By Erin Harrington
Most people don’t associate airline travel with comfort and flexibility.
But avid ballet fan Susan Zarchy did. During a flight to San Francisco, Zarchy noticed that the man in front of her was holding his leg up clear past his ear, in a near unattainable position. When she looked around, she was awed to see most of the passengers milling through crowded aisles and dodging food carts to get that last bit of stretch in before landing. These were no ordinary passengers, and Zarchy soon realized why: she was onboard the plane with all of the members of the San Francisco Ballet. Thus began Zarchy’s appreciation for dance.
As an audience member and admirer of ballet, Zarchy feels that there is something awe-inspiring about a gifted dancer.
“Watching a dancer do an incredible move is kind of like watching a Hail Mary pass being caught by a football player,” Zarchy said. “It’s not anything a normal mortal could do.”
But sometimes that grace can come at a high price.
Audience members sometimes fail to realize that each pirouette, and each plie we see on stage comes with a rigorous training schedule. Professional dancers train six days a week, all day, non-stop—even on airplanes—for the majority of their dancing careers. They don’t see the broken toes, sore backs, dislocated shoulders, and sprains of every flavor. These dancers put their body through the wash all for the sake of a good performance.
Catherine Soussloff, a UC Santa Cruz professor of Visual and Performance Art, suggests that rigorous demands and unrealistic expectations of a dancer’s body has a great deal to do with our culture’s fascination with the visual.
Soussloff explained that modern society lives in an “image world,” which means that everything visual can and will be circulated in our society.
“Once something is in this image world, it is available for exploitation and exploration,” Soussloff said.
Lisa Norris, a UCSC dance instructor, agrees.
“It’s almost inherent,” Norris said. “Whenever you use the body as a means of entertainment, exploitation is not far behind. That’s just part of the culture we live in.”
Norris admits that the life of a disciplined, trained dancer can be a tough one.
“Dancers in the professional world are basically treated like Kleenex—human Kleenex. They are disposable. If that one went down, there’s 5,000 more behind [him or her],” Norris said.
Quinn Wharton, a ballet dancer for the San Francisco Ballet (as well as a hip-hop dancer), feels that in today’s society, exploitation is inevitable.
“The body is always exploited in dance. It must be in perfect shape and pounded into things it shouldn’t do,” Wharton said. “You’re under pressure to maintain something, and hopefully it is somewhat natural.”
Even though the body must be “pounded into” adapting to these unnatural positions, Wharton explained that the use of disciplined technique is the only way of adequately expressing oneself artistically.
Wharton notices a bitter-sweet dynamic in the art of dance. Unrealistic body expectations, in dance especially, are ingrained in the minds of youth at an early age. These ideals have a lot to do with the subjective ideals of art and beauty. But perhaps for something to be beautiful, one must be willing to suffer.
“In part it comes down to the idea of art,” Wharton said. “Very rarely is art something that can fall subject to reason. It is very subjective, and we are both the beauty and pain of that.”
But UCSC has a community of dancers with a slightly different outlook from the average ballet company. Oscar Rojas, a UCSC graduate student majoring in dance, criticized the tendency of professional dance companies to impose unrealistic demands on the body.
Rojas thinks too many dancers place an emphasis on implementing technique to create a big, flashy show. The dancers are not focused on emotion, just looking good.
“When I’m on stage, it’s not about me anymore, it’s about the audience. I don’t go to the stage to make big jumps or look pretty,” Rojas said. “I go to the stage to convey a form of catharsis.”
Rojas recognizes the underlying elitist current in ballet culture. Rojas’ family, who lives in Venezuela, does not hold technically disciplined dancers in high esteem, and often sees them as elitist.
“Ballet is bourgeois,” Rojas said. “When I go back to Venezuela [and perform], I am now bourgeois. They look at me and say, â€˜You are so cold; you were warm and charming person, but now you are cold.’”
With its royal roots in France, ballet was once seen as something that only a select few could admire and participate in. However, some UCSC dancers, such as Andrea Yang, have addressed the political tensions surrounding the culture and history of ballet.
Yang, a modern dancer and masters student, explained that ballet was something traditionally practiced by the aristocracy and she sees a near-political divide between ballet and modern dance.
“Modern dance became introduced as a democratic expression. Ballet is an elite formâ€¦ [but] modern dance is for the common man,” Yang said.
Yang notes that in modern dance, there seems to be more of an importance placed on learning how the body works and finding what’s right for the individual dancer. According to Yang, this is what the dance faculty at UCSC tries to achieve.
Suzi Grishpul, a third-year UCSC and hip-hop/jazz dancer, agrees that modern dance is more expressive than the rigid confines of the ballet tradition.
“With modern dance, so much of it is focused on how it feels. Trying to choreograph modern for a performance is an interesting dynamic,” she said.
In historical context, French ballet is not the only source of distorted body images.
Noting the tendencies of foot binding in China and corseting in Europe as typical marks of beauty, Chinese History Professor Gail Hershatter said, “The idea that natural is good is a pretty recent historical product.”
For the most part, dance at UCSC conveys a sense of the natural as being free. And many students—including fourth-year Claire Melbourne, who has taken ballet classes at the university—appreciate this emphasis.
“Being in a college class, most people aren’t training to be part of a company where everyone needs to have the same shape and movement,” Melbourne said.
For Melbourne, taking dance in college has helped her to become less self-conscious of her body.
“Now I am more [aware] of how [body image] is constructed,” Melbourne said. “What’s so good about taking classes [at UCSC] is that instead of looking in a magazine and thinking, â€˜I don’t look like the girl in that picture’ I think â€˜Wow! Look at what I can do!”
Patty Gallagher, theater and dance professor at UCSC, stresses the importance of positive body awareness in her classes.
“When one lacks awareness, it’s easy to injure a fellow mover,” Gallagher wrote in an e-mail interview with City on a Hill Press. “Overenthusiastic partners have given me black eyes, a broken nose, broken toes and lots of bruises. It’s why I’m a bit of a dictator in terms of safety in my own classroom and studio work.”
Though intense training in the dance world can sometimes seem inhumane, dance instructor, Lisa Norris explains that there is an important theory behind all the discipline.
“If you send a carpenter to build a house, and you only give him a hammer, he has a problem,” Norris said. “If you’re a dancer with no technique because you haven’t trained, then how many tools do you have at your disposal to express?”
Dancers across the board all seem to agree that aside from body politics, exploitation, and other catalysts of controversy, what needs to be addressed in dance above all else is the issue of creative expression.
Norris believes that if you aren’t working through your emotions, you aren’t dancing. Being disciplined in technique is not enough.
“There are beautifully trained dancers, but when you watch them, you feel nothing. Why? It’s because they are a freak show,” she said, because passion is missing from the performance.
“There’s gymnastics, there’s calisthenics, and then there’s art,” Norris contintued. “And to me, it isn’t art unless it’s going beyond the physical.”
Gallagher holds a similar opinion.
“Art inherently moves beyond the natural. It hyperbolizes, it selects and shapes, it is not quotidian,” Gallagher said. “I don’t have a complaint with [unnatural and near unattainable movement in dance]. I just feel one should look for the system in which one feels most alive.
“There are so many options out there. Find yours.”