Transcript, Episode 93: The “West Side Story” Debate, Weighing Dancers, and “DWTS” Dreamcasting

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 this week’s episode, we will dive into the great West Side Story debate, the conversation about why the film’s cultural footprint has been so large and whether it deserves to be. Which is, of course, very timely, given the Spielberg film’s release this weekend. We will then talk about the practice of weighing dancers—which, yes is still a thing somehow—and the harm that that can cause. And then on a lighter note we’ll discuss a recent poll suggesting that “Dancing with the Stars” fans actually don’t want celebrities with prior dance experience to compete on the show, which I personally find fascinating.

Super quick housekeeping note, before we get into all of that: There is an excellent new episode of The Dance Edit Extra out this Saturday, the 11th, on Apple Podcasts. I sat down with New York City Ballet principal Megan Fairchild, who is one of the busiest people possibly in the world right now. She not only recently gave birth to twins and returned to the stage after the pandemic shutdown, but she also has a brand new book—it just came out—which is all about taking care of your mental health in a high pressure environment like dance. Megan is very sharp and very knowledgeable and very funny, which made for a great interview. So I hope you can all tune in. You can subscribe to The Dance Edit Extra on Apple Podcasts, or you can find out a little more about it at thedanceedit.com/podcast.

All right, now it’s time for the dance headline rundown, beginning with yet more major lawsuit news.

Amy Brandt:
Yes, there is more disturbing news out of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. 39 dancers have now joined a large lawsuit against the school, alleging sexual abuse between 1969 and 2012. The suit spans multiple disciplines at the school, including their music department, but the dance program in particular stands out for the number of abuses that are alleged to have occurred there over the years. The suit not only names prominent UNCSA dance teachers, but also takes administrators to task for not doing enough to protect the students. Multiple faculty members are accused of grooming and initiating sexual relationships with students. It’s really pretty disturbing and sickening to read the suit.

If you have a moment, I know Pointe magazine recently published an article by Kathleen McGuire Gaines that talks about grooming in the dance industry, particularly the ballet industry. She interviewed Sage Humphries, who’s one of the five plaintiffs accusing Dusty Button and her husband Mitchell Taylor Button of sexual abuse. And she is really candid and offers her thoughts on how young dancers are super vulnerable to grooming and sexual abuse.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Sage’s quotes in that Pointe story are so powerful, the story itself is essential. I really hope you all can read it. We will link to that in the show notes, as well as to the Winston-Salem Journal story on the lawsuit.

Okay. Sharp U-turn now. In much happier news, Tom Holland, aka Spider-Man, will play Fred Astaire in Sony’s upcoming film about the dance icon. And this is delightful news for several reasons. One, because Holland is an excellent dancer. He actually started his career playing Billy Elliot on the West End, and his incredible choreographed “Umbrella” mashup on Lip Sync Battle a few years ago—that is like still reverberating across the internet. And yes, we know that was partly a Gene Kelly tribute; I don’t think that disqualifies him from playing Astaire. [laughter]

The other kind of wonderful thing happening here is that this is not the only Fred Astaire film in the works. Amazon is also working on its own movie, and that one stars Jamie Bell—the original Billy Elliot, in the film version—as Astaire. So two Billys who grew up to play Fred, that’s pretty great.

Amy Brandt.
That is so funny. And I can’t wait to see both films.

The dancers of Ballet Idaho have voted to join the American Guild of Musical Artists, or AGMA. AGMA, as many of you know, is the labor union for dancers and opera singers, as well as their staging staff members. Negotiations for Ballet Idaho’s first AGMA contract will commence after the new year.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s big news.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The West End production of Moulin Rouge! has been forced to cancel several performances following a COVID outbreak in the company. The show has actually been dark since last Friday, the third, and as of recording time, will remain dark through at least this Saturday, the 11th. I mean, Moulin Rouge! has had such to tough go of it during the pandemic. We’ve talked before about how the Broadway production saw one of the very first COVID outbreaks back in March of 2020. It just devastated that cast. Here’s hoping everybody in the West End show recovers quickly.

Amy Brandt:
I know, me too. I was thinking about that last night when I was sitting in the theater during a Nutcracker performance. It was so wonderful to just be in a full theater. Everyone had their masks on, et cetera, but I did have that thought like, oh, I hope we can just keep this going. I hope nothing happens.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The threat still looms.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And hearing about stuff like this just makes me scared.

Forbes magazine’s annual 30 under 30 list includes a handful of dancers this year. And we always love it when dancers make mainstream news, I have to say. 28 year old American Ballet Theatre principal Skylar Brandt is one of them, as well as 18 year old JoJo Siwa, the “Dance Moms” alum who just wrapped up her stint on “Dancing with the Stars.” And speaking of West Side Story, Rachel Zegler, the 20 year old Maria in the movie, was also named, as well as members of the influencer collective Collab Crib: Kaelyn Kastle, Khamyra Sykes and Theo Wisseh. So congratulations to all of them.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. There are a ton of exciting artists on that whole list. We’ll link to the whole thing in the show notes.

The upcoming film version of Wicked is looking to cast a performer who uses a wheelchair in the role of Nessarose, who’s Elphaba’s younger sister, a character who uses a wheelchair. So, a big thumbs up to that kind of casting.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And this is the film that, as previously announced, will star Cynthia Erivo as Elphaba and Ariana Grande as Glinda. So, just excellent choices being made all around so far in that production.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. And ending on a sad note: Native American ballerina Marjorie Tallchief has died at the age of 95. She was the first American ballerina to become an étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet in 1957. And before that, she danced with the original Ballet Russe. She was the younger sister of Maria Tallchief, and the last surviving member of the “Five Moons,” the five Native American dancers from Oklahoma that include the Tallchief sisters, Yvonne Chouteau, Moscelyne Larkin and Rosella Hightower.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The Oklahoman obituary for Marjorie, I think it started by saying “the last of the five moons has set.” The end of an era.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, I saw that.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right. So, time for our first discussion segment today. Over the past few years, there has been a ton of talking and thinking about why American culture remains so fascinated with West Side Story, prompted first by that recent Broadway revival and now by the Spielberg film adaptation. Obviously its music and choreography and story are widely beloved. And yet from the beginning, it has also been a source of deep discomfort, because it’s a musical written by four white men that underscores negative stereotypes about Puerto Ricans.

The New York Times ran a feature this week with five musical theater experts discussing why West Side Story still has such a grip on so many of us, and then how, or if, it should continue to exist on Broadway stages and movie screens. The five experts had five very different perspectives. And yet at various points, I found myself nodding along with each of them. Well, not quite everyone, but with most of them.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. I mean, for myself, the draw to West Side Story has always been Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ choreography. Like that’s always just sort of been for me the strongest pull, more so even than the story. But it’s funny because about 10 years ago, I remember seeing the 1961 film at a movie theater and kind of seeing it after not seeing it for a really long time and kind of feeling a bit uncomfortable, like with seeing the white actors in the dark makeup with their bad Spanish accents. And it just felt very dated. And a friend of mine who came with me who was South American, at various times she was sort of rolling her eyes or kind of snickering. And I could tell she thought it was ridiculous, but this article kind of lays out various different opinions as to what makes it problematic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So one of the five panelists in this article is Carina del Valle Schorske, the writer who last year, in February of 2020, just before the Broadway revival opened, wrote this great op-ed about what it feels like to watch the musical as a Puerto Rican today—she is Puerto Rican. And she said it just felt exhausting that this is still the leading representation of Latin American culture in American musical theater. We’ll link to that story too, because that perspective is so important.

I think there’s also this weird tension that comes from the fact that—Jesse Green, the critic, notes this in the New York Times story—this musical was “an idea looking for an ethnicity,” is the way he put it.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, originally it was not going to be Puerto Ricans versus whites. It was going to be East Side Story, about Jews versus Catholics. And the fact that the creative team decided to move it to the West Side and change the whole narrative because that conflict had more of a “news hook” to it, rather than because they had any real interest in the stories of Puerto Ricans—that’s a deep seated problem that we need to address, we need to unpack, whenever we put on this production.

Amy Brandt:
Right. And Carina in this article even says like the musical itself might as well be about Dominicans, it’s that general. I got the sense that they’re represented in the musical—it offers work, it offers roles to Latinx performers, but yet they’re still unable to see themselves or their cultures in the piece itself.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s whole thing about, oh, it’s a blessing and a curse. Yeah.

So I guess the question is, what do we do? Should we let this musical go to make room for more and different and more nuanced explorations of what it means to be Latin American? Should we keep it in some form for the value of its music and its choreographic legacy, but then openly acknowledge its flaws, try to update it in ways that acknowledge them? There’s also the idea of engaging with the musical by kind of deconstructing it, by making new work inspired by the original or by artists’ reactions to that original. Like, Matthew Lopez, the playwright, another one of the panelists in this article, he wrote a play called Somewhere that was a deconstruction of West Side Story.

But not a single person in this story said we should fully erase West Side, full stop.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
It seems like there was this consensus that there’s enough genius in the music, in the dance, and the lyrics—obviously, we on this podcast are partial to the dance in particular—but it seems like there’s enough there to convince even the most vocal critics that it shouldn’t be thrown away. But do we have to devote millions upon millions of dollars to propping up its relevance at every turn? Do we have to keep positioning it as the leading musical representation of Latin American culture? Probably not.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
But Amy, you’ve actually already seen the new film version.

Amy Brandt:
I have. I did. I watched, I saw a preview of the film, of the Spielberg film last week and I really liked it. I loved it. I did feel that the Puerto Rican characters were more fully fleshed out. I say that as a white person, of course. I also found the performances—Ariana DeBose, amazing. I mean, incredible.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Give her an Oscar.

Amy Brandt:
Rita Moreno…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Give her an Oscar, too!

Amy Brandt:
Rachel Zegler, David Alvarez. Like they were all so strong in the film, their performances were incredible. I mean, it’s like almost a little more memorable to me, was that side of the story.

I mean, I think one of the critics in this New York Times article said, “I want the new movie to succeed if it’s good, but if only white people are moved, it would be a failure.” So we’ll see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. Obviously we’ve linked to that New York Times story in the show notes. By the way, that has more than 1200 comments on it. People are very invested in this debate. So go add your voice.

All right, next up today, we have another perennially controversial topic, although it concerns a very different side of dance culture. Dance Magazine posted an op-ed last week by Kathleen McGuire—Kathleen McGuire, who’s everywhere this week, she’s the founder of the mental health organization Minding the Gap—and she talked about why we need to stop weighing dancers.

I have to confess that my initial response—and based on the comments on social media, this was true of many people—my initial response was, are we really still doing that? And yes, unfortunately, we are, or some of us are. Kathleen’s piece does an excellent job laying out exactly why that practice is so harmful to dancers’ mental health.

Amy Brandt:
I have to say Margaret, I reacted the same way. I was a little bit surprised. I thought, Oh gosh, this is still a practice?

When I was growing up in the nineties, it was still a practice. I somehow escaped weigh-ins. The schools that I went to, we didn’t have those. But plenty of my friends had to experience those at summer programs, even, or in their pre-professional training, and it really affected them. It really gave them a lot of anxiety. Some of them developed eating disorders. I don’t know if it was specifically from experiencing weigh-ins or what not, but it was very problematic. And the whole—Heidi Guenther, when she died, that’s kind of right when I was making that transition from student to professional and everything. And I felt like that was sort of a turning point where the conversation started to change a little bit.

So yes, when Kathleen told me she was writing this op-ed, I was like, oh, wow. But like, schools are still doing that, even today. In this context, it seemed to be more about screening for potential eating disorders than kind of managing your weight to be part of your program. But…

Margaret Fuhrer:
Even so.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah. Like there’s some key things that she says in this story. One is that your weight is private medical information. And the other is that an eating disorder should be [diagnosed] by a mental health professional, not your dance teacher. Which is something, I feel like, of course! But this is something that the dance community has never considered.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. Because the art form is all about the body and therefore the body is part of the deal here. We monitor your body that way.

Amy Brandt:
Dance leadership taking on this role of doctor and mental health expert—I remember once, from my advice column, someone wrote in to me to say, I was recently asked to explain my mental health history on an audition form…

Margaret Fuhrer:
[gasps]

Amy Brandt:
…and are directors allowed to ask me that? And again, it was under, do you have a history of eating disorders? Et cetera. And that’s against the law.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That actually made me gasp out loud.

Amy Brandt:
I think my response was, like, your director either doesn’t have a firm understanding of employment law, or they assume you’re too young yourself to have a firm understanding of employment law and are just kind of disregarding it. But yeah, there is sort of these blurred lines between what’s professionally appropriate to ask. I mean, I remember on audition forms, I often had to put my weight down.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I remember that too. But yeah, I think there’s something very insidious about the idea that we’re weighing you because we’re worried about your health. I mean, especially because weight isn’t always an indication of health. A person doesn’t have to be super thin to be suffering from a serious eating disorder. And yeah, as you’re saying, weight is private medical information. You can decline to be weighed at your doctor’s office. And yet we’re expecting dancers to do it in front of non-medical professionals without objecting? It’s really strange.

I don’t think we need to do a whole lot to convince this audience, this podcast audience, that the dance world has to stop saying or implying that weight is a measure of a dancer’s value. But I think Kathleen sort of summed it up best at the end of her article. She said, “There is no height to weight chart that exists that is a true measure of your fitness as a human or a dancer.” And that’s really it. Please do read the whole story if you can.

So, last up today: If you thought that maybe we’d stop talking about “Dancing with the Stars” for a minute now that season 30 is done, you thought wrong, friends. [laughter] The website Heavy recently asked “Dancing with the Stars” fans to talk about the types of celebrities they’d like to see on the hypothetical next season of the show. (It is still technically hypothetical, although renewal does feel inevitable.) And I mean, full disclosure, this was a very informal poll—it was really just a string of comments on a Facebook post that Heavy then spun into an article. But still, it’s kind of crazy, the number of people who were very vocal about not wanting celebrities with dance experience in the ballroom. Which I think is exactly the opposite of the way most of us dance people feel, and is especially unexpected given the pretty extraordinary routines that came out of this past season, which featured several stars with dance training. So, I mean, what does this say about what people are looking for from “Dancing with the Stars”?

Amy Brandt:
Yeah, it’s kind of a double-edged sword, because it’s like, if you have contestants with no dance experience and you’re really dealing with people who are super beginners, then the kind of routines you are going to get are going to be pretty simple, I would think. But at the same time, I do kind of understand. I’ve always kind of felt like, oh, maybe it’s a little unfair to have contestants who are obvious dancers or have dance training or are in similar industries—like ice skaters, or gymnasts, where coordination is very much a big part of their profession, along with like insanely competitive work ethics. Like I’ve always kind of thought that that was a touch unfair. And maybe these vocal social media commenters are more interested in seeing someone who has to really figure it out, who has to go on a journey. Or maybe they really enjoy watching famous people look foolish. [laughter] I don’t know. Or maybe they just think it’s more exciting to see someone who really does not have dance experience have to put themselves out there like this. I kind of understand it.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I mean, Amy, I think you’re exactly right. I think those are the two threads of like criticism about featuring celebrities with dance experience. The first one being that, oh, it’s unfair. It’s an unfair advantage. To which I would say: I’m sorry, is fairness the real reason any of us watch “Dancing with the Stars”? Are we in it for like the competitive rigor of this premise? No. Come on, no way. [laughter]

But then the other argument is, yeah, is part of the appeal here really watching the transformative arc of a competitor and seeing them go from really not knowing much at all to becoming a better and better dancer? Like of course, there’s an appeal to that. But you’re going to have some of that on every season anyway. That’s never not going to be a part of the show.

So my whole thing here is, what do people have against seeing really good dancing on TV? [laughter] Why wouldn’t you want to watch celebrities who at least kind of know what they’re doing out there? Like isn’t there a thrill in that too? And I think especially because often these are people that we have collectively forgotten are good dancers. Like, I think my favorite season ever was Alfonso Ribeiro season, because everybody remembered him doing the Carlton, like, whatever, fine—but not many people remember that he was on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid, and he was in that Pepsi commercial with The Jackson 5.

Amy Brandt:
Right.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And then he came out there and just killed it every week. And we were all like, oh my gosh, right! He’s really good at this. And that was also thrilling.

Amy Brandt:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Anyway, my piping hot take is: Hey, you’re wrong, Facebook moms of America. Get as many celebrities with dance experience on there as possible. Oh man, I’m going to get myself in trouble. [laughter]

Before I do: That’s it for this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. 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.