Transcript, Episode 86: Boys in Ballet, Adjunct Purgatory, and the Return of Social Dance

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Amy Brandt:
And I’m Amy Brandt.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media. And in today’s episode, we will talk about the ways that boys in ballet are both disadvantaged and privileged, as prompted by a new initiative that Ballet Jörgen just launched to offer emotional support to young male dancers. We will take a look at the state of dance academia, because the value of a dance degree has never been more apparent, and yet the contributions of the adjuncts who make dance departments run continue to be undervalued. And we will talk about the return of social dance, which faces a totally different set of pandemic-related challenges than concert-based dance.

First up though, we just wanted to say thank you to all of you who heeded our calls on social media this past week and sent in your suggestions for our next mailbag episode—much appreciated! For the uninitiated, mailbag episodes are moments when we take time out from the headlines to address topics sent in by listeners, by you. So if there are any big picture dance issues you think we should dig further into, or if you have a particular dance obsession that you want us to shine a spotlight on, let us know. Drop us a comment or a DM on Instagram— we’re @the.dance.edit. Or you can @ us or DM us on Twitter @dance_edit. I mean, we truly… We sincerely appreciate your input. And it’s also just really nice to hear from you all.

Okay. Now, it’s time for our weekly dance headline rundown. Here we go.

Amy Brandt:
Former Hamilton cast member Suni Reid has filed a discrimination complaint against the show. Reid, who is non-binary, alleges that producers retaliated and refused to renew their contract after they requested a gender neutral dressing room and made several social media posts about discrimination concerns at the show. They also claim that they were harassed by cast members, physically threatened and purposely misgendered. The show is denying the allegations.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Not great. We’ve linked to some detailed coverage of the complaint in the show notes.

Here is some dance news from the science world: NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts has partnered with the Rockefeller University for a new research fellowship that explores the genetic and evolutionary reasons that humans and other animals dance. The idea is to figure out, first of all, what actually happens in our brains when we dance, and then to potentially develop new clinical theories based on those findings. For example, maybe different areas of the brain are linked in a way that might allow therapists to use dance to help patients whose neural circuits have been impacted by injury or disease. And researchers are also going to use genome sequencing to determine whether people who specialize in dance actually have genetic things in common, as compared to non-dancers. This all sounds fascinating—dance can teach us so much about our brains!

Amy Brandt:
I know. I know. I’m looking forward to when the research comes out. I mean, I’m assuming it’ll probably be awhile until we hear anything, but…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I think it’s early stages yet, but we will certainly keep you all posted.

Amy Brandt:
Boston Ballet has launched ÜNI, a free streaming platform featuring dance films and virtual reality performances. Each piece was choreographed or staged for this specific platform. So for instance, I think Helen Pickett’s Petal has been filmed in 360, so you’re really immersed in the dancing. And the content will be refreshed each season, so they’ll be continually adding new works. You can go to uni.bostonballet.org to see more. It’s kind of cool.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I know, it’s an example of a digital venture that I think was prompted by the pandemic, but is now continuing and growing even as live shows have resumed.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And I think it’s… The aim is just to make dance more accessible to everybody.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Totally.

Amy Brandt:
It is free. It costs nothing to the audience member.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Hopefully, it brings in some new people.

Here is some bad news out of Boston. Last week, a group of mostly Asian women who are filming a K-pop dance video in the Downtown Crossing area of the city were harassed by a man for wearing masks. The dancers were members of the Boston- and LA-based dance group Hush Crew, and one of them documented part of the incident in a video that ended up going viral on TikTok. She said that the man was not only yelling at them for wearing masks, but also ranting about communism, which, yikes. We’ve included a link to the Boston.com story about the incident in the show notes.

Amy Brandt:
American Ballet Theatre is partnering up with Equinox to offer a ballet-based fitness class. The 50-minute classes, which will be available at about 20 locations in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., were developed by ABT cops member Katie Boren and Equinox instructor Chris Vo. I believe he has some professional dance experience.

Margaret Fuhrer:
A ton of it!

Amy Brandt:
So, very cool. Apparently, the classes include center barre, across the floor exercises, jumps and turns, and Thera-Band exercises. I’m continually amazed at ABT and their corporate partnerships. They really leaned into those hard, between cruise lines and LG and now Equinox.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. I was going to say yeah, Equinox does feel at least, I mean, just a little more natural than LG. [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know I love that Chris Vo is the leader of this on the Equinox side, because yeah, he danced with Lar Lubovitch and on Broadway, and he’s been at Equinox for a long time, I think. So he definitely understands how to bring ballet into the gym in a meaningful way.

Okay. Here is some exciting news for fans of musicals and/or Britney Spears—and I have a feeling there’s large overlap in that Venn diagram. The long-awaited Britney Spears jukebox musical Once Upon a One More Time has announced complete casting for its D.C. premiere, which is happening next month. And actually it’s mostly the same people who were previously cast in the show’s COVID-canceled Chicago run that was supposed to happen in April 2020. Justin Guarini is back on, Briga Heelan is also one of the leads, Ryan Steele, our favorite, is still in there. We’ll include a link to the whole cast list in the show notes. But I think we’re really just excited to finally see Keone and Mari Madrid’s choreography for this thing.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah! Yeah. Should be fun.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I also can’t think of another show that might end up actually benefiting from a COVID delay the way this show might. Doesn’t this feel like such a perfect moment to be celebrating Britney, now that she’s free of her conservatorship?

Amy Brandt:
Yeah! Exactly.

In other fun news, 18 year old activist Greta Thunberg rickrolled the crowd at a climate concert in Stockholm, dancing along to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Rick Astley has approved the move on his own Twitter account. So it’s funny. She’s quite the dancer, I have to say.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She is! She’s got moves. I mean, sorry not sorry for including this in the headline rundown. I know it’s not really news—I just think it’s delightful. She has a minute to not carry the weight of the whole world on her shoulders.

Amy Brandt:
Well, usually when you see her, she’s so serious and talking about such serious topics. So it was fun to see her let loose.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, to look like the teenager she actually is.

So our first longer discussion segment today is about boys and ballet, which is a topic you could write a book about, it’s so layered and complex. The reason that we’re bringing this up now is because of an initiative called Boys Who Dance, which was recently launched by Canada’s Ballet Jörgen. And the initiative is designed to provide mentorship and emotional support to young male-identifying ballet students to help them overcome bullying and negative stereotyping and the sense of isolation that a lot of these dancers feel. Amy did a great piece for Pointe about that initiative.

But we also wanted to acknowledge that those challenges are only part of the picture here. Because while male ballet dancers are more likely to be bullied and ostracized outside the studio, inside of it, they’re often accorded many more privileges than their female peers—they’re given scholarships, they’re lavished with attention. And that’s a really complicated mix of messages for any young person to be getting.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And just to update you on Ballet Jörgen’s program, what they’re doing is, it’s an international initiative. They jumped on the virtual platform that COVID-19 made happen around the world, and are using that to really reach as many young dancers as they can. So young boy students between the ages of nine and 17 can basically sign up to have a virtual mentorship with one of Ballet Jörgen’s professional male dancers.—I think there’s seven or eight of them. And it’s a one-on-one virtual mentorship for as long as the dancer needs. Once a week, they meet with them, and anything they want to talk about is on the table. And obviously, one of the biggest issues for boys in ballet is the bullying and harassment, and often they have a lack of family support, family members who don’t like that they’re dancing and things like that. So this gives them a chance to talk to someone who understands what they’re going through and has been through it themselves and can offer them insight and help and all of that.

But in my interview with Callum McGregor, who’s one of the dancers there, he said there are other issues that they want to talk about too. Just like everyday things, like how to balance school with dance class, body image issues—which is something that men also experience—and other things. It just gives them an opportunity to reach out to a male role model—which, especially in smaller studios in smaller towns around the country, they may not have a male teacher, they may be the only boy in their class, the only boy in their school. So this gives them an opportunity to look for a role model in that way.

And then in addition to that, they’re also doing virtual town halls, bringing in a lot of guest speakers, other male dancers, mental health experts on a variety of topics throughout the year. And you can ask questions, they’re interactive and everything’s virtual. It’s really open to anyone around the world who wants to reach out. So it’s a nice initiative.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It sounds like a great program. And I mean, there are definitely… There are real scary statistics about the bullying of young men studying dance. I think the documentary DANSEUR, from…was that 2018 that came out? I think it said 85% of male dance students are bullied. And I mean, anyone who grew up in dance and especially ballet is familiar with the homophobia, the inaccurate rhetoric that goes with that—ballet is effeminate, that whole stereotype. That’s definitely a crisis. And I mean, those stereotypes are pervasive enough that Lara Spencer can joke on “Good Morning America” about Prince George taking ballet classes and assume that everyone is in on the joke.

But yeah, I mean, I think then it is worth talking about how, because there are far fewer male ballet students than female students, boys are usually told that they’re special from the beginning, whereas female students are told they’re a dime, a dozen, they’re interchangeable, they’re less valuable. And given that dynamic, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that male dancers down the road are more likely to end up as artistic directors, as choreographers, as people with power in ballet. People talk about the glass elevator for men in ballet, as opposed to the glass ceiling for women.

And I think it’s worth thinking about how that imbalance plays a part in the exploitative dynamics within some ballet companies that we’ve talked a lot about recently, where male directors or dancers often get away with just really bad behavior, even abusive behavior, for long periods. And if we’re talking about how abusive behavior is learned—which is an idea that we really got into when we were discussing that Luke Jennings piece about the Royal Ballet School and abuse at the Royal Ballet School—these men who were bullied as children because they were dancers, some of them then might end up becoming bullies themselves as they enter these ballet-world positions of power. There’s just so much to hold in your head at one time in terms of what the situation looks like for young male dance students.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. The dynamic is really interesting. I remember when I was in high school growing up and one of my classmates—again, the only guy in my class—we both auditioned for a prestigious summer program and we both got in. And I was so excited just to get in. I didn’t get a scholarship. I was so excited to just get in. And he was upset that his scholarship wasn’t a full ride. And I remember being like that was very eye-opening to me about where we stood as far as expectations and what… Because he was used to getting full scholarships to every school that he auditioned for. And it was challenging to be faced with a question mark, like, “Oh, well, here’s a partial scholarship.” And that was the first time I was really like, “Oh, wow, okay. We’re not on the same planet when it comes to how we see things or how the world sees us.”

There were instances too in my career where I found out my male partner during guesting was getting per diem and I wasn’t. Things like that, they have more negotiating power.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Oh, wow.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. That was not fun. They have a little more negotiating power from a much younger age. They can pick and choose between all the scholarships they’re getting, et cetera. And then sometimes that means that the standard is a little lower too, because companies just want to hire…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Male bodies.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. So it’s interesting. It’s interesting. I will say that guys don’t always have a super easy time in dance companies. I mean, I’ve had a lot of… I have some friends who’ve struggled to get jobs or hold on to jobs. It’s not all an easy ride for guys. But it does seem that they have a much easier path to getting where they need to be than women do, for sure.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Except then sometimes, because that path was easier, they’re not as well-prepared for the jobs that they ultimately take, as you were saying, and that can lead to other problems.

I mean, hopefully as we start to talk more about this stuff, we can, at the same time, start to break the cycles of bullying and homophobia, while also acknowledging privilege where it does exist, in a way that allows young boys to develop into healthy professional dancers.

Amy Brandt:
Right. Yeah. I do think what Ballet Jörgen is doing is wonderful, and it would be great to see more companies and schools following suit just to offer more emotional support for these young boys who are struggling so much.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, more emotional support for young dancers generally, please!

Amy Brandt:
Yes.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Please. Yeah, please. We’ve linked Amy’s great story about that in the show notes. Please do go check it out.

So next up today, we want to talk about two recent stories that, taken together, give a good sense of the state of dance academia right now. First, Dance Teacher magazine did a piece about the value of a dance MFA. And though it did focus on that graduate degree specifically, its conclusions about the ways that that physical and theoretical inquiry pay off—those conclusions apply to undergraduate dance degrees too. Basically, the takeaway is studying dance in higher ed equips you with extremely valuable skills.

The second story is a Dance Magazine piece by choreographer and educator Kimberly Bartosik that looks at what happens to the dance artists who end up back at those higher ed institutions as employees. And that one’s pretty grim. Because most of these artists are brought on as adjuncts, which means they’re non-salaried, they don’t receive benefits, despite the critical role they play in pretty much every dance department. So there’s a lot to talk about and, frankly, to rant about here. Hold us back. [laughter]

Amy Brandt:
I think that this does apply to adjuncts across the board. Because I could certainly think of one of my mentors in college who was an adjunct professor, who taught several of my journalism classes. And I don’t want to speak for him, but I sensed that he struggled with the same type of issue here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That was a lot of the responses to that story on social media that I was seeing, where people were saying, “Hey, by the way, this isn’t just dance adjuncts. This is all adjuncts. They are all exploited in this way.” Yeah.

Amy Brandt:
And they’re valuable teachers. I mean, I learned so much from him.

One of the things that really struck me about Kimberly’s essay was about all the little extras that come with the job—the administrative upkeep, the like Zoom calls, the prep time, the meetings with dancers, all of that stuff that just adds to the time commitment that you put in, but yet you’re not compensated for that time. You’re only compensated for your class time. And that adds up. That adds up. I mean, she was basically saying, “I feel like I’m working full time, but for a part-time position.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. Another thing that she pointed out was that while yes, adjuncts in every department struggle with these kinds of issues, there’s something especially cruel about not providing health insurance for dance educators, who literally rely on their bodies for their livelihoods. If you get hurt on the job at school, you don’t have health insurance from that school to fall back on, and it can affect the rest of your career. So that’s complicated, right?

I mean, I think it’s worth acknowledging, and Kimberly does this in her story too, that most of these dance artists don’t want tenured positions. They’re not in it for full-time, long term contracts like that. I think a lot of them appreciate the flexibility, schedule-wise, that some of these adjunct jobs offer. But there’s got to be some in-between ground where they’re better compensated and they get better benefits, to make, as you’re saying, Amy, all of the labor that goes into these jobs, to make sure that that labor is recognized and valued appropriately.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And there’s also no job security.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yes!

Amy Brandt:
I mean, you could be teaching a full load of classes one semester and then be given two classes the following. It reminds me of freelancing. I mean, that’s how they look at adjuncts, right? As freelance contractors in a way. And just, I don’t know. When you think about the cost of higher education and all of that money that you put into it, and to hear that the teachers working with you for the class that you’re paying for is not really getting compensated well for that, it’s heartbreaking.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Again, we’re really mostly directing you to Kimberly Bartosik’s excellent piece on all of this. I mean, she has personal experience with this issue, and she also does a good job laying out all these concerns, and also talking about potential solutions to them.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. She also mentions that since the article’s been published, the dance department she worked for responded positively, and that there’s hopefully some discussions going forward.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah! Journalism working. Yay.

So in our final discussion segment in this episode, we want to take a look at the return of social dance. Because we’ve talked at great length on this podcast about the pandemic-related challenges facing concert dance companies and theatrical productions as they try to resume performances. But social dance is a totally different ballgame. A recent story in the New York Times talked about how tango—which is a dance where you’re literally cheek to cheek with a partner who you’ve often never met before—tango’s been trying to rebound. And there was also a big AP photo roundup documenting how people around the world are beginning to dance again, which mostly looked at social dance settings. I mean, it seems like there are just infinitely more variables to deal with in these kinds of environments—by design, by their very nature.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. With tango, you’re so close. I mean, you’re cheek to cheek, chest to chest. And it was interesting to hear, in the article in the New York Times that Marina Harss wrote, the different masking policies at all of these… What are they called?

Margaret Fuhrer:
Milongas?

Amy Brandt:
Milongas, yeah. Not all of them have… Some of them are very relaxed about their masking. Others are stricter, others… Most of them seem to leave it up to the dancer or the person to decide. But you’re often going from partner to partner. Sometimes you don’t know who you’re dancing with. You just meet them there and dance and have this experience together. So you really have to trust in the effectiveness of your vaccine and… Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t realize that, and Marina talked about this in the story, there are some tango leads that are actually initiated through… from chest to chest or from cheek to cheek. That’s where the lead begins, which I thought was fascinating.

Amy Brandt:
Oh really?

Margaret Fuhrer:
You’re essentially just hugging someone while dancing for the entire session.

I mean, if we’re talking about concert dance, we’re talking about these highly controlled environments, set choreography, set partnerships. Make sure everybody in that space is vaccinated and you make sure everybody’s tested, you can feel relatively safe. But the whole magic of social dance is the opposite of that, is the idea that you can meet a total stranger at a milonga or a salsa club and know that you can have this sublime dance experience just because you speak the same dance language. You need that element of randomness to make it all work, and that element of randomness is what makes COVID precautions so much more difficult.

Amy Brandt:
What’s encouraging about the tango story in particular is the relatively few COVID breakthroughs that have happened. I think it sounds like most of these milongas have been happening since June or so, but there’s been really not a whole lot of breakthrough infection. And I think one of the guys said this, “Tango should be a case study for the effectiveness of vaccines.” So that’s encouraging to know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that quote.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah!

Margaret Fuhrer:
For some reason, this made me think of…the other week, I saw Caleb Teicher’s show at the Joyce, Swing Out!, which is all about Lindy Hop and swing dance. And there’s this section in it where the dancers used canes to partner each other. One held onto one end of the cane, the other head onto the other end of the cane, and they communicated the leading and following through the canes.

Amy Brandt:
Wow.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And I was remembering—I think I saw earlier in the pandemic that there was a salsa group that was doing the same thing. They were trying to practice social distancing by literally having, I think it was six-foot poles that they would partner each other through.

I don’t know where I’m going with this really. Maybe it’s just, in some ways, that visual captures the whole spirit of social dance—the ability to improvise through whatever challenges are thrown your way is part of what makes you a good social dancer. And our hunger to dance with each other is strong enough to generate some kind of ingenious improvised solutions to pandemic problems. That kind of improvisation is happening on multiple fronts there.

Amy Brandt:
Do you remember there used to be a guy, like a busker, in Times Square, who had this gimmick where he had a…it was like she was like a mannequin or some sort of doll, and they would do this tango? It was the funniest thing. He would wear her around his waist or something, and he was quite skilled, dancing with her! [laughter] But I was thinking about him as I was reading, like that would’ve been the perfect social distancing solution.

Margaret Fuhrer:
COVID-friendly tango with your mannequin!

Amy Brandt:
Right! Exactly.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We’ll include the link to Marina Harss’ tango story in the New York Times in the show notes. It’s really great. Please do check it out.

All right. That’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating, and keep dancing.

Amy Brandt:
Bye, everybody.