Is America Beginning To Appreciate Ballet?

Posted by on 09.19.2012

Last night, the popular Fox TV show, So You Think You Can Dance, made history by selecting not one, but two ballet dancers as the winners of Season 9.  This of course is exciting news, but I think it has a deeper message.  Is it possible that maybe, just maybe, America is starting to appreciate ballet?

It all started a couple of years ago with the blockbuster film “Black Swan,” that portrayed a warped picture of the ballet world.  Now when the subject of ballet comes up in social conversation, many people will say, “Oh you are a ballet dancer? Like Black Swan?”  Well no not really.  But I suppose we should be glad that the movie gave people like this the exposure and understanding of at least one classical ballet, Swan Lake.  Fast forward a year or so and television has jumped on the band wagon, with the likes of Dance Moms, Breaking Pointeand Bunheads.  Everywhere you turned, ballet seemed to be trying to push it’s way into the minds of average Americans.

We have had extensive conversations here on TENDUS about what all this exposure means for the ballet world.  Amazingly, many of us don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue.  But is it possible that last night presented us with an answer?  After the judges combed through thousands of entries, it came as no surprise to me that three ballet dancers were chosen to be in the Top 20: they were simply the best and most well rounded.  These judges do have “experience” in dance and like to say they have a “trained eye.”  Qualified or not, at least they have been to a live dance performance before.  We can’t say the same for the rest of America.  Yet, they still chose two ballet dancers as “America’s Favorite Dancers.”  Could it possibly be that they are appreciating the art form?

Check out this video from last week, when Eliana and Chehon performed the “Nutcracker Pas de Deux.”  You will see the audience cheering and clapping for classical ballet!  You can tell that the general public does not yet know that nude colored pointe shoes don’t work with pink tights, but hey, baby steps!

So what do you think? Is America learning to appreciate our art form, or is it just a coincidence? Sound off below!





  1. As karenatasha noted, SYTYCD has actually had its fair share of ballet dancers. I recall Jessica Fernandez from season 2 do a solo on pointe, and there was also Raven from season 4 who was billed as a ballet dancer. These two female dancers bowed out relatively early in the season and were subsequently forgotten by everyone including the judges. Then of course there was Melissa in season 5. Danny Tidwell was actually billed as a “contemporary” dancer rather than a ballet dancer, and I think up until this season the trend has been to dissociate one from their ballet roots rather than own up to them. I think the biggest change in SYTYCD’s attitude towards ballet is to finally acknowledge it and to acknowledge that it can be modern – and this may be a result of Alex Wong’s great popularity and clever choreography for his solos. I couldn’t believe my eyes in Season 4 when they called “pas de deux” a style of dance – and firmly believed they made this decision because they thought calling it “ballet” would lessen its appeal.

    I think the latest appearances of ballet in pop culture (even Black Swan, but also Breaking Pointe and Bunheads) has made it less taboo, to the point where SYTYCD producers feel comfortable putting classical ballet on the show and extolling its virtues. The next step is to begin to slowly educate viewers so they can see and understand real ballet and real ballet dancers. Already it is noticeable on such reality TV shows that ballet technique looks different from competition technique, even if the legs may be equally as high.

    Additionally, I believe that Eliana was as popular as she was not necessarily because she was a ballerina, but because she was first billed as doing “much more” (cue montage of her Cirque du Soleil aerialist tricks). She was able to translate her talents as a versatile performer to TV-dance, which isn’t surprising at all, but sadly enough doesn’t always apply to ballet dancers. TV-dance is a little too separate from ballet at the moment still… there’s no way to cut down a classical pas de deux into a minute and half and still hold the same flow and build. It’s all well to expose the average audience to ballet with that shortened Sugar Plum pas, but in doing so I think it changes viewer expectations and presents to them a kind of “cliff-notes” just a collection of the biggest and flashiest moves in ballet.

    Sorry for the length! I find this topic incredibly interesting and really enjoy your blog!

    • You have a lot of great points! Thank you so much for your comment and kind words!

  2. Hi, Rebecca–

    You ask a good question, but I am not really sure how to answer it yet–though it’s preoccupying me enough that I’m considering writing a paper on the subject! This season the show had, as far as I know, the fourth, fifth, and sixth ballet dancers to appear since SYTYCD premiered. The first was Danny, a wonderful, elegant dancer (and former member of ABT) who never appealed to the judges because they didn’t find him “emotional” enough. In spite of their criticism, he came in second, and I wonder what might have happened if the judges had been more supportive and less critical. Then, of course, there was the marvelous Alex Wong, who clearly would have won in a heartbeat if injuries hadn’t sidelined him. He was (is) technique and personality all in one fabulous package. Now, we have this sesaon’s three. But I ask myself, what led to Chehon’s and Eliana’s win? What aspects of their performance were audiences responding to? Chehon, I think, was smart to do some really accessible, fireworks-filled solos. (Corsaire, anyone?) I think viewers were amazed by what he did and easily able to grasp how difficult it was. Let’s say his jetes were the classical, refined, and beautiful answer to the very bad circus tricks the lesser dancers on the show do—the badly placed and horrible super-extensions that seem a part of every girl’s repertoire. To me, this acrobatic element helped him get through when the judges were being a little harsh. Did viewers recognize or appreciate the line, the refinement, that make a less showy performance still brilliant? I don’t know. As for Eliana, I am far more mixed on her. Though she’s charming and dynamic, and better training than most of the women, I don’t feel she’s at a level that would work in a top-tier professional ballet company. (Ironically, every male ballet dancer on the show has danced for a major company.)
    I guess in the end, to me, is whether viewers are learning how to distinguish good dancing from bad no matter the style. As usual, I found I was happier with the men than the women. They’re less…well, vulgar, than many of the women are. I have all the respect in the world for what Cyrus can do in his own form of dance and how well he, with little formal training, really succeeded in stretching himself. (But I’m thrilled Chehon won. He deserved it.) So I’m still pondering!
    Sorry for going on so long, but I am obsessed….

    • Karenatasha-

      You have a wonderful point. As far as the ballet dancers on the show go, Eliana has been the least talented in the classical ballet category. I think she did so well in the competition because of her ability to really excel in the other genres. I honestly think that a lot of these people embellish their resumes so that they can use the excuse of being “out of their comfort zone.” Take Cyrus, who despite what he had said at the beginning was most certainly trained in all the dance genres. So I believe Eliana used ballet to hide behind.

      You’re right, America doesn’t know really good technique yet, but they are also learning from the likes of Bunheads, so I will give them a little more time to become true connoisseurs.

      Thanks for the comment!

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