California State University-Chico
I was living in New Orleans, completely immersed in graduate school life. While I had little time for anything else, I always managed to find time for ballet class.
In ballet, I could feel into my body and be fully present in often very difficult ballet positions. Graduate school, on the other hand, felt embodied in a different way. Instead of feeling disembodied, as one might assume given the emphasis on a heavy reading load and intense papers, it was an embodiment that emphasized different ways of moving and being in the world. For example, I remember a crease that would form on my stomach after long hours slumped over my books and computer. Ballet forced me to open up, straighten my back and pay attention to the muscles throughout my body.
In a world as intense as graduate school, ballet felt empowering for a number of reasons. First, ballet forced me to be present. Graduate school rarely reminded me to stop and feel into my body. It always encouraged me to look ahead, anticipate an upcoming paper or test, or plan for another set of papers to grade. Second, ballet helped me embody grace and strength. Feeling the strength in my legs while also observing the beauty of my ballet lines felt extremely empowering. In the academic world, there wasn’t a space for these embodied experiences; not one that I had found anyway. Lastly, ballet’s discipline encouraged me to be disciplined throughout my life. I attended classes almost every day of the week and was able to work my study schedule around my ballet practice. This helped me focus, a skill that I had to cultivate at an early stage in my career.
In my first graduate course at Tulane University, we had to complete an ethnography. I remember brainstorming in my professor’s office: When I wasn’t studying, where did I spend most of my time? What site would make sense for a semester-long ethnography? After some deliberation and a few trial runs, I landed squarely in the middle of my ballet classes. As I dove into the research, I remember feeling thrilled because ballet and consistent exercise offered a welcome release from my grueling academic schedule. I could get stronger and better at ballet while also completing fieldwork on a topic that increasingly became a near-total obsession.
And as I got more immersed in my local ballet community and the dance and sociology of the body literature, I quickly started to see gaps in our knowledge of the sociological importance of embodiment. For example, in typical ethnographic fieldwork in sociology, people’s bodies and embodiments often disappear. I needed a template for how to write fieldnotes that took the body seriously in social interaction and soon found that there were very few templates out there. In other words, I felt like I was starting from scratch, inventing new ways to capture balletic dance and embodiment in my fieldnotes. Also, as a dancer in ballet class, I couldn’t just step away to write up my fieldnotes. I had to train myself to remember movement and everything else that intersected with movement.
Immersed in my ballet community as a researcher also helped me see invisible aspects of the ballet world. As a non-professional dancer, I increasingly saw how the inner-workings of a ballet regime (hierarchy, status and constraint) were realized in the context of ballet classes. Through embodied interactions between a teacher and students, for example, a ballet power apparatus functioned through embodied interactions. If a ballet student excelled at most of the exercises in class, she was often treated better, with more respect and, in the case of a former ballerina, she was untouchable. For students who did not live up to the ballet ideal, they were given less room to dance, were never untouchable (teachers often touched body parts to correct a position), and were generally situated on the lowest tiers of desirability (Green 2008a, 2008b). We can think about the ballet class as a micro example of the larger ballet world in which multiple tiers of desirability situate dancers as either close to or less than a particular set of ideals. Seeing these patterns required careful attention to movement and the interlocking hierarchies that intersected with moving bodies.
In her memoir, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, American Ballet Theatre’s first African American principal ballerina, Misty Copeland (2014), discusses the pervasive tiers of desirability that cut across race, class, body size and image, dance ability, gender and access to ballet knowledge. That is, those who are situated at the top of the classical ballet world are typically white women and men who had early access to ballet and the time and resources to pursue a career in ballet. As I described above, we can literally see hierarchies play out in and through embodied relations in ballet class. Copeland and others have called for a re-thinking of balletic bodies, one that is far more inclusive and varied than what is held up in the current ballet regime; and this is a regime that expands far and wide, from elite ballet studios to local dance studios in Louisiana. Given this reality, I dream of a world where the beauty of ballet remains while the narrow-minded partitioning of bodies is a distinct memory.
Copeland, Misty. 2014. Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Fisher, Jennifer. 2003. “Nutcracker” Nation: How an Old World ballet became a Christmas tradition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Fisher, Jennifer. 2007. “Tulle as Tool: Embracing the Conflict of the Ballerina as Powerhouse.” Dance Research Journal, 39/1: 3-24.
Green, Adam Isaiah. 2008a. “The Social Organization of Desire: The Sexual Fields Approach.” Sociological Theory 26(1): 25-50.
Green, Adam Isaiah. 2008b. “Erotic Habitus: Toward a Sociology of Desire.” Theory & Society 37: 597-626.
Wainwright, Steven P., Clare Williams and Bryan Turner, “Fractured Identities: Injury and the Balletic Body.” health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness, and Medicine. Vol. 9(1): 49-66.
Wulff, Helena. 2001. Ballet Across Borders: Career and Culture in the World of Dancers. New York: Berg.