Classical ballet is, for lack of a better word, fancy schmancy. It’s an art form invented by a French king who liked gold interiors and taxing the poor and it has persisted to exist in the realm of entertainment where your mother will be very disappointed in you if you’re not wearing dress shoes to the theater. It is still considered “highbrow” entertainment, reserved for the elite, both in audience members and those onstage. As such, ballet’s stars have traditionally garnered fame based on merit in their craft rather than individuality. But as we all navigate a world where fame and celebrity are almost entirely dependent on personality, professional ballet dancers are taking to Instagram to cultivate their own personal brands and grow their audience outside of the confines of a $150 ticket.
More and more our online personas are merging with our professional lives. It was once the norm to keep your Instagram hidden and private from employers or potential employers. Now, in many circumstances, it’s become a promotional necessity to have an established “brand.” So, yes, Instagram is our overlord, we must all subscribe to its rules of hashtags and filters and few are able to escape its power. Ballet dancers, who rely primarily on the flexibility of their feet and height of their saut de chats to succeed in their field, are no exception.
One thing we all know about being on Instagram is that getting a like from a celebrity on a photo you’ve posted is the equivalent of getting sainted by the pope (I will not be corrected on this comparison). Dancers who are already stars in their field, like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, have had their photos liked, commented on, and reposted by A-listers like Jennifer Garner and Sarah Jessica Parker. And today, SJP’s simple “like” carries far more cultural cachet than if she were, say, to catch a matinee performance of Giselle. Why? Because that appearance on SJP’s personal feed means that some Sex and the City fan (or, if you’d rather, The Family Stone fan), who has never seen so much as a pirouette, is suddenly introduced to the art form, with a trusted endorsement to boot. Boylston and Whiteside then transform from being stars in the relatively tiny “ballet world” to being star-stars, featured in Vogue and appearing on Live with Kelly and Ryan.
Now with a devoted following, Boylston and Whiteside have extended their use of the app to promote their creative projects and connect more personally with fans: Boylston hosts a #BallerinaBookClub on her profile and Whiteside creates skincare/makeup tutorials on his. Together, they post videos of mini, choreographed numbers set to recognizable pop songs. Dancers from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Steven Loch and Madison Taylor Sugg have a similar collaboration with their signature #sassyfriday videos. And when Best Pop Star Ever, Lizzo, tweeted “Someone do a ballet routine to truth hurts pls,” they all answered the call (what Lizzo wants, we do).
These mini-performances to pop songs aren’t exactly what you would call choreographic masterpieces, but they’re fun, they’re accessible, and they’re free publicity. Casual scrollers on Instagram’s explore page will hear a familiar tune, say “I know that song. This is fun.” and click the follow button on someone who is not Hailey Beiber. Instagram allows these dancers to hone their individuality and get recognized for it, even if some days onstage they might be one in a flurry of snowflakes in The Nutcracker.
Younger dancers on the app, who are already more tech savvy (on account of being “young”), are also racking up followers before even making it as professionals. At pre-professional academies like the School of American Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet, it’s common for a student to have upwards of a thousand followers. The platform gives them visibility, and visibility ups their chances of getting a job. Long gone are the days of having your mom film your Don Quixote variation, burning it to a DVD, and sending it to 15 ballet companies with the hopes that they might see it and give you an audition.
But dancers have found benefits of using the app outside of just gaining followers. It offers an opportunity to expand a dancer’s creative work outside of their work with their company. New York City Ballet Corps de Ballet dancer Emily Kikta has found that the app helped grow visibility for her work as a choreographer and videographer. With her partner, NYCB Soloist Peter Walker, the two have founded KW Creative, a dance media company that showcases their choreography in short, professional videos. “We’ve taken the accessibility of Instagram video and utilized it to showcase our work. Because millions of people are constantly on the platform and your content is public, it gives you an enormous audience for no cost of production like that of putting on a show,” Kikta said. Eric Trope of Miami City Ballet has also featured his choreography on social media, even even having his work featured in a music video for the musician Perfume Genius via an Instagram-run contest.
But, as we can all attest, Instagram is not all fun. It’s stressful to keep up appearances, and even more stressful when your job is already reliant on the perfection of your physical appearance. It’s also a platform that is inherently combative with the concept of “art”: you’re sharing a feed with users who might just be there to sell hair growth supplements.
“I would find it hard to explore the feelings and work that my job as an artist requires of me while trying to present a one dimensional digestible ‘promotional’ version of myself” Trope points out. But it’s become part of the job—one Kikta describes as a “chore.” On top of stretching, weight training, getting enough vitamins to have strong bones, daily technique class, 9-hour rehearsal days, and two performances a day, posting on Instagram is now added to that list, for good or for bad.