For as long as civilization has had the stability, and by extension the spare time, to allow a person to become specialized, we have been in love with the existence of mastery. Masters were noticed for being the most capable, unique, or precise at what they did, and the consistent attention given to them would result in their becoming distinct figures in our society. In other words, the famous person was born.
Sometimes, these masters would create schools or hold apprenticeships in order to teach others the techniques attributed to their status. As the number of experts grew, our adoration of specific people grew to become a love of whole crafts, with those that were most dazzling to our senses becoming the most admired. Trades like acting, martial arts, fashion, music, dance, and even politics became glamorous, while trades like bee keeping or welding typically did not– even if they are interesting and require years of dedication to excel in.
To this day, glamorous crafts attract hordes of hopefuls, often because of the core principals of the craft. But sometimes, people are most attracted to the promise of gaining the aura that surrounds a particular skill. This is where trouble begins.
The people who work in marketing, advertising, and public relations have made a business out of noticing what talents a lot of people are attracted to. They create campaigns that strategically feed on our desires to be someone or something else, and they figured out that one way to feel similar to someone with the least amount of effort is to look like them (marketing and advertising are a kind of art too, and there are people who are very good at it). To the delight of our busy schedules and psyches, we no longer have to play music to feel like a Ramone for example, or study politics to become a successful politician. Instead, we can buy a leather jacket with a pair of Chuck Taylors, or professional looking suits and strategy teams, to become enshrouded with the glow of the qualities we want most–we hope to seem wild like a Ramone, or competent like a responsible politician. It often works.
But if you’ve ever met someone, and thought they were one way based on their appearance or the things that they said, only to find out there wasn’t much past their exterior, you probably felt disappointed. This is similar to how an expert feels when they see their work depreciated for the sake of dreamlike sales, and it is how many dancers felt after several ad campaigns used visuals of dance without involving any professional dancers.
The most recent of these campaigns was a video by Vanity Fair, which featured artist Petra Collins giving a ballet lesson. Collins, though admitting to being an “expert non-expert ballerina,” still confuses third position with fifth in the video, and is generally off-tempo with her accompanying piano.
An average viewer might already understand some of the ways that this video could have been done better, even for the purpose of entertainment alone. There is nothing wrong with Vanity Fair wanting to cover Petra Collins, and considering Collins does in fact have some prior experience in ballet, it is not totally inexcusable for the dance to be involved. However, wouldn’t it have been both more educational and more beautiful to watch a professional ballerina take Collins through a lesson, instead of watching what, quite frankly, looks like several production assistants in leisurewear fumble through positions? Or, if they wanted it to be cute, have Collins attempt to teach a bar full of professional ballet dancers?
Laura Diffenderfer, a former dancer and the current associate director of context and interpretation at New York City’s Joyce Theater Foundation, explained how dissatisfying this kind of content is from the perspective of a professional.
“I think ballet has come into popular culture a bit…I think it signifies beauty and talent and creativity – and a certain kind of femininity – and it’s simply being used to bring those ideals to individuals’ and brands’ images,” said Diffenderfer. “The fact that [these] individuals and brands want to use the cache of ballet without hiring an actual professional to consult or appear bothers me immensely. The fact that Kylie Jenner and this woman from [Vanity Fair] think they can ‘pass’ as a trained dancer by simply putting on the attire and pretending is naive and embarrassing.”
For Diffenderfer, feelings of frustration are made worse by the kind of laziness shown in the composition of productions like these.
“It’s just so easy to call in a real dancer, too,” said Diffenderfer. “Dancers are usually more than willing to offer expertise for a reasonable fee. There’s no reason not to invite a professional into the room, unless you think the real form doesn’t matter; you only care about the approximation of the brand or individual to the cache.”
As the boundaries of branding expand, more opportunities arise for anyone to scavenge the look of an expert, without having to commit to the same years of hard work that real experts do. If this pattern continues, it is possible that genuine masters could become muddled in a sea of mediocrity, and if it becomes difficult to tease them apart from their look-alikes, it is equally possible that truly talented individuals could become invisible to the public eye. It is important to remember that masters are what make a skill fascinating, and when we spread the quality of their work too thin, our awe vanishes with the craft itself.
To see an example of a respectful presentation of dance, you can watch a video made by The Joyce Theater Foundation here.