Dance Movie Myths: Let’s set the Record Straight

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!