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I have to confess I have an aversion to dance movies, in my opinion a good let alone realistic one hasn’t been made since The Turning Point in 1977 unless of course you go back to the 1948 classic The Red Shoes. What is often most bothersome to me (and to most real dancers) about these movies is the hyperbolic way they portray our world. They simply try too hard to make dancers (especially ballet dancers) and our world something intense and, dramatic, catty and full of angst. T’ruth be told, it does have its fair share of drama, albeit most professions do. Perhaps ours seem more flamboyant because the end product is so theatrical. It could be because so little is actually known about what takes over the 10-15 years of training to become an inhabitant. There is an exclusivity, it is a world foreign to most, rarefied in a way, and there are so few non- dancers are able to get inside it in order to understand the sanity of the insanity if the world. It’s not just a job or a lifestyle; it is a mentality, a way of thinking that shapes the dwellers perception of the world both on and off stage. It is akin to the world professional sports, what you see, though oft times a glamorized exaggeration, is in fact true, but it is not the totality of that truth. Without the “Why’s” for the way things are, it just looks extreme and crazy. To understand it you would have to live it.
Since Black Swan is the current dance movie has brought the dance genre to the fore, I thought now would be a perfect moment to debunk some of the stereotypical myths dance movies love to promote. Some you will find in Aronofsky’s movie but they are ever present in films like Center Stage, Save the Last Dance, Fame (the original and the re-make) and The Company. Here I will deconstruct why those seemingly obligatory scenes in dance movies cause *real dancer to roll their eyes or giggle to the irritation of other audience members. It’s pretty simple, we get annoyed or tickled mainly because we know that these things just don’t happen-or at least not quite that way. Please let me explain:
The Myth 1: There are “Good” Girls and “Bad ”Girls: These simplistic characters are it present in most formulaic movie and television plots, well they have not been lost in dance films. The good girl (usually the protagonist) is recognizable in all the trite and true ways, she wears lighter colors, follows the rules and is just trying to do her best by everyone, her director, her fellow dancers and her love interest. She doesn’t drink, smoke, party, and has sex only when she is believes that she is truly in love, oh right it’s a dance movie so she doesn’t eat. The bad girl, is of course the antithesis, she wears dark clothes has a biker, rocker attitude complete with tattoos, booze, drugs, is slutty if not down right whorish, oh and she doesn’t give two shits what she eats, and she ain’t throwin’ up either! In the end she will probably end up getting kick out of the company or program, but she’ll let it roll off of her back because she’s already decided that she can make more money as a stripper.
The Truth: I know it’s a movie, and I doubt if creating characters with complexity and depth is really the goal in this genre. Real dancers are real people whether in a dance studio, on stage, walking the dog or doing a shot, they are as complex if not more then a doctor, schoolteacher, mother, or a waitress. We get that screenwriters are trying to make a point but it borders on offensive when you think that this is the best they care to create. These shallow characters, with the either/or good/bad polarities only reinforce the fallacy that that in order to be a great artist you have to be neurotic. When “bad” girls are displayed as the girls who have something of a “normal” life outside of the studio, (all of which is considered negative in the context of the dance world) it implies that somehow having a “balance” in life means that you is less dedicated. It’s just wrong. The concept that dedication, and passion equals myopia, and obsession, is part of the myth that makes dancers look crazy, and that just isn’t true.
Here’s the thing: part of what makes artists rich, multidimensional are their choices, and it is the breadth of their experiences and their ability to reference that informs them. You source your characters from the totality of your experiences – good, bad, sweet naughty or nice you have to have them. One last thought on this topic, dancers are like Catholic schoolgirls, it’s always the ones you least expect that are doing some of the wildest stuff, I’m just sayin’
The Myth 2: In the middle of a rehearsal an insolent arrogant dancer (usually the rebel) talks back to the artistic director or choreographer (who no doubt has a towel draped around his neck).
The Truth: Depending on the type of company you are dealing with (ballet, modern, contemporary, downtown- big, small, pick-up etc.) the dynamics will differ. These movies are usually about big juggernaut companies or arts school, when companies are big or historical there is usually an old school hierarchy where respect trickles down from the top and usually runs out around about the middle. You just don’t come out of your face at certain people. No one, new dancer or old who what’s a job has that much hubris. Now in smaller companies you might find a bohemian, collaborative sort of feel in these or newer companies these scenarios might be possible if not believable.
Having graduated from an arts school and having been a dancer in both ballet, post modern and contemporary companies, let me assure you these sorts of tirades from dancers towards directors are few and far between. If there is an outburst most commonly it is between two people on the same power level. When it does happen generally it doesn’t just pop off, there is some underlying subtext going on, some pressure build up. If it does occur, be sure there are repercussions and they are likely to be*more dramatic then presented in cinema.
To fully understand why incidents such as these seldom occur you must understand the environmental behaviors of dancers in the studio. We [dancers] *can be attitudinal and arrogant but these things are played out with graceful subtlety. We throw what is called shade.
Shade – (verb) to do things undercover, sneaky, untrustworthy, two faced, duplicitous.
We are by our very nature shady creatures. In the studio most feelings of anger frustration, or dislike are not overtly displayed or verbalized but rather expressed in veiled and coded body language. In the studio dancers are very often muted characters their personalities and opinions are reduced to mumbles under their breath as they feign stretching with their backs to the object of their disdain. With head down over a ballet barre or with forehead to leg they throw shade (check the vocabulary word) and “read” directors and fellow dancers.
To Read- (verb) to made a biting, often evil comments about a person place or thing; a spiteful opinion, or hateful truth, sometimes a bit of gossip. Example: “She’s so turned in it’s a wonder she doesn’t step on her own toes”
Along with undercover mumbled reads, apropos to the field, dancers also communicate their irritation and anger through subtle pantomime and facial expressions; the smirk, the shift of the eye to or away from a person, the turning one’s back says volumes. Dancers are adroit at camouflaging such behaviors, as we live in a world reflected (studios are walled with mirrors) thus one must be careful that an opinion no matter how slightly manifested in gesture is not caught by the wrong person at the right time.
Now the world of dance and its inhabitants are not without verbalized drama. Oh dancers know how to used their voices, but only in choice places. It is in the dressing room where true tirades happen. Dancers love to bitch to one another, albeit in a place where prying, tattling eyes and ears are limited. In safe zones gatherings of trusted colleagues vocalize their feelings. It is understood that these read and bitch fests are “privileged” and off the “official” record. They happen in dressing rooms, and walks to and from the subway, dancers rail over copious bottles of wine in apartments or restaurants (yes we do drink, some of us like fishes- another myth but to rest), we bitch about casting, and politics, money, our bodies, we imitate directors, choreographers and other dancers (some in present company for jokes, more often absent from the gathering, for jabs). We are capable of saying hateful things, or harsh truths behind one another’s backs. That having been stated, when approached by an authority figure most dancers are rendered struck deaf, dumb and mute. They are like the three monkeys see no evil, hear no evil speak no evil. They seldom stand up form themselves let alone others for fear of retaliation from the powers that be. Rarely are there face-to-face showdowns and when there are, they are not in the studio. Oh how I wish they were, then maybe some issues might actually get solved. Now, those in authority have the license to go off when ever and where ever they choose and they do. That’s a truth and *those tirades are built for filmmakers. Alas the lowly inhabitants of the dance world are not by nature confrontational creatures in the face of authority, all their “drama” is internalized, subtext and subtext is hard to catch on film.
The Myth 3: The artistically frustrated outburst: Picture a ballerina frustrated at not being able to execute a phrase, she drops to the floor in a heap, tears of her pointe shoes and hurls them across the room.
The Truth: Wait a second now I have seen this one; I have seen this one back stage during an actual performance of Serenade. So I won’t say that this one isn’t true, dancers often act like petulant children during the process, however outbursts such as these occur when the artist reached an internal critical mass or perhaps, they are a drama queen by nature, we do have them. What is more common is the progression leading up to that point which looks more like a grunt of irritation, a stomp of a foot and then dejected walk to a corner of the studio for a sulk, or quiet tearing up. Not too exciting externally, not overtly cinematic, that’s because you can’t see their internal landscape, inside there could be a perfect storm brewing, all sorts of things are being stirred up that go to inadequacy, aging, fear of the next one taking your place, pain, injury, and fatigue. You can be sure that while that dancer is having “a moment”, others are reading her either because she is the resident drama queen and they are over it having seen it one too many times, the day is too long to deal with an attention seeker, or they might feel like she should have never been cast in the first place, hence she should be crying. Either way no one pays much attention because they are dealing with their own internal landscape that needs manicuring. Thus the dance is left alone to work through the emotion on their own and then get back to work.
The Myth 4: (These scenes in dance movies really irk me) The backstage wing scenes. There is always the person who shouldn’t be there who is standing in the wing enraptured clutching the light boom coveting either the dancer on stage or their role, whilst dancers oblivious to their presence whiz by them to make exists or entrances.
The Truth: These things just don’t happen, not like that. Backstage, if you don’t belong there, someone is going to rip you and new one for clogging the wing or being in the way. If it’s not a dancer trying to enter or exit, it will certainly be a stagehand. Stagehands are not joke. This is a work place and there is a backstage etiquette observed by show people, if you are not working in the show you shouldn’t be there and if you are allowed to observe you stand back- way back, out of the wing and out of the way. People have a job to do, the pace is quick, transitions crucial, and it can be dangerous if you don’t know what’s going on. Performers are in the zone of sorts, and focused. They talk to one another for sure, but to an idle observer between entrances, rarely. If you are so brazen as to sneak back stage during a performance when you are not supposed to be there you surely risk the wrath of someone harshly telling you to get the hell out of the way, (don’t take it personally – but move the hell out of the way!). At times there are guests backstage, people there to observe but they stay out of the flow of traffic like a fly on the wall. When they catch a dancers eye there is often a cursory “hi” or “hey” perhaps just a quick polite smile of acknowledgement from the performer who more than likely in their head is pondering, “Who the hell is that, and why are they back here?” There are no full-blown introductions or conversations about where this relationship is going, or why did you cheat on me? Please!
The Myth 5: After every successful performance dancers erupt into whoops and cheers.
The Truth: Not that there isn’t an incredible excitement when a ballet goes for the first time or when someone dances a new role but the adulation tends to be once again muted while on the actual stage. You are still at work, there is a curtain call to be done and frankly there is an audience in the house. I will tell you that there is often a cacophony of excitement in the stairwells and hallways leading —that’s right to the dressing rooms, there safely out of earshot of the audience there are whoops and hollers, some tears and of course some shade being thrown and people reading!
The Myth 6: Oh the Pain of it all. Dance movies love to highlight the physical pain and suffering that dancers endure, when someone gets injured there is always a loud crack! And a dramatic fall to the floor. There are shots of stiff upper lips and the stifled wincing and bleeding of toes.
The Truth: The life of a dancer is physical and hard on the body. It is arduous work and it can be is painful. There are some horrific injuries that happen and some of them are audible. What makes viewing dancers roll their eyes when watching scenes like these is the over dramatization of the daily pain. Here’s the truth, if you have trained for the 10-15 years it takes to become a professional dancer then the daily rigors, aches and pains are nothing more to you then the back ache or carpel tunnel syndrome an office worker sitting at a desk all day typing experiences. It is par for the course, and waking up to the click clack of joints and tight muscles are normal- it’s a state of being not necessarily “suffering.” To dancers this level of aches and pains, discomfort is akin to the soreness a normal person who go to the gym daily feels. To a lay person who is not acutely aware or in tune with their bodies it may sound like hell to in some form or fashion be sore all the time, but we have trained our bodies for years and this is for us normal, after a point you don’t even think about it because you don’t know any different. I’m sure that garbage men feel their backs from the constant hoisting of cans, hairdresser their legs from standing, musicians often lose a portion of their hearing, Wall Street Traders are constantly stressed and all of our presidents have gone gray, it’s not deep, it’s part of the job. It’s just a day at the office to us, it’s not dramatic, injury however can be.
Finally I think that Myth 7 is hysterical, Love in the studio: Every dance movie is really a backdrop for a love story. I’m not saying that love is not found in the dance studio, but have you noticed that in all of these movies the “romance” is between men and women, come one now. Do I really need to go any further with this one?
The Truth: Let’s just say that if there are any gays serving in the military that want a profession where they can be out and be open, they should become dancers because there is no such thing as “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” in our world. I’m not saying that you can’t find straight male dancers (and for sure if you do they do tend to be man-whores, most time having slept with a number of the women in the company what with the ratio being what it is) but it is more common to see romance bloom between two male company members, given the numbers. There are some hetro- romances that happen in the studio, even those that happen between dancer and director, but if you wanted a realistic portrayal of the dance world, then you’re going to have to get your man love on.
These are my 7 top ten myths of irritation when it comes to dance films. That’s my 2 cents you can keep the change!
a detailed analysis and assessment of something, esp. a literary, philosophical, or political theory.
1 a person who expresses an unfavorable opinion of something : critics say many schools are not prepared to handle the influx of foreign students.
2 a person who judges the merits of literary, artistic, or musical works, esp. one who does so professionally : a film critic.
Alistair Macaulay’s tactless comment about New York City Ballet’s Sugar Plum Fairy Jenifer Ringer is still not sitting right with me. It was egregious, catty and no doubt hurtful to Ms. Ringer. In addition it was insulting to all the ballet dancers who might actually look like women (yes, some real ballerinas have curves). What makes me so irascible is how susceptible critics can be to becoming distracted or side tracked by a dancers physical aesthetic, so much so that they completely forget to notice of the actual performance. Clearly in Macaulay’s case Ringer’s zaftig form caught his eye, so we know she was fuller than the average, we know little to nothing about her skills or artistry on that evening?
Next to the “play by play” style of critique, the critic who becomes enamored with performers beauty, form, or the opposite polarity grates my nerves. Like a civilian in Trueblood’s Bon Temps they can be easily “glamoured” by arched feet, sky-high legs, rippling chests and backs, skimpy costumes and light catching cheekbones or vice versa, they forget that they are there to see more deeply into the work. Critics are charged to evaluate the structure, content and composition of the work, to deconstruct movement phrases, perhaps even identify the linage of its roots, to make note of the harmony or contrast that the movement has to the music. They are charged with rendering their opinion as to whether the performers executed, and embodied the work, was their technique brilliant or brittle? Did they draw you in or push you away? Did their performances elevate the choreographer’s work or drag it down? When a critic gets caught up or distracted by certain physical characteristics that have little to nothing to do with the work, not only is it annoying but in actuality they are not doing their job, because they are missing it.
Quite frankly as a performer it’s insulting. While performing with Armitage Gone! Dance I personally experienced the effects of the glamoured critic’s gaze. In the founding days of the company was a small bunch, (Eight for the first project, reduced to five when the company “officially” formed) everyone was visible and in certain ways featured. Our racial diversity made it even easier for critics to distinguish us since no one looked alike, and as five, there were only two women Megumi Eda and myself. As is the mode of contemporary dance companies we danced half nude in couture leotards designed by Donna Karan’s own Peter Speliopolous. The preview press articles for the company were favorable and I was dubbed the Amazon from Philadelphia. One of our board members loved to introduce me as the “Amazon from Philadelphia” I was tickled as I had learned to take pride in my height and power, and frankly at the time I was feeling quite fierce!
Our premiere season at the Joyce was a hit! Karole was pleased and we were pleased for her and ourselves. When the reviews began to roll in we were all favorably mentioned but there was uniformity to my mentions:
At one point, Theresa Ruth Howard crossed the entire diagonal of the stage in three huge grands jetés, with her partner running to keep up with her. It was like having a javelin thrown at you.
(Joan Acocella http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/03/22/040322crda_dancing)
Ok, I’m a javelin.
…notable is the powerful Theresa Ruth Howard, shaken so her head snaps by William Isaac, the writhing line of her body achieving the asymmetrical punch of the music by Bartok. (Tamsin Nutter http://www.dpsny.org/onlinemag/review_en_2-3-04.html)
The next season we performed in this Dream that Dogs me for 3 weeks at the Duke Theater. The piece was in three movements the first feature myself in a quartet with the three males of the company (William Isaac, Leonides Arpon and Brian Chung) In it was thrown, slid, twisted, untwisted, shaken and stirred, it was like a fight for my life. In my mind I was a superhero fighting off three villains with an element of high sexual tension. In rehearsal I made jokes that at the end it was like an episode of CSI “It looks like the body was battemented here, dragged then Krumped here, then left to die downstage. There were at least three assailants.” In the middle of the violence was a gentle pas de deux for Chung and me, a shift in dynamics and quality form the beat down, slow, sexy and dreamlike movements (one of my rare moments) these were some of the comments that dogged me.
Theresa Ruth Howard, a former member of Dance Theatre of Harlem with a build like supermodel/beach volleyball player Gabrielle Reece, is the center of a knot of activity, her muscled legs unfolding at the center of the skirmish made by three men of vastly different sizes and temperaments: quicksilver Leonides D. Arpon, tender Brian Carey Chung and regal, aloof William Isaac. The Art Fuse: http://artsfuse.org/?p=155 Debra Cash
Ok, that’s so bad, I mean to be compared to a supermodel, who could be mad at that? However my body is nothing like Gabrielle Reece’s, I am closer in type to a bigger Naomi Campbell but the Reece reference help let the reader know how “Athletic” and “Strong” I was. I took it for what it was and kept it moving:
Three men and one woman emerge in blue for an energetic quartet with the fluid grace of liquid ink. The incredibly buff Theresa Ruth Howard drives Leonides D. Arpon, Brian Carey Chung and William Isaac like a team of eager sled dogs as they wind themselves over, under and alongside of her. (Lisa Rinehart http://danceviewtimes.com/2005/Autumn/10/armitage.html)
I am incredibly buff; ok that’s better then a lard ass…
Theresa Ruth Howard’s untamed mane, powerful, sinewy musculature and explosive energy constantly caught the eye of the audience, (Jennifer Wesnousky
The Joyce Theatre http://www.exploredance.com/article.htm?id=1746)
But before I get overly cynical (ok it’s too late for that but let’s pretend) let me just point out that saying that I am “Muscular” or “Buff”, is akin to saying that I’m Black. It is the second most blatant thing about me and you needed me an expert to observe that. So my thing was, what else did you discover Columbus? Where my body issues are not the responsibility of the critic sitting in the audience they are valid in this particular discussion. I have always disliked the muscularity of my body. I hated the way my body looked dancing but loved the way dancing felt. I have work hard to learn to “soften” or “feminize” my movement to compensate for my structure, which whether real or imagined I perceived as masculine. I have explored the variances of movement dynamic worked to use what I have including clean technique and flexibility, and yes power and strength to create depth and character. Every time I read a review that made mention of my build I felt defeated. All the work I had done in the studio to create relationships both physical and energetic with my fellow dancers, the weaving of an underlying emotional story was pointless. As far as the critics were concerned I could just came out in my little blue velora two-piece costume and posed like a hulking body builder. The comment that cut deepest, and shut me down was made by Seth Rogovoy critic-at-large of the Berkshire Living Magazine he wrote:
In Armitage’s case, while her female dancers aren’t on pointe (as are McIntyre’s for much of the time), there are still plenty of references to and uses of the balletic vocabulary in her works, which, other than for the lack of point, at its most extreme can seem like ballet on steroids. Armitage favors taut, muscular bodies — the phenomenally ripped Theresa Ruth Howard displayed some muscles I never even knew existed on the side of her hips — and much of her choreography builds on pairings — duets, trios, and more — and includes lifts, twirls, and all manner of interlocking activity that both is and isn’t balletic. (http://rogovoy.com/news1306.html)
Let me explain. I have always had these overdeveloped hip flexor muscles, I have always hated them so they make me feel mannish. Later I discovered that I have an extreme case of hip displysia – basically I have no hip sockets, and these hateful muscles are the only reason I have never dislocated. I have since learned to appreciate the wonder and intelligence of my body I managing to hold me together. However this review came long before this discovery. The idea that of all the things that I did on that stage that night, this person could only see- or thought the only thing worth mentioning about me were my bizarre hip muscles. I felt reduced. Rogovoy not only used my body as an extreme example of Armitage’s body type, but he said precious little else about the actual work.
As a dance writer and sometimes critic I do understand how one can get sidetracked in a performance. It happens to me all the time, the way that a dancer holds their neck or uses (or doesn’t use) their feet or arms, or if they seem to be trying too hard to draw focus, things like these annoy me and are hard to shake in the process of watching. However if saddled with the task of reviewing the work I have to get past myself and force myself to see more broadly. Everyone has a preferred aesthetic and is either drawn to or repelled by particular things, critics are human albeit one would expect them to be adroit enough to circumvent such blatant pitfalls. We expect a critic to go deeper than the average layperson, to render some insight, some cultural, historical, or artistic context to what is being presented; hence why I detest the play-by-play I think it’s a cop out. After all your half blind grandma with a hearing problem could probably do that, but we don’t let her word influence whom gets grant money and future bookings do we? It could be called lazy, or bad critique, but often I think it has more to do with the critic not really knowing how to deal with what they are seeing, not knowing where to “place” it. Perhaps it goes against a core aesthetic preference or the standard of the form and they can’t get their heads around it, perhaps it makes them inappropriately uncomfortable or aroused, or perhaps because of their hubris they can’t admit that they just don’t get it, can’t explain, it or it’s just far beyond them, but they have to say something so they wing it by either stating the obvious or giving a blow by blow or worse feigning comprehension. Let me be clear I am not talking about not liking a work and giving an unfavorable review, I am talking about not “liking” a work or reviewing around it primarily because they don’t get it, either aesthetically, culturally or it is not what they perceive as the type of work that particular group “should” be doing or typically does. There is a difference. Sometimes things are just bad and sometimes thing are just different.
There is nothing more infuriating to directors, choreographers and dancers alike then when you read a review and you know that the person is clueless, lost in comprehension and pulling things out of their ass. It happens quite a bit especially when there is an expectation as to what the work of a particular group or choreographer should be or look like. If it challenges the predefined concepts of the expected, then the critic might find themselves at a loss and go with the above mentioned stand bys of critique, or even discredit or dismiss the work entirely. Once again I’m not saying they have to like it, but what would be so wrong in saying that they don’t get it, that it falls outside of their scope of understanding (genre, culturally, historically) then go onto share their experience of the work which would be completely valid. You can’t be an expert at everything, and you don’t have to be, when in the position of not knowing, a visceral response base on your expertise would not only suffice but be much more useful and respectful.
Not to pull the race card (perhaps given my being black Amazon I am more sensitive to this side of things) but I see it quite a bit with the work of artists of color. For example if Ailey does something understated, and not as “high energy and crowd pleasing.” (As has become it’s trademark) it can be considered a let down by critics. It can be hard for them to see those dancers, those bodies do…”less”, and have it be recognized on the same level as their usual work. There was a critic who labeled the music of James Brown and Aretha Franklin Robert Garland choreographed to in Return (Dance Theater of Harlem) as music of “Disco era”. Seriously? There are elements in Alonzo King’s work that I think confounds critics all around, especially coming from a man of color who works through the ballet technique. African dance based work as well as pure Hip-Hop and the fusion of all of the above often go over their heads culturally, thus they resort to the camouflaging tactics that make them look and like they had a clue, where they may sound erudite those in the know know better! Why BS? Just say you are clueless, actually that might be more interesting and you might what to do some investigation and learn something for the future. It certainly would be more honest.
It may seem like a digression but I find it part and parcel of the issue, it goes to an inability to assess work beyond certain elements, and giving a limited analysis of work or an artist for whatever reason. We like to think that the people charged with rendering critique are more knowledgeable in the field then the common person, they must have a deep understanding of dance or theater and will use that information to back up their opinions. And often times they do, but I suspect when they sit in a darkened theater, and the curtain goes up and they are presented with something that stupefies them (good, bad, inexplicable) or they get stuck on something they can’t get beyond there is a sense of vulnerability that must wash over them. That vulnerability is quickly sublimated into panic at having to write about it. To compensate for uncertainly they choose an angle, sometimes they take the easy way out and state the obvious, or make thinly veiled connections that have nothing to do with what was really presented but makes them appear erudite. Sometimes they feel themselves drunk with power and the possibility that an insult or dig whether well crafted or warranted will cause a ripple though the community and wield their words thoughtlessly. I get it, I just would like to pose a question to them, when your work goes to print, does it support, or contribute to the art form? Critique is often a hard and thankless job and sometimes it hurts. However when it serves to elevate, educate and inform, after the sting wears off there is something substantive left behind to be taken into consideration it can be appreciated. So I would like to ask the critics of the world to do something for me, basically tell me something I don’t know.
This is the movie I mentioned in my Fashion Week Essay.
In the clip a model tells of how when she was 17 she was told to eat a rice cake a day, and if that didn’t work then only half of one.
I enjoy fashion as much as the next gal, albeit I refuse to be a financial victim and go into debt for it, wear anything that hurts too much and loath looking like a Rockette sporting the latest fads. I like to look nice but prefer to put my own spin on what I wear and how I wear it regardless of what trendsetters dictate. I am lucid enough to know that all trends do not flatter me and some are best passed on. I will glance fashion magazines on news kiosks while awaiting a flight at the airport but am often hard pressed to buy a copy to carry. I suppose the main reason is that I made a decision long ago not to support things that don’t support me, and don’t believe that most magazines support me. I flip though them and I do not see the possibility of myself. Rarely is there a brown face, and the women – (nay I should say barely post pubescent model/children) look nothing like me in body type. Furthermore where I love the concept of the clothes, when I look at the details and see that the shorts are $2000.00 the blouse $1500.00 and the shoes $900.00 I start to wonder why do I even care to know? Instead of giving you ideas of how to dress better, you get the idea that both physically and financially you will almost always be inadequate, so I personally don’t subscribe. It’s healthier for me that way; I try not to partake in things that make me feel bad.
There are times when I can’t avoid it, and for these two weeks in September and another in April when New York Fashion Week(s) takes place it’s almost impossible. Though New York City is a fashion Mecca year round, Fashion week is like pouring honey around a picnic blanket the city literally crawls with every element of the fashion industry, designers, models, stylists, photographers, make-up artist, buyers, critics, writers, celebrities, their agents, and entourages and their entourage’s entourages. It’s madness, but possible to avoid if you chose to. When the bulk of the shows were held in Bryant Park (34th street midtown) it was easy for me to circumvent. In the evenings after the shows the hotspots for the fabulosity are primarily located downtown in areas like SoHo and Tribeca. There you are sure to find all the most glamorous dining at the hottest restaurants en mass at times, all dewy skinned and glossy, and thinner then you would image. However this year the tents have moved to Lincoln Center 66th street, which has thwarted my ability to hedge the chaos. I work on 55th and 9th and the 59th Street Columbus Circle station is my subway stop when work bound. Several times this week I have been taken aback by the visions of skeletal framed Amazons in denim cut off shorts and ankle boots passing through the station. These apparitions are out of place so far uptown it takes me a few seconds to register, “oh right it’s Fashion Week.”
Nothing quite prepares you for a face-to-face encounter with these creators.
While traversing the city it is not uncommon to encounter “Models” they are often in the subways with their books in hand or tuck away in a hobo bags. Their uniform is quite similar to what you see on Tyra Banks’ America’s Next Top Model: Skinny Jeans, blousy tops or tanks, they favor flats on the form of ballet slippers, beat up boots, or Converse All-Stars. They are cool and hip sometimes they were the various styles of chapeaus that are the rage, (I suppose that’s the edgy look that Banks is always referring to) oddly it is not always their beauty that is eye catching. Frankly living in New York the diversity of beauty is literally around every corner in all shapes and sizes; rather it is their other-worldliness of their elongated gauntness (to call it willowy or sylphlike romanticizes the aesthetic which is in no way “romantic”). There are those who are undeniably beautiful with enviable bone structure, high cheekbones, full lips, and luminous skin, often their features are either quite plain, like a blank canvas with the potential to be transformed with make-up and hair albeit of late the look of choice is that of oddity, the questionable beauty with slightly distorted features that the camera loves. However it is the universality of their height and the slightness of their frame that is disturbing. They are always painfully (unnaturally) thin.
As a dancer I have seen a lot of bodies and I have a keen eye when it comes to the ability to discern the difference between naturally thin and the effortfully skinny, and you can tell the difference. There are several different types of slender there: is the naturally petite small boned, the “Barbie” tall and lanky that does come with breasts, the Gamine, the lean and strong “I work out 6 times a week”, and then there is the “I will do whatever possible to be a sample size” svelte. Most of these Models look like naturally thin post adolescents who have decided to “watch their weight” which has rendered them emaciated, with jutting hipbones and clavicles. Even on subways and stomping the concrete jungle they do their jobs in making you take pause and look at them, if only to wonder “How does one get THAT thin?”
In print the gaunt cheekbones and hollowed eyes can be hauntingly ethereal, alluring and even seductive but in person it often tells a different story. There is something lack luster about the skin, and hair, there is something missing in the eyes. To me they tend to look a bit despondent even sullen, yet it’s this same look that is captured so hauntingly in a great deal of fashion photography and sold as beauty, and glamour. I look at these young- young girls and they look vacant. Something in me wants to rescue them, give them a warm bowl of soup and start an IV drip, perhaps it is because the figure reminds me so much of sickness or oppression like concentration camp victims or the malnourished of impoverished war torn countries. It saddens me but it seems to be exactly what the industry loves, hangers- hangers, don’t have hearts, spirits, or souls.
I hear myself and I cringe for fear of sounding like those people who rail against the system and has everyone turning away from them whispering, “Oh get over it.” I also feel a bit guilty because the assault on the aesthetic is being directed at the girls who are at the mercy of the industry. Yes it is a choice to participate but at as a young girl presented with the opportunity to have one’s beauty validated by not only the industry but the world, to be coveted for it, to make a boatload of money before they are legal and to live the “glamorous” life who’s thinking about the consequence? It is the adults who run the industry and who are to be held accountable as well in part we the consumers (supply and demand- supply and demand).
Something has gone horribly wrong in the last 20 years.
Naomi Campbell just celebrated her 25th year in the industry and has just broken 40. She looks very much like she did the day she as a 14 year old took the industry by storm. Her body long lean, and strong she (arguably) had the best walk in the business and her curves made any garment from bathing suit to couture gown sing. It takes my mind back to the 80’s and the original $10,000 a day girls (an infamous quote uttered by Linda Evangelista to journalist Jonathan van Meter for Vogue interview in 1990). The brat pack of original supermodels: Cindy (Crawford), Christy (Turlington), Naomi (Campbell), Linda (Evangelista), and Claudia (Schiffer), they (pre Kate Moss) were the reign of the Amazons not only fuller-bodied than their present day counterparts but they had breasts and booty and personality, a sparkle in the eye, a mischievous glint. They would serve a little smirk or smile at the end of a runway and we loved it. Some were just gorgeous and lovable like the astoundingly hot girl next door (Cindy and Claudia) some were just so utterly, unapologetically themselves (Campbell) and then there were the chameleons (Turlington and Evangelista) with hair and make- up they could be anything, or anyone, like still photo actresses. It was that sort of thing that sparked the advent of the “Spokesmodel” there came a time when we actually wanted to know what these femme fatales had to say, what did they sound like? We wanted more- we didn’t even care if they were trying to sell us something. Today’s reigning runway body Gisele Bundchen does not possess that sort of mercurial mystic. Amazing she is but she is always herself.
The young girls walking today lack that sort of intrigue. Perhaps it was backlash from the arrogance of the Brat pack who in the 1990 fashion season held the industry hostage with their fee demands. The “Girls” of the industry since then have never been as interesting. Along with the extra weight went the personality the energy and soul. Never again did we see public model solidarity promoted and marketed, the last pair of friends that were somewhat acknowledged by the industry were Amber Valetta and Shalom Harlow. Giselle stands alone, as do the other newer names in the modeling industry. Their power in numbers was in a sense eradicated, their voices taken away and put in the proverbial closet.
We all know that there is something terribly wrong with the industry, even the folks in it know but the reality is, there is far too much money on the line to rock the boat. Models are getting thinner, and to get them that thin, they have to be younger, 12 and 13 now. We have underdeveloped girls (mentally and physically) in environments that have been proven to be detrimental to full grown, mature adults; drugs, alcohol, sexually charged situations both on set and off, it is a minefield to navigate. I just wonder who is looking out for these young ladies? Like my mother said it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye. Where are these girls parents?
How is it that these young girls end up in this industry left in the hands of agencies and bookers? The idea of sending a child abroad to live and work un-chaperoned seems negligent and irresponsible. Often they end up living with other teens in “model” apartments owned by agencies. This is not the Sylvia Plath’s Babizon Hotel with housemothers, curfews and rules; it’s a flop for models passing through- alone [if I’m wrong please set my mind and heart straight]. Parents foster their children’s care out to people for whom they amount to a comp card that is as disposable as the paper it’s printed on is insane. You have to give credit to Carolyn Banks the mother of Supermodel and mogul Tyra Banks for making her child’s safety the priority. It is well known that after sending her abroad she soon joined her daughter when the hazards of the industry encroached. For years she traveled with her to protect/mother her as she rose to fame as a model. Hence Banks as not only avoided many of the pitfalls that often befall other models but has gone on to become a juggernaut in the modeling, and television industry. While others floundered in the excess and indulgence and either fought their way out, and back, or faded into oblivion she had staying power. Think what you will of Ms. Banks she has emerged from the eye of the storm of fame unscathed and seemingly centered as a woman.
Is it the lure of fame, money and luxury that allows parents to turn a blind-eye? To borrow a term from the urban vernacular parents are now pimping their children out to either share in the riches, the glory or both. One of the most tragic stories in the headlines today is that of Lindsey Lohan, and her mother’s constant denial of her alcohol and drug problems while the checks roll in. Then there is the bootilicious Kardashian clan, managed by mother Kris, who after Kim’s sextape imbroglio booked her to appear in Playboy. I think the title of mother of the year is still up for grabs. The age range for parents using their children for meal tickets has dropped considerably. Kate and Jon Gosselin signed on for TLC channels reality show Jon and Kate plus eight featuring their sextuplets and twins. When their divorce got messy and public questions arose as to whether shooting should cease for the sake of the children and Kate’s stock answer was “How else am I going to feed my family? This is my work” really there are other ways to earn money without exposing your children. I come from a family of nine and my parents managed without a television show (however it would have made for some interesting television, trust).
It brings to mind the controversial movie that made Brooke Shields a star. In Pretty Baby Shields (then only 12 years old) portrays a child prostitute in a New Orleans brothel. Not so salacious now but in 1978 fueled by the images of her bathing nude it was scandalous. References to Vladimir Nobokov’s Lolita and child pornography swirled around the film and Shields. It brought up questions of how young it too young even in the realm of art. How could her manager and mother Teri allow her daughter to be exposed that way? Then two short years later Shields stirred up yet another controversy with her Calvin Klein Jeans ad asking the world “You know what comes between me and my Calvin’s, nothing” it started again. Why was a 14 year old telling us that she doesn’t where underpants? It seems like hyperbole by today’s standards but it does beg the question – why have we stopped questioning?
Pedophilia is a hot topic and seems be an epidemic, young girls and boys being sexually abused by parents, teachers and priests alike everyone is outraged about the Catholic Church’s lackadaisical attitude towards taking action against it but somehow it is ok for us to flip through a fashion magazine and see a teenaged girl half dressed in provocative sexual situations selling us everything from clothing to handbags. If we were to check the ages of some of the models in these sexually provocative ads we might find many to be “Barely legal” putting the ads in question skirting the ethical parameters of child pornography. This sounds extreme but when and where our conscious awakens is interesting, considering what might have to go on to get a 14 year old girl to strike a seductive pose when she might well have never been kissed. Where is our outrage or at least our inquiry?
I was flying recently and came across an interesting in-flight documentary about model Sara Ziff- Picture Me; it is a wonderfully honest look at the industry. At first I thought it was going to be a self-indulgent portrayal of a beautiful blonde girl who loves to be in front of a camera and hear herself talk. However what it turned out to be was a very balanced representation of the industry. Over the five-year span we meet four of her model pals and follow them on their journey through the intrepid world of fashion. Kiff is an”it” girl who shows us checks she has received for 80 and $100,000.00 for an ad campaign. By 19 she is out earning her father a NYU professor and has purchased her own loft. Conversely in a model apartment in Paris we meet another young hopeful who has not had such luck and is in debt to her agency for thousands of dollars. Her hopes of cashing in quick on her beauty and retiring early are now reduced to making enough to get her out of debt with her agency and breaking even. It sounded like the stories of the immigrants who pay someone to smuggle them into the country only to find themselves indentured servants owing for unmentioned fees for the likes of food, shelter and air!
They do live the high life, jetting from New York, to Paris and Milan for fashion weeks but the stress and enervation of the hectic schedule take their toll both physically and mentally and when Ziff exhausted and having an emotional breakdown from the schedule called her booker in tears wanting to cancel a shoot, he talks her into going under the guise of she doesn’t want to earn a reputation for being unreliable. He was in those moments was not working for her, but for the client. She was inconsequential. They talk about the pressure to be the thinnest, one remarks about it being the only thing you can control, you can’t always be the prettiest but you can be the thinnest. There is talk about how to get that way and match the hectic schedule- and drugs come up. There is talk about casting couches and older photographers sexually harassing them and thinking it’s fine. One model recounts a story where a much older photographer is nude in a Jacuzzi with her and tries to kiss her. He incredulously he asks, “Did I get the wrong idea?” she tells the camera “I’m 16!!! Yes you got the wrong idea.” As we watch their progression the question of aging out of the game inevitable comes up and they start to realize that at 21 and 23 they are the old girls at the shows that are now populated by the new wave of faces that are 12 and 13 and the question of what next arises. Can you hear the crickets? With a closet full of designer clothes the booking few and far between and no education what type of future lies ahead? Ziff decides to go to Columbia University – but you are not surprised as she comes from a stable academically inclined household and she will no doubt come out on top but what of the thousands of others?
It’s easy enough during this time of year to sit and place my ruminations on paper, easy to point fingers and criticize and place blame. I don’t know if there is a way to halt the wheels of such a great and powerful machine but I do know that personally at times I feel assault and insulted. I know that people can only do to you what you let them and in a large sense we are all in our way are culpable; we buy the clothes, the magazines and strive to emulate the very things that we innately sense are inherently twisted. We try to be as thin, wear the clothes, make-up and hair regardless of if it suits us physically or our wallets financially. And that in an of it’s self is not a problem until it takes us out of and away from ourselves and into believing that if we do not subscribe we do not exist, that we will be rendered invisible to the very society that we all want so very much to be accepted by. It’s all so High School; there are the cool kids, the geeks, the freaks and a sea of other people that populate the background of yearbook book photos. All I know is that we should never stop questioning and we should be discussing it. We should question not only others but also ourselves, and the relationship we have to these images and concepts of beauty that we subscribe to. We should strive to create our own definition of beauty that includes us in it, one that does not have to negate the possibilities of another’s. We have another week of Fashion mayhem left and as I embark on my journey to midtown were I am certain to encounter all that I have written about above I encourage you to -in the word of the MTA- “If you See Something Say Something.”
It is not enough to attribute the furor over Gabourey Sidibe’s appearance to a beauty double standard in society. What’s really “wrong” with Gabourey is that she takes up more space than she’s allotted, both physically and conceptually.
Let me explain. Women and feminists (because men can be feminists) have been fighting for generations just for “space.” And not just any space: space in the public sphere. Traditionally when social scientists talk about space they are referring the public/private dichotomy, the spatial spheres where gender is bifurcated both conceptually and physically. The public sphere has traditionally been the realm of men; men are expected to spend their days in the public realm working and participating in public affairs while women are charged with the task of staying home to maintain their designated part of space, the private sphere of the home. The first wave feminist movement in the 19th and early 20th century was the first time women formally demanded both physical and conceptual space in the public sphere; women wanted the right to take place in public affairs through voting and the holding of political office. During the second wave of feminism in the middle and late parts of the 20th century, women were fighting (and are still fighting) for the right to take up space in the workplace and not just in the private sphere of the home. For those engaged in the struggle now (third wave feminists and beyond) the fight for space has become conceptually different and more complex. Women, more than ever, are commanding more and more of a leading role in various parts of the public sphere of society.
However, the gains here are still spatially regulated. Take Gabourey as a prime example. As women have commanded more and more public space, society has reacted by demanding they get physically smaller. Thus, the message has consistently been, take up more space but don’t. Think about it. The beginning of second wave feminism is largely attributed to Betty Friedan’s seminal piece The Feminine Mystique, published in 1963. About this time, we see the gradual decline of the Marilyn pin-up girl body type and the rise of the stick thin runway model embodied by famous models like Twiggy, who not coincidentally became popular around 1966. Flash forward to today and due to gains achieved by feminists, women are permitted more conceptual space but at the same time are expected to be physically smaller. We even have a women’s size ZERO; while there is nothing wrong with a naturally thin body, why is the size called a “zero,” i.e., nothing. But this “nothing” has become the ideal, what women strive to look like. Try for a second to imagine men shopping for blue jeans in a size zero. It would never happen.
The disgust about Gabourey’s body is a clear reflection of this lingering debate about space with the added dimension of race. Gabourey is not only a successful female actress but is a successful black female actress. With the added variable of race, we expect her not to take up any space at all. Yet there she is, dark and large. Black women have always been expected to hide even more in the background, even more relegated to the public sphere as conceptual “mammies” and house cleaners. And this legacy continues today. Case in point: In 2007, while white women made only about 78 cents on the dollar for doing the same job as a man, black women made less, 69 cents on the dollar (now.org). Moreover, white society has been especially afraid of black female sexuality, casting black women as “overbreeders” sucking up public resources. Again, there stands Gabourey, not only dark and large but dark, large and confident in her body. She is exploding the boundaries of the conceptual space, fearlessly taking up whatever space she wants. I suggest we support her before we all shrink into oblivion.