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Free People Ballet-gate

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Free People Presents: FP Movement Ballet was posted on YouTube on May 12th. Yet, reflecting on it barely a month later, I know I'm late to the party in commenting on Free People Ballet-gate. So goes the lifespan of Internet phenomena.

I saw the video around the time it came out, as I imagine nearly everyone in the dance community had once its infamy led to a rapid dissemination across social media platforms. I rolled my eyes, I sighed, I lamented, I scoffed. I #smh-ed and #facepalm-ed. And then I moved right along.

Recently (though I suppose it's been years in Internet Time), Sydney Skybetter gave us a well-deserved finger wag in his piece titled "When Free People, American Dance Fell On Their Faces". Rather than critique the Free People ad itself, he examines the subsequent dancer backlash to its release (and then the inevitable pushback to the backlash).

Skybetter alludes to the fact that every dancer who watches that video knows what's up. We don't need a blog post that deconstructs where they went wrong. We know they should have hired a professional dancer rather than a lithe model that looked nice in the wrap top they were trying to sell us. (A garment that is likely way too expensive for the average dancer to splurge on, mind you.) No one needs it reiterated that it was an absurd idea to slap some pointe shoes on someone untrained, not only because it's unsafe, but also because it denigrates the years and years of work it takes for a dancer to earn the privilege of wearing a pair of pointe shoes.

We, the dance community, didn't need anyone to break this down because we get it. We live it. But Skybetter points out exactly what's wrong with this way of thinking. The dance community is so insular that this may have been a missed opportunity to create a space for productive discourse among dancers and non-dancers.

We abdicated the responsibility of articulating what's controversial about this ad. We outsourced the response of the dance community to some shouty teens in the YouTube comment section with Perma-CAPS LOCK Syndrome.

Skybetter ends his piece asserting that in this case, justifiable anger was not successfully channelled towards productive action. So I ask, not having any answers, what strategies could have better leveraged this moment of larger cultural interest in dance? A blog post in some artsy corner of the Internet? Would that not just perpetuate the dance echo chamber from which we can't seem to emerge?

The World Wide Web doesn't have a lot of patience for thoughtful discourse. The piling on of real-time responses shapes discussions and sets the tone for conversations not in a matter of days or even hours, but minutes. So how do we, the dance thinkers, the larger dance community, those of us who have turned our caps locks off, infiltrate this space?

It's not an easy task to undertake. Nor should it replace nuanced dance think pieces and academic dance scholarship. But I'd like to take a look at one of the many Millennials Are Ruining The World One Tweet At A Time tropes: Hashtag Activism Is Ruining Activism. There are people who fear that rising generations will develop a worldview wherein retweeting for a cause is all the civic engagement it takes to effect change. I concede that hashtag activism can go awry (#Kony2012, anyone?) but it can also be a valid way to amplify the voices of the voiceless (see: #BringBackOurGirls). So, I contend that real-time social media engagement can complement more traditional advocacy efforts.

Maybe we didn't react quickly enough and smartly enough regarding Free People Ballet-gate. This one got away from us. So now what? Is there such a thing as Hashtag Scholars? Can we rise to the challenge and engage in real time scholarly discourse? Can we live tweet So You Think You Can Dance and comment on the pervasive heteronormativity? Can we leave comments on Dance Moms videos and gently point out that fetishizing young dancer Nia's blackness is extremely problematic? I think there is room to combat the unproductive trolling and poorly spelled whining with intellectual brevity. We can have a stake in the conversation, we just have to accept that sometimes we only get 140 characters to make our point.