Me: “Hi, I’m Alex and I’m a ballerina.” Other: “Ballet, huh? Uhh, I’ve seen ‘Black Swan!’”
Now believe me, as a former ballet dancer, I am thrilled when the art to which I have dedicated years of my life in the studio is brought to the center stage of mainstream media. In the past few years, we have had an inundation of films and TV shows, which show dance through a somewhat unfiltered lens: “First Position,” “Black Swan,” ABC Family’s “Bunheads,” CW’s “Breaking Pointe,” FOX’s “So You Think You Can Dance,” and Lifetime’s “Dance Moms.” The list goes on but their messages are myopic and more or less the same: dance is hard, unforgiving, and the moms are crazy.
That’s why it was like a breath of fresh air when I saw this video posted to the New York City Ballet’s Facebook page a few weeks ago.
The song, “Man on Fire” is the lead single from the Indie-folk band Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ recently released album Here. Shot in New York City in May, it features just about every kind of dance from the New York City Ballet, NY Junior Destiny Allstars, National Double Dutch Junior League, Soul Steps, and Brooklyn Divas, among others. Also, let’s please take note of the portrayal of supportive parents and coaches.
Amidst the dramatic, exclusive, and competitive dance world we’ve seen so much of on TV lately, this video truly positions itself as separate from the mix, pointing to something beyond dance life in a studio.
With its faded colors and sparse composition, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its message is simple and straightforward, yet powerful: dance is everywhere, it’s transformative, and anyone can do it. Now I don’t mean to underestimate the work and commitment that goes into the pursuit and maintenance of a professional dance career, however, what ever happened to just dance—as exercise, as a mental and physical release, as an expression of spontaneity and personality?
One of my former dance teachers Liz Lerman, founding artistic director of Dance Exchange and a 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship awardee, understood what Sharpe coveys in his video:
“Sometimes art achieves what therapy, medicine, or the best of health professionals cannot…inspiring motivation, engaging parts of people’s bodies or brains that they haven’t been using, or allowing them to transcend their environments for a little while.”
Lerman’s work, supported by MetLife Foundation Healthy Initiative, concentrates on two main areas: 1) arts in healthcare settings combining movement, verbal expression, creative challenge, and collaboration among patients with Huntington’s disease, brain injury, addiction, etc., and 2) integrating dance, which is easily adaptable for different bodies and ages, into activities for adults over 50.
In its third year, the MetLife Foundation Healthy Living Initiative at Dance Exchange has supported the incorporation of art programs, namely dance, into the medical and health/wellness fields to people nationwide. Arts integration has been shown to improve the quality of the healthcare experience for patients, their families, and for the health professionals who serve them, reporting benefits such as shorter hospital stays, less medications, and fewer complications.
This partnership between the Healthy Living Initiative and the Dance Exchange is a step in the right direction to making arts accessible to all ages and promoting dance as an art form that can enhance lives to be more productive and healthier for the mind and the body through the creative expression of movement.
To give some scientific backing, the National Institute on Aging funded a 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reporting that in addition to the numerous physical benefits from dance, it is also the only physical activity to provide protection against dementia, and offered the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, cognitive or physical.
Schools are also integrating dance programs—the National Dance Association’s work with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, entitled Let’s Move in School, educates youth about the benefits of a creative, healthy lifestyle; and the Washington Ballet’s DanceDC has an in-school program which serves young people in all five wards of the District to offer extensive education, physical activity, and engagement through dance.
The bottom line is that dance doesn’t always have to be in a studio to be called dance. Maybe you’ll turn on the radio and dance with your kids before dinner, maybe you’ll have a little dance party of your own while you’re washing the dishes, or who knows you may happen upon an alley in the middle of New York City with the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet. Whatever form it’s packaged in, dance can achieve something unexpected and unparalleled for individuals and communities alike. So, come dance with me.