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Leigh Witchel

A Sociology Paper on Ballet

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While doing a search on the Web I ran across this paper on ballet done by a senior at Southern Illinois State University - it was placed on the website because it was given an A grade.

http://www.siue.edu/SOCIOLOGY/Kelso.htm

It's quite long, but for those who read it, I think presents many topics of conversation. Most importantly, it looks at ballet from a very negative point of view that I think needs to be addressed, simply because it's out there and persists.

What do others think?

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Well, Leigh, I did read it...and to really discuss it thoroughly I should read it again and take notes.

My first impressions are that it is extremely negative and that the majority of footnoted claims are from tracts that are from about 30 years ago. We all know that there have been many unseemly things that have gone on in the ballet world but some of these supposed facts just don't seem plausible to me... the weigh ins at ABT?

That being said, I have to believe that there have been some great strides made towards improving the health and welfare of dancers in the ballet world...otherwise it is time to fold up the tents and go home.

Maybe we should take specific "facts" the author of the paper expounds upon and do a little dissection? Much of her information seems quite dated to me. Let us hope so.

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It's a wonderful 'tome' and I urge all to read it--if it is only partially true, it is quite devastating.

Hurrah for 'collective bargaining'.

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I couldn't read the whole thing, I agree with BW, most of the "facts" cited are from the early 80's

This line made me think the girl has never been to a ballet

"However, all of ballet looks the same with cookie-cut out dancers expressing themselves in the same ways to the same music. "

Which in my eyes immediately discredits her :)

I don't know what's worse though, the fact that she took all of this as "fact" or that she got an A on the paper.

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and let's never underestimate the pervasiveness of grade inflation. an A nowadays is an average grade.

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Originally posted by rg

and let's never underestimate the pervasiveness of grade inflation. an A nowadays is an average grade.

This has absolutely nothing to do with the article, but rg's comment about an A being an average grade reminds me of a story from my college days that's too good to waste.

Lenice, a young woman with all Bs and As (this was way before grade inflation), dared to take Dudley Sherwood's third year classical Greek class. She was the only student. She was a legend; she was only a junior, but had taken a Greek seminar the preceding summer at Georgetown, with their seniors, and gotten a B-plus.

Mr. Sherwood gave her a C.

She was a bit stunned, since her test papers had reflected no detected errors and went to Mr. Sherwood, expecting to be told it was an error. "But Lenice," he said. "You were the only student in the class. Ergo, you must get a C, as a C means average."

Back to Leigh's article, which I've only skimmed, I think it's horrendous that something like that would be accepted . much less given an A, but the only ballet story that the American "intelligentsia" (and I lose the term loosely to refer to many in academia, where modern dance, oldstyle, still dominates) wants to hear is that ballet is bad, it kills people, it's too selective, it won't let in short little fat people with bow legs and is, as Mr. Sherwood would say, ergo bad.

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While I might not have given this paper more than a B at best, and I don't agree with much of what she says, it's okay. There are spelling and grammar issues, but that may be the webmaster's problem, not the writer's. It has the flaws one would expect from a senior paper reliant on secondary sources. She does quote frequently from Suzanne Gordon's "Off Balance," which was published in 1983, but there are later cites as well. And yes, it's plain that she doesn't have much in-depth knowledge of ballet, but then she's not pretending to be a ballet expert. She's approaching the subject from a sociological perspective, which is obviously going to be different. It's fine to disagree, but take a minute and refute a specific point or two.

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okay points to refute

professional dancers are not attending college and in some cases are even dropping out of high school (Gordon, 1983).

I don't think this is the case anymore, I think now, far more than before has actually been reversed.

It is not uncommon for a dancer to walk into what she thinks will be her daily ballet class and find a scale set up in the center of the dance studio instead (Gordon 1983

again, maybe it happened in 83....

The whole section on anorexia and diagnosis.

Yes below 15% below body weight is considered to be a factor in determining anorexia (and amenorrhea is associated with both low weight, stress and/or over exercising) but that does not constitute every dancer as being anorexic simply because they have low body weight. Some people's metabolism is different. And yes, it is a problem in ballet, but this paper implies all dancers are anorexic.

Management wants all of its dancers to look alike onstage, and it believes that audiences might find it distracting or hard to believe if a black dancer were to play a white snowflake in a sea of other white snowflakes danced by white dancers

I think that's an absurd statement with no "fact" to back it up.

I think if she had stuck to the subculture theme of the paper, from a sociological perspective, she might have come away a bit better.

The whole Rational Choice Theory, doesn't really apply, at least how she describes "the behavior is influenced by the rewards and costs that people anticipate for a given action". I think it's called work ethic.

And now, I'm too tired to continue. anyone else?

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Thanks for taking the time to do that, Calliope. I think refuting further generalities from two decades ago is pretty futile. :) (Even in high school a teacher, especially in sociology, can say look at the date of your source!)

On the dancers attending college, to take just one point, there are now several universities offering majors in ballet -- not the case until recently. And colleges around major dance companies (Fordham in New York is one of the best examples) offer accommodations to dancers. Companies are also more aware of retraining responsibilities now than in the past.

One could write a really zippy attack on ballet -- no overtime! no health insurance!! no job security!!! -- based on memoires from the Ballets Russes dancers of the 1930s and 1940s. :)

In my skim, what I saw were a lot of suppositions and examples of "conventional wisdom" (the scales in the dance class, for example) that keep being perpetuated in the media, as well, apparently, in high schools.

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I finally got to the section about ABT and AGMA (from 1979)

I wonder if she knows that ABT broke out of AGMA recently?

And don't get me started about the campaign to fix underweight ballet dancers. And to use the film "Center Stage" as any kind of a reference on ballet, ugh.

Sorry, it makes me want to not send my kids to school at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

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I'm sick of debating this kind of garbage. All I have to say is that it would have done her some good to get first-hand experience interviewing dancers, choreographers, and visiting studios, and (horrors!) seeing performances, not to mention a little research on the history of ballet, instead of relying on the twisted ramblings of Gelsey Kirkland and the editorial rants of Lewis Segal as though they were objective and balanced. Unfortunately, it seems as though her mind has already been made up about ballet. When you already "know" the answers, it doesn't matter how much evidence to the contrary there is. Therefore, any evidence to the contrary becomes suspect: dancers who like ballet are dismissed as "brainwashed," or "enlightened" directors are the exception, etc. The whole thing is not an objective critique of ballet and body image, but a diatribe about how ballet is the most evil hegemony in the whole wide world. If she's going to argue about the potentially negative effects ballet training can have on body image, which is a legitimate and interesting debate, there is no need for the constant venom she lets flow about the whole art of ballet. For instance, what does racial diversity or lack thereof in ballet companies have to do with body image? Nothing, except that it's a damn good addition to an already overflowing pot of arguments about why Ballet Is Bad. Finally, I am plainly amused by the fact that she thinks all ballet looks the same; that is the most telling assertion she makes in the whole paper.

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Well said BalletNut, had she just looked up your username, she would've gotten a wealth of info!

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"Patrick Bissell, a well-renowned dancer,

says that “it’s not easy to partner very thin dancers…they scream out all of a sudden because you pick them up…it makes you very tentative about how you touch them” (Gordon, 1983, p. 151)."

It's also really hard to partner when you're high on cocaine...

I have always despised "arguments" where the author states what they want to state and then tags on a footnote or reference. You can't go look at each reference for every sentence and so the argument reads as though it is logical and based solidly on fact, when it is not.

Definitely not an A paper.

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I'm staggered that this is an 'A'; not because of the intrinsic merits or otherwise of the case that she makes, but because of the student's overwhelming reliance on one source.

For all I know, she may have simply made a precis of Gordon (1983) with adversion to a few additional sources so that this was not so nakedly obvious.

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Actually, another reference which seems to appear a lot is the book by Benn and Walters, which is recent (2001) and does sound quite negative too. Has anybody heard about that book?

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That work is an article from a British dance journal available online here: http://www.btinternet.com/~Negativecharism...bodies/benn.pdf

Its main thrust deals with weight and body image, actually I don't think it's particularly polemical in its assertions. The research and interviews in it, however, were done in the United Kingdom, not in the United States.

I do find it interesting to note that both papers rely on Kirkland's books to back up their assertions on the detrimental effect ballet has on people in it. Little did Gelsey know when she wrote them she'd be cited scholastically.

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Estelle, The paper by Benn and Walters, is available online on this link . To my surprise, one of the authors is Dorcas Walters, principal with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

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For the record, I'm dredging up an older thread on a very similar issue, Political Correctness and Ballet?

It's simpler to be dismissive of opinions like the one in the paper (she took work to find her cites, and it takes work to refute them) but I think in the long run the ballet community is better off coming up with responses, including in some cases, "We're working on that."

I don't see myself ever completely agreeing with Ms. Kelso, simply because I think her underlying goal is a sort of blanket egalitarianism that I don't believe in. At the same time, I was walking across the plaza of Lincoln Center the other day when a group of young schoolchildren, probably from a day camp, were coming from the opposite end, on a field trip. As I saw them, it seemed quite possible most of them came from homes were they might not ever come to Lincoln Center otherwise. What are those young children going to see when they come to Lincoln Center? What are they going to think? The reason I love New York City Ballet with the passion of a baseball fan is, because when I look at the company, I think, "This is my company. This is my hometown team." If I showed those children a ballet performance tonight, would it seem magnificent, or would it seem (as it does for different reasons to Ms. Kelso) alien? Will they look at it and think, "This is not mine?" And how can I get them to think "This is mine, too!"

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Leigh, I think there are children in Appalachia, or in Your Home Suburb, who would find an NYCB performance as alien as inner city children. I don't think any ballet company can make up for what's lacking in a home or in a society.

As far as racial politics go, the only way that children of a disenfranchised group (underclass, perceived disenfranchised, whatever word that works for you) will feel a part of something that's done by the power group is when this no longer matters. When we look at someone and no longer think -- Hmm. Spanish looking, but a bit Asian, too. Filipino? When we look at a person who had some ancestors who once lived in Africa as an American -- fill in appropriate home country.

I don't think we change it the old Quota Way. Gosh. There's nothing for the Iriquois in our rep! We'd better add a Native American piece quick! Commission something from three African-American, two Asian-American, and someone born in the Southern Hemisphere -- No! Those are outdated demographics. Make that three Latinos, two AfricanAmericans and one Asian American. Etc etc etc. I find that insulting to everyone involved. I don't think it makes anyone feel more included, and I don't think it does anything for the art form.

Society is changing, but, like anything, changes in deeply held perceptions take at least two generations to work through, and we only really got serious about this in the 1960s. And I don't mean the birth of a second generation, I mean the disappearance of the generation that grew up under the old regime. (I am not suggesting hastening that.)

Until then, what? Do as much as possible to make everyone feel welcome. Do everything possible to make scholarships available to people of all groups who need them. Do a real affirmative action program -- go after "children of color" the way ballet companies go after boys. I have great admiration for what Eliot Feld has done -- go into the schools. Give those children jobs.

As for the body image thing, I like the sports analogy. Any talented player is taken who meets certain height and weight requirements appropriate for that sport. Within this, there are different body types -- I once wrote a piece on this, in the early 1980s, comparing the long, lean Dallas Cowboys to shorter, stockier, Washington Redskins, postulating that coaches made body type choices in much the same way choreographers and balletmasters do.

We have a society now that is very sensitive to "You're unfair to me!" We stop everything and try to make that right -- even if we ignore, or are more unfair, to 100 other people. No one loses out on a job because they're unqualified. No no. It's because I'm a woman, or a member of this ethnic group, or my accent is wrong, or or or or or. Should a ballet company be able to reject someone because his neck is too short, her legs are bowed, his feet are flat, and she's knock-kneed? Yes.

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Leigh and Brendan, thanks for the link to the paper by Benn and Walters. Very interesting.

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