Ballet shows what’s wrong with Instagram

What do their feeds say?
What do their feeds say?
Image: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
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If you search #ballet on Instagram, you’ll find stunning photos of dancers striking poses in flowy costumes, delightful fragments of performances or rehearsals. But a large chunk of this collection of 10.7 million images will be photos of a different kind: bodies, often quite young, contorted into unbelievable positions, or mind-boggling tricks like multiple pirouettes in a row, filmed in a dance studio. These clips can be found on YouTube as well.

This, say voices in the ballet world, is troubling. Earlier this month, Russian primaballerina Diana Vishneva told the AFP that young dancers are attached to their phones, and they might not be mature enough to understand what they are watching. “They see the surface, the great bodies, but they don’t realize the work behind that.” Such unrealistic expectations can breed physical risk, and a deep misunderstanding of what ballet actually is.

Instagram creates an illusion of flawlessness, eliciting not only awe, but also envy and a sense of inadequacy in those who consume it, especially in those most vulnerable. It also has the effect of flattening out certain experiences, encouraging superficial engagement. It’s a platform built on quick glances, and on attracting attention.

And this can be especially detrimental for art, which is meant to be considered and enjoyed on a deeper level. Just look at “museums” filled with photo-friendly backdrops, and nothing else, sold as art for the Instagram era.

At the same time, it’s a medium that provides exposure to many voices who wouldn’t have had it otherwise, and it actually helps people connect and discover. Ballet is the perfect case study for how these two Instagram forces play out.

The Ugly

In a lengthy article for Dance Magazine, Theresa Ruth Howard, a teacher and former professional dancer, outlined the dangers of having young dancers see ballet through the lens of Instagram.

“These tricks, in and of themselves, are not bad things. However, devoid of a codified technical progression, which builds the steps incrementally, they can be disastrous,” she writes.

Siobhan Burke, a dance critic for The New York Times and former professional Irish step dancer, said this physical danger is perhaps the most concerning. When you’re young, and trying different things, she said, “you’ll just go for them without realizing that you actually do need to build strength.”

“At the end of the day, you either are born with the ability to do a crazy stretch or not. The legit dancers have skill beyond just being born with uber flexibility,” adds Morgan Chmielewski, a former professional ballet dancer (and current Quartz employee).

Then there’s what this image does to the art itself. Vishneva went as far as to say that kids’ attention spans are short, and this becomes apparent on stage. “They don’t know about timing or have a sense of movement. It has to happen right away. They want everything now,” she told the AFP. Many dancers start training when they are toddlers, turning professional when they come of age.

But there’s a deeper problem with experiencing ballet through a medium whose very name—“Insta”—suggests a fleeting glimpse.

“They experience a one-dimensional, truncated version of dance, viewing snippets and clips of full pieces, and with diminishing attention spans,” Howard writes.

“I think there’s a big distinction between being able to do tricks and have a great form—those things you can see through Instagram—and being able to carry an audience through a three-act ballet,” said Eve Jacobs, a dancer at the Jessica Lang Dance company in New York, and budding choreographer. “If you’re the lead in Swan Lake, that requires three hours of stamina and so much character development, and nuance, and through Instagram you can easily look great, and have none of those things.”

The real danger, says Jacobs, is “negating what it really is that makes a compelling dancer.”

Wendy Whelan, the former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, currently teaches young dancers on a pre-professional track. Her students don’t bring up Instagram in class, but she has similar concerns.

“This sort of competitive side of ‘I can do this amount of that’—it has nothing to do with ballet,” she said. “That’s where the art form gets really twisted.”

Ballet is not basketball, where young players grew up watching their idols on YouTube, and emulating their tricks and techniques helped them reach the top.

The one-upmanship of Instagram is worrying, Whelan says, because ballet is “so much more sensitive and poetic and human, and a real cultivated art.” Showing one pose, rather than how one element flows into the next is like showing one word, versus an idea, she said.

Chmielewski adds that ballet is “about years of grueling training with slow improvement.” If young people expect to look like these Instagram posts, they might get frustrated easily, and quit.

It’s not that dancers haven’t compared themselves to each other in the past—in competitions, classes, or browsing through magazines. But Instagram is addictive, always at your fingertips, and prizes extremes.

And, above all, it’s ruled by algorithms. If you look at or like one photo of a crazy stretch or sky-high jump, you’ll likely be suggested many more. It’s easy to fall down the “Explore” tab rabbit hole. Even if you follow carefully curated ballet content, these posts will come up, according to the women I spoke with.

If you’re older and more experienced, the posts may pique your interest, but you know to dismiss them, they said. Internal filters might not be as strong in younger, more impressionable dancers.

“I’m flexible enough, I can do some tricks, and there’s a lot that I can’t do,” Jacobs said.  “I’ve reached a point where I feel like some of the things I can’t do, no one’s asking me to do those things.”

The Good

At the same time, social media has had an undeniably positive influence on the somewhat insular world of ballet. The most famous ballerina currently dancing, Misty Copeland, has 1.6 million followers on Instagram and extols the platform for its democratizing force.

“I just think that it allows people who may have felt intimidated—or they didn’t belong in [spaces] like the Metropolitan Opera House—it kind of gives them a view into my world,” she recently told Business Insider.

Burke and Jacobs find dancers or choreographers they otherwise wouldn’t have known about, they said.

Whelan, who is also very active on the platform, and has more than 50,000 followers, says she’s made many friends on Instagram, and even mentored people she met on the platform. She posts her old performances, for example, because many people on the platform never got the chance to see her perform. “I really want to shape how I would like other people to use it.”

Instagram has, to a certain extent, broken the fourth wall in ballet. “There used to be a mystery or like a separation between the performer and the audience,” Whelan said. With social media, that’s disappearing—and she says that can be both good or bad. There’s an “integrity” in ballet that she hopes it can be cultivated “because it’s a delicate art form.” Protecting this art in a world governed by powerful algorithms can be a tough balancing act.