam by a dance medicine specialist can pinpoint the diagnosis by locating the exact area that hurts.

A tarsal coalition Residual pain in the sinus tarsi after the original sprain heals can also be due to an unrecognized tarsal coalition. The ankle has two components: the regular ankle joint that moves up and down, and the subtalar (ST) joint beneath it that moves in and out. Together, they make up the ankle joint complex. Some people are born with limited motion in their ST joint because the bones in this area are joined together where they ought to be separate—a coalition. It can usually be seen on an X-ray or MRI. This condition is present in about five percent of ankles. It usually occurs in one ankle only, rather than both. As with a sprain, it can be mild, moderate, or severe. In dancers, it is usually mild or it would have caused trouble before the sprain. Dancers with mild symptoms can often work around it.

The high ankle sprain This is marked by tenderness in the front of the ankle on the outside. Unlike routine ankle sprains where the main damaged ligaments lie right in the sinus tarsi, this one affects a ligament that is higher up, at the level of the ankle joint itself. This is the so-called "high" ankle sprain, which can be a real bugaboo because it takes two to three times longer to heal than a routine sprain. It may not show up on medical tests, so the diagnosis is usually made on the basis of the physical exam.

Secondary problems Lastly, there are several conditions, such as FHL tendonitis ("dancer's tendonitis") and the os trigonum syndrome that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Dancers often think that the residual pain is part of the healing process when it is actually a separate problem. Later the sprain may heal, but these conditions can continue to be painful and may even require surgery if left unaddressed.


"My ankle gives way" is probably the second most common leftover problem with ankle sprains after the sinus tarsi syndrome. We doctors see it all the time. Many things can cause this problem. Fortunately most respond to appropriate treatment.

Peroneal weakness There are two peroneal tendons that run parallel down the outside of the ankle; one is short and the other is long. Their major function is to keep the ankle from rolling over and prevent sprains. After an injury they can remain weak, so the ankle is poorly protected from further roll-overs. It's easy at this point to fall into the vicious cycle of "Because it's weak it rolls over and because it rolls over it's weak," which can go on for months. If this is the problem, it is easy to fix. Simply restore the normal peroneal strength with physical therapy. A few months of daily use of a theraband, under the guidance of a physical therapist, will usually strengthen the peroneals. (They gain strength faster if the exercises are done in the full "tendu" position.)

Laxity of the ankle ligaments Grade I sprains do not usually damage the ankle ligaments to any extent, but repeated Grade II or Grade Ill injuries can lead to permanent looseness of the ligaments that hold the anklebones together. This is a difficult situation, because they can be tightened only by surgery. The surgery is quite effective, but the recovery is usually three months or more. So it is nice to avoid it if you can.

Many loose ankles often give way because of a combination of looseness and weakness. These can often be brought up to full strength with physical therapy and then they don't give way anymore. The number one indication for ankle ligament surgery is the failure of rehab to correct the problem.

Pain, swelling and instability

The problems associated with a recurring sprained ankle can co-exist and produce all three symptoms. In this ease the diagnosis is particularly difficult. There is one last problem that might be going on:

Peroneal tendon damage With repeated sprains, the peroneal tendons can develop small longitudinal rents or tears. When this happens, the tendons swell up in the sheathes that surround them and cause achy pains, chronic swelling and weakness that cannot be corrected by exercise. This problem is easy to miss and hard to correct because it usually gets worse in spite of all treatment. Fortunately, this condition also responds well to surgery.

The best way to diagnose these various problems is to see a sports or dance medicine specialist for a history, physical exam, and appropriate studies. Your doctor may request X-rays followed by an MRI, CT and/or bone scan. Physical therapy is usually the first step in the recovery. Do not try to treat yourself! There is an old expression in medicine that says, "Someone who treats themselves has a fool for a physician." Merde!

William G. Hamilton, M.D. is the orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, The School of American Ballet and the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Ballet School.

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