I am a former dancer. I trained for nearly 20 years, 15 of them in classical ballet at well-regarded studios in Massachusetts and New York City. I would never call myself a professional caliber ballerina, because my focus was in other dance forms and my technique and body type were not meant for ballet. I would never audition for a ballet ad. But I can sure spot a fake when I see one.
My Facebook feed exploded last week when Free People ran an ad featuring an embarrassingly untrained "dancer" who talked about how she had trained in ballet since she was three years old. The ad was for a new line of ballet/movement wear, and it was painfully obvious that the model was selected for her lithe frame and gorgeous face, and not so much for her skill.
My dancer friends winced, snarked, and clucked tongues. Hundreds of dancers commented on Free People’s YouTube channel and Facebook page, saying such things as, “This is a mockery of dance of any form. It's obvious she isn't serious about dance. Any dancer could notice that in a heartbeat,” and “It made my blood boil. It’s an insult to dancers. It’s an insult to dance itself.”
Not too long after, the Internet at large got wind that the dancers were mad. In an article for AdWeek, dancers were interviewed expressing their disgust about the model's lack of training, as well as the danger of going en pointe without proper strength and technique. Soon after, Jezebel ran an article titled Ballet Truthers Are Coming for This Free People Ad.
A lot of non-dancers are wondering why us dancers are so up in arms about this. Actors play the roles of doctors, astronauts, and other highly-skilled professionals in commercials all the time. What's the big deal? One YouTube commenter wrote, “War? Hunger? Murder? Forget those travesties: ballet is what people on the Internet should be angry about!” His comment received 145 “likes” as of yesterday.
Well, the problem is that when actors are chosen to play astronaut or doctor, they aren't being asked to actually fly a rocket or perform surgery. The Free People model didn’t merely wear the clothes and call herself a dancer. She stretched, completed barre exercises, moved about in a studio, and -- most devastatingly -- attempted to perform in pointe shoes, something reserved only for those who prove their foundational ballet technique is solid enough to proceed. Showcasing a poorly trained dancer as aspirational is embarrassing not only for Free People, but for us dancers who take our artform seriously.
Imagine a company was running an ad about a singer saying that she had taken voice lessons since she was three years old. Then imagine that the singer screeched her way through a Celine Dion song off-pitch and with little, if any, musicality. That would be awkward, wouldn’t it? To play the ad off like it was inspiring? That’s essentially what Free People is doing with this ballet ad. To us, watching this amateur dancer warble her way through ballet exercises en pointe is the equivalent of a tone-deaf, untrained singer attempting a song in a difficult range by one of the greatest divas of all time.
There are those that would defend Free People’s intentions. Maybe not every dancer who has danced since she was three is going to be at a professional level. Maybe some people just want to embrace movement, even if they are not serious about it. That’s fine. In fact, that’s a sentiment most dancers can get behind. But if that’s Free People’s intention, then they should change the narrative. Show a dancer moving around lightly in the studio, or even in her living room, talking about how she loves to express herself. Don’t tell us she’s anything but a casual dancer. And please, for the love of God, do not put her in pointe shoes.
I do feel bad that the model for this ad is getting so much flack. She was probably psyched to book the commercial and had no idea the damage she’d be doing to the dance world. Our anger shouldn’t be directed at her, but at Free People, whose clear disregard for dance shows us that they have little respect for what some of us dedicate our entire lives to.
Because it goes even deeper than being angry at seeing some sloppy technique and calling it art. Dancers aren’t only upset because we saw some toes that weren’t pointed and feet that weren’t turned out. We are angry because there are literally thousands of beautiful, trained dancers that Free People could have chosen from to cast the commercial -- why not select a dancer who has the proper skill for the ad? Not only is it more aesthetically pleasing, but it also won’t alienate the audience of dancers you are trying to get to buy your product. Free People could follow in the footsteps of Under Armour and hire someone as fiercely talented and stunning as American Ballet Theatre soloist Misty Copeland, for example.
The problem is, in the industry, skill is usually not the most important factor -- even when you’re talking about auditioning for actual dance jobs (versus a commercial for dance clothing). It may not be the case with professional dance companies, but when you’re talking about commercial dance, the girl with “the look” gets it over the girl with “the skill.” I know because I lost jobs to those girls. And it was infuriating to see a dancer with less skill but a prettier face book a job that wasn’t even about selling a commercial product. It’s even more infuriating to showcase that pretty face alongside a story about how much this dancer has supposedly trained.
OK, you want a gorgeous model. That’s more important to you than skill. Fine. But don’t cue the inspirational music and the close-ups of the dancer NOT executing the most basic of ballet movements and tell us she has trained since she was three. Just don’t.
You know why dancers are so mad? It’s because they want to see their passion represented accurately in the media. It’s because there are so many of their friends who could have been perfect for the role. And it’s because they trained for decades just to miss out on that commercial job over the girl who took an adult ballet class the night before the casting call.