Purity and danger in ballet

I won’t lie. Sometimes I feel like a crappy dance teacher.

Don’t get me wrong. Deep down I know I’m a skilled and highly responsive teacher. I know I have a strong, research-backed approach and a unique philosophy that grounds my dance teaching and business strategies. I bring dance to many people who wouldn’t have been welcomed into our industry. And I know I train great humans that will make a positive impact on the world around them.

I know I do things differently, and I revel in it.

But not everyday.

Sometimes I feel awful about doing things differently.

Sometimes I feel second-rate, like a fraud and that I’ve got it all wrong.

And then I stumbled upon a comment on FB that really turned it all around.

It was a comment that I really needed to hear, from a person I didn’t know at all.

Five little words that brought me back into the light

There they were. Five little words nestled into a broader discussion of ballet technique:

“Unless ballet is reinterpreted the form itself doesn’t cater for “othered bodies”. It’s a system created for a very particular body type and indeed was an upper class folk dance…. the technique needs to get “dirty” lol . Until this happens ballet will never truly have equal representation in its ranks. It’s inherently a colonising form…. it will allow you to assimilate but not to individuate”

– Darren Green
"technique needs to get dirty" in order to stop gatekeeping in ballet

When a form is consistently described as ‘pure’ – “pure technique”, “pure line” – it immediately sets up a dichotomy between that which is pure and everything else. 

I am not pure.

What I do is not pure.

Therefore is what I do, less?

Well…no. 

That’s gatekeeping in ballet in action. Because that’s how we’ve been built to think. That’s how the system operates. It operates to keep non-white, non-conforming, non-ideal dancers out. And it’s done a bloody great job of it.

‘Purity & Danger’: gatekeeping and ballet

When I put on my academic hat and think about dirt and ballet, the first person that comes to mind is Mary Douglas (one of my favourite academic thinkers), an anthropologist who wrote a book called Purity and Danger that is SO relevant to this issue.

In her book, Douglas talks about how modern cultures have different concepts of “purity” and “impurity”. There are some things that are “clean” and others that are “dirty”, and things that are acceptable and things that are not.

She goes through a whole bunch of different examples – from witchcraft to kosher laws. (ps: this book enabled me to articulate my visceral reaction to people who talk about ‘clean’ eating. Ugh.).

Douglas describes things that are ‘dirty’ as things that are out of place. Our issue with impurity is a reflection of our need to keep things in order – everything systematically categorised in its right place. She explains that when we break from the moral code of a system, culture or society, we are seen to be acting ‘impurely’ – we are seen to be defiling the system and ourselves.

When I try to think of a to describe this to a dance audience, a passing comment from my friend Natalie comes to mind.

At the time she was a dance studio owner, and in conversation she once said:

“I love looking at your preschool dance Instagram, but I wish they’d be in the same uniform and have their hair tied up. It drives me nuts!”.

Nat and I follow the exact same curriculum, but how we enact it is miles apart. For her, the mismatched colours and different hair is out of place in the ballet studio. It is dirty. It does not belong to the prim, proper and neatly groomed world of ballet.

In ballet this extends far beyond how we dress and do our hair.

It extends to the movements we do and when we do them and learn them, the structure and content of our classes, the words and music we choose, our pedagogic approach, and the rules we choose to follow or reject.

People who know me know I’m one of the most strong-willed, opinionated people out there. I know what I think, I know what I like, and I act accordingly.

But this system still rules me, even though my life’s work has been actively fighting against the bullshit ideals that exclude so many from dance.

It still hurts.

It’s an uphill battle. 

And it gets tiring.

But sometimes five little words are all you need to revive the fight. To get you back on track. To get you revelling in your filth. 

It’s time to get dirty.

I’m choosing to be proud of the dirty technique my students learn.

Crossed fifths? Why force it when 3rd position feels just great and helps some students (me included!) to dance better.

Allegro at the end of every class? Why, when it feels like an assault against the body at that time?

My students’ dirty technique has stronger foundations because it is personalised to their needs, their bodies, their ways of learning and thinking.

Their technique is truly understood by them because it is theirs, just like their expression and their musicality.

My dance teaching may be dirty, but it isn’t damaging.

My ballet classes may be noisy and a little wild, but they’re not oppressive.

And instead of being ashamed of it, from now on I’ll see this dirt (and my students’ unkempt hair) as a badge of honour, authenticity, and a wilful rejection of everything that’s wrong with the world of ballet. Gatekeeping and ballet has to end somewhere, and I’m happy to be part of the movement.

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