Cross-posted at masalamommas.com
Some of you are not going to like what I’m about to say. And I’ll admit, a lot of it will be poorly-informed, culturally biased, and overall kind of feelingsy. That said, I’m allowed my feelings.
So with all due respect to the empirically-inclined amongst you, here goes:
I think ballet is stupid. In fact, I don’t merely think ballet is stupid. After going to see this performance, I’m more convinced than ever before that kathak is a far superior form of dance, at least as far as the empowerment of young girls is concerned.
Now before all the die-hard ballet fans and all the finger-wagging kathak critics chime in at once, let me backtrack a bit. A few months ago, I was waiting for the four year old’s soccer class at the YMCA to begin while she leapt around me doing pirouettes, arabesques and flying leaps from the bench I was sitting on.
“She’s pretty good,” observed the mother of a little boy in her class. “Is she in ballet?”
“No,” I said sheepishly. Then, after a moment’s consideration, I confessed my ambivalence for the art.
“Why?” She seemed genuinely curious.
“I don’t know. I guess I’m just not sure it’s the best thing for little girls. You know, body image, self-esteem, that stuff.”
“Oh, the Black Swan thing,” she said, rolling her eyes and laughing.
“Yeah,” I laughed along uncomfortably, making a mental note to Google Black Swan when I got home.
“Well,” she said, straightening up and suddenly turning cold, “I attribute my success with medical school to doing ballet.”
“Oh,” I replied weakly. “You did ballet.”
“I was in a professional troupe. And I see no reason to deprive your daughter of her interest.”
“She was exposed to a cartoon mouse named “Angelina Ballerina” on TV at a relative’s house last week,” I explained. “She’s also very interested in Bob the Builder.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” she sniffed. “My son has never demonstrated any interest in ballet whatsoever, and he watches television all the time.”
“Right,” I nodded earnestly, desperately trying to work out the connection and wondering why this conversation was suddenly starting to drain so much of my patience.
Did I mention that this woman is a pediatrician?
Although I remained inwardly unapolagetic about my contempt for ballet, I learned to censor my commentary a bit better. And then one day, I took my kid to the Canadian Centre for Architecture to participate in a children’s activity on “Parading Forms in Space”. I had very little idea what it was about, except that it had to do with costumes and architecture. My sister was an architect, and since she passed I’ve found myself looking for ever-more lateral ways to compensate for her absence. The theme was the Bauhaus Movement’s Triadic Ballet, and while much of it was pretentious - as my sister would have complained – it triggered one wildly simple epiphany that turned my thinking around ballet completely upside down.
As we sat in the darkness contemplating dancers shuffling around in great metallic contraptions, the animator asked us to consider how what we wear influences how we move. The metal-clad dancers were awkward and constrained. Tentative. Heavy. Unlike, it suddenly struck me, a ballerina gliding about with the aid of her own personal aerodynamic apparatus, made from several layers of starched tulle. All of the conflicts I’ve been having with my child around wardrobe choice over the past few months suddenly made sense. Who would want to wear stiff, boxy jeans when you could slip on a gossamer airfoil? Who wouldn’t want to feel weightless? What child doesn’t want to fly?
…Unless, that is, your launch pad and landing strip were crawling with vipers. The whole thing was suddenly less black and white than it had originally seemed, and so I sat conflicted with it. Until the other night.
I suspect that there are philosophers of dance who could tease out a nuanced comparison of the relative girl-empowerment quotient of kathak vs ballet based on technique alone. I would love to see a feminist analysis of en pointe vs tatkar (the fast, percussive footwork of kathak dancers, amplified by ghungru, or ankle bells), or the chakkar (kathak spin) vs the pirouette. I’d like to hear some theories of pastel versus vivid costume style and colour. How about an exploration of narrative themes, and the gendered values they espouse? And really, icing on the cake would be if the discussion ventured beyond the confines of these two highly formalized institutions and into less structured and more participatory traditions rooted in other places.
I, however, am completely ignorant about these things. The only thing I know is this: when I looked out onto the stage that night, I saw an internationally acclaimed troupe of female dancers whose age appeared to span from their late teens to their late 40s. They also ranged widely in shape and size. There does not appear to be any Balanchine body ideal in kathak – at least not yet. The costumes, which vary widely in shade and colour, do not appear to have been designed around a single racial phenotype (pink tutu, anyone?).
What I witnessed that night was a diverse collective of women stamping with force and soaring with grace, subtlety and perfectly-timed harmony. It was powerfully instructive, without a trace of didacticism. It made my heart swell. It made me wonder what kinds of new synaptic leaps my daughters’ brains might make if they saw it, too.
It made me want it for them, in a completely unconflicted, black and white way. Because flying is fun. But so is making loud noises. And when the form allows your body to be itself, its buoyant self, its thrumming self, its strange and wonderful-looking self-self, that’s the best feeling of all.