Never mind the feet – just look at the feathers and chiffon, darling: The ragtrade’s phoney world of ballet

Three days ago New York Magazine wrote a piece with a headline that’s hard to ignore: “Ballerinas Are Pissed Kendall Jenner Pretended to Be a Ballerina in This Vogue España Video”. The article included a few tweets from dancers upset with the video.

In the video Kendall, slips into black ballet shoes adorned with feathers, then ankle warmers and pink ballet flats that emphasise her floppy feet. She holds onto a barre and flutters around talking of how she likes to ‘run around like a child’ and be ‘free’.

It’s clear that she has seldom if ever taken a ballet class in her life, except perhaps as a toddler.

Embarrassing, but forgettable, if it wasn’t for the constant way that the fashion industry uses ballet as an all-purpose hook for showing tulle, glitter, feathers, sheer skirts, leotards and pink wraparound tops then get it all wrong when the stylists add pointe shoes or wrap the models’ ankles in satin crisscrossed ribbons, displaying the feet of women who know how to wear heels but that’s about it in the footwear department.

A couple of days after the NY Magazine piece, many more magazines and bloggers jumped on the bandwagon. Yesterday, Jenny Noyes, producer of Fairfax Digital’s Daily Life, posted her article headlined: “Ballerinas complaining about Kendall Jenner have jumped the identity politics shark”.

Noyes’ piece takes a more oblique direction, tidily linking two separate and different issues, the video itself and the ballet dancers’ responses, and the recent conversations about identity politics in Australia. But as my editors used to say when I worked at Fairfax, “that’s drawing a long bow”.

Noyce wrote that “ballet-inspired fashion is a staple trend, but for some reason ballerinas are suddenly getting upset about models playing dress-ups with their outfits. Could this be because they’ve heard about marginalised artists and cultures demanding that their style and traditions not be co-opted by the white, western fashion world for profit and cultural supremacy? Maybe”.

Maybe not.

The complaints are not about ‘dress-ups’ or style and traditions being co-opted, but about the frustration dancers have when they see fashion spreads and videos that show models pretending to be ballet dancers when they clearly have no knowledge of ballet except for the clothes and shoes female dancers often wear – tutus, tiaras, tights, ankle warmers and pink or black shoes with ribbons.

Noyce also refers to elitism and the “privileged world of ballet”. (And by the way the word ‘ballerina’ does not apply to every female ballet dancer, only those who are principal artists in professional companies who have performed leading roles in classical ballets.)

Ballet is not an art form practiced in a privileged world inhabited by an ultra sensitive elite. Ballet is a very difficult dance style that many begin to learn as children but few are able to take to a professional level and even if they do, they’re often unsuccessful in gaining a place in a company. Talent and the right body shape are not enough. To succeed, ballet dancers need toughness, persistence, artistry, musicality and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

They aren’t precious elitists who are so fragile they cringe at anyone wearing ballet clothes or costumes.

That’s why it’s annoying to see so many abusive comments aimed at dancers when they respond to ads and videos that purport to show ballet dancing that has no resemblance to ballet except pretty clothes and a barre.

Think how different the reaction would be if a model wearing appropriate footwear appeared in a shoe ad and pretended to take part in a sprint or marathon but whose attempt to run was laughable. Or a model in one of those pro tech suits worn by an Olympic swimmer but who couldn’t swim to save herself.

Of course actors pretend to be surgeons, barristers, pilots, and detectives etc but they don’t do brain surgery, argue a case in court, fly a plane, and solve crimes.

Why then should models go through the motions of being in a ballet studio, putting on ballet shoes, fiddling around with a barre, attempting to jump and turn and for good measure, doing tiny chest lifts on the floor to strengthen their abs.

Have the stylists and directors been reading First Steps for Your Tiny Ballerina or The Magical World of Ballet for All Ages?

Much worse than the Vogue video was a 2014 video promotion for Free People’s active wear range. It was so bad it inspired a bunch of YouTube parodies.

As the former professional dancer Wendy Zamora wrote at the time, the worst thing about the Free People video was the model’s attempt to perform in pointe shoes. That, she wrote, was “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 art form seriously”.

There are more images in this post than words. I think the pictures say it all.

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Park Ji Hyea, Poetry in Motion shoot, Vogue Korea, 2012, photo © Kim Sang Gon

Park Ji Hyea, Poetry in Motion shoot, Vogue Korea, 2012, photo © Kim Sang Gon

Alexina Graham in A Pointe to Remember fashion shoot for the middle east magazine, Mojeh, photo © Sy Delorme

Alexina Graham in A Pointe to Remember fashion shoot for the middle east magazine, Mojeh, photo © Sy Delorme

Called to the Barre, fashion shoot,, photo © Andrew Yee

Kendell Jenner wrapping her ribbons in the Vogue Espana video

Bianca Gittens, model and star of the Free People advertising campaign