Not Another Damsel in Distress: Encouraging a Realistic Romanticism

Baltimore 2015

I was teaching beginning ballet last summer and I told my dancers to hold their arms so that if they had a partner, they wouldn’t smack them in the face. A small, dramatic dancer waved her arms romantically and asked the girl next to her to be her male partner. One of my more feisty dancers loudly proclaimed that the prospect of needing a male was despicable. She proceeded to fake throw-up and announced she would be just fine without the help of a man. The dancers laughed and when they tried to grab her waist she would smack them in the face and exclaim she was fine on her own. I respected her spunk and impassioned eight-year-old rant amidst the other girls’ criticism of her as they swayed aimlessly and dreamt of finding their Prince Charming.

In keeping with Valentine’s Day, I thought it’d be worthwhile to consider the implications and generalizations Romantic Ballet carries with it to contribute to the archaic notions we continue to celebrate. Ballet receives so much recognition in the dance world that non-dancers in Western culture are unable to process other styles. When I say I’m a modern dancer, they ask me if that’s like breakdancing. While I’d love to say yes, I can’t help but wonder why people only attribute dance to ballet or commercialism. Little kids dress up like ballerinas to assume this ultra-feminine stereotype thus joining the cult of female dance cliches. They have no intentions of sweating. Their inspiration revolves around the perfect, pure women illuminated in old ballet works. They add to the prevalence of heteronormativity and depict a version of women that (not unlike Valentine’s Day) celebrates a female’s need to look beautiful in order to be loved.

This considered, it seems ideal to question why constructions like Valentine’s Day and Romantic Ballets have given birth to so may idyllic cliches that contribute to and reflect our society. Romantic Ballets portray women as idealized, inhuman, and/or objectified. While Romanticism in ballet was progressive in that women became celebrities and were elevated as a focal point on stage, it continued to promote an unrealistic depiction of partnership…just like Valentine’s Day. It relies on a male protectorate and shows a version of love that’s pretty but fictitious. Of course, it emphasizes heterosexual relationships.

However, the most important aspect of Romantic dance is that more often than not, it suggests that women are loved by their beauty and ability to be seen as a mystical object. From ballets like Giselle to the ephemeral La Sylphide, it implies that a woman is pursued by her unattainable, willowy, inhuman look.

That day when I was teaching ballet, I looked at the spunky little dancer that refused to have a partner and was admittedly impressed. Just like Valentine’s Day illuminates idealistic, superficial notions, dance often makes women out to be creatures of empty beauty and fragility rather than the independent individuals they deserve to be seen as. Imbedding old ideas of Valentine’s Day and romantic dances into culture subconsciously encourages their presence in modern day relationships. Instead, dance should portray women wearing many different faces; thus promoting strong women that don’t need a partner to define their worth.