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@modelsdoingballet on misrepresenting ballet in media – and how easy it is not to

Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.
Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.

Dance Informa talks with creators of the @modelsdoingballet Instagram page, Katie Malia and Suzanne Jolie. As both ballet dancers and comedians, they spotlight the best of the worst representations of ballet in commercial media, and serve it up for laughs and a lesson.

How did you get the idea for @modelsdoingballet? Was it Free People era or the more recent (yet somehow classic) Kendall Jenner shoot? 

Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.
Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.

“Katie and I are both ballet dancers; we met working in the commercial dance industry in Los Angeles. We also both come from the comedy world. We used to send terrible representations of ballet in the media to each other back and forth, laughing at how ridiculous the shoots were. 

When that infamous Free People ad came out, it got a lot of attention for just how egregious and insulting it was to actual dancers. But Katie and I had been living that reality for years, so we rolled our eyes and laughed it off, yet again. Then the Kendall Jenner Vogue video (and photos) brought the dance world together again, while also getting attention from the population at large because it was just….bad. Our very first post is of Kendall at the barre from Vogue, our profile picture is her, and we only follow her. She’s our icon, our North star. She’s the poster child of what happens when you don’t hire a dancer. Kendall’s clapback was that she was ‘just doing her job,’ but that’s the whole point…. let us do ours and she can do hers. Or just stay in flats… #stayflatstaysafe.”

I love that you hashtag #whodidthistoher on every post. It points out that it’s not the model – who is just doing what they were hired to do – who’s at fault for the misrepresentation. Who holds responsibility for portraying ballet with integrity in ads and other commercial content?

Ad for Free People.
Ad for Free People.

“From the very start, we wanted to be absolutely clear that we are not bullying the models. As performers ourselves, we know that when you are hired to do a job, you have to do it. So, of course, we do not blame the models. The responsibility lies with the ad agencies, the publications, the directors, the casting directors, etc. to do their research. If they want classical ballet (because it’s stunning, impressive, captivating), then they need to hire a dancer. Most top dancers look like models anyway, so there’s no excuse. 

That being said, a top model like Kendall Jenner has so much control over what she does, she would have the power to veto a photoshoot that asks her to strap on pointe shoes and hang upside down on a barre. I mean, unless she doesn’t care about her creative choices getting mired in controversy because real talk, it’s click bait. What would Kris Jenner do? Piss people off for press. But ultimately, the misrepresentation falls on the brand director. There are so many incredible dancers out there who would love to be booked and blessed. And paid. Preferably union. With hazard pay. Okay.”

Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.
Photo courtesy of @modelsdoingballet.

The big issue with hiring non-dancers (besides that untrained people in pointe shoes is a recipe for an injury, and besides training audiences to think that sickled feet are honest ballet thereby devaluing the skill and artistry of real dancers), is that it takes potential work away from professional ballet dancers. Do you think ballet dancers have been too isolated in the concert world, and would they benefit from stepping out into the commercial world if they want to be accurately represented there? Claim their own roles in media? 

“There are dancers who have managed to bust through commercially, and we love to see it. Misty Copeland, Isabella Boylston, Skylar Brandt, Maria Khoreva, Sara Mearns…just to name a few. They have done campaigns for big brands, they’ve doubled in movies. We can’t say for certain, but we would assume that they have good agents and managers getting them out there for offers. Baby steps, but it’s still progress! You’ll notice we frequently feature appreciation posts of brands that got it right.”

Obviously, your page is a lot of fun for dancers to laugh along with. Do you expect it to reach people outside of the dance bubble? It could serve as a useful tool to show brands what happens when they perpetuate the stereotype of ballet as frivolous.

“I love when we get comments like, ‘I’m not even a dancer, but I know this looks bad!’ A fair amount of our followers aren’t in the dance world, but they know bad advertising when they see it. And yes, we have had brand directors reach out directly and say they hired a dancer because they didn’t want to be featured on our page for getting it wrong! Our page started as satire that has now evolved into a bigger movement with a focus on education and change. The profile has turned into a comedic, useful tool to instill the fear of god in brands. (Kidding!)”

Kendall Jenner for 'Vogue'.
Kendall Jenner for ‘Vogue’.

How has your page changed or evolved since you first started it (aside from how many followers you’ve amassed)?

“Our followers have started to adopt the account’s comedic voice. The comment section has become equally as important as the actual posts, captions and hashtags; we pin the best comments. I think it gives the account a feeling of community and comradery. We’d love for our page to continually evolve into a bigger conversation with the community via live Q&As, interviews and features with the professional dancers we love who follow our page. MDB is a satire account, but our mission statement is to support the performers so they can get hired and paid. The biggest surprise is how many misrepresentations of ballet are out there — a lot of the posts are submitted by our followers, and they just… keep… coming. The Bella Hadid shoot we posted recently was one of our most requested posts. We like to joke and say, ‘How are there so many?‘ or ‘We hate how easy this is!‘ Forget the fetishization and ballet cosplay, we’re talking straight up basics like not having pointe shoe ribbons tied up to your knees. All it takes is a quick YouTube tutorial. But hey, we’re unfortunately here for it, so the content keeps coming. Hold on to your butts.”

Follow @modelsdoingballet.

By Holly LaRoche of Dance Informa.

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