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First Position Deserved an Oscar Nom: Arts Advocacy and Ballet as a Social Issue

12/18/2012 11:59 am ET | Updated Feb 17, 2013

When documentaries shortlisted for Oscar nominations were announced, the dance world -- including the non-dancer fans who so devotedly stand behind it -- heaved a collective sigh of disappointment. First Position, the documentary that has taken the dance community (and beyond) by storm, didn't make the cut.

The situation echoes an audition: A dancer with all the qualifications to be chosen -- a number earnestly pinned to the front of their sweat-soaked leotard -- didn't make it, and one word keeps repeating: unfair.

First Position is arguably the first of its kind, a ground-breaking movement for dancers, certainly, but also for the furthering of artistic exposure. Its inside glance into a world that commonly goes unnoticed is both provocative and fascinating, literally going where few have ever gone. We see competitive sports played out on television routinely, but who ever would have guessed that the world of dance, with all its elegance and poise, could be so cutthroat, so menacing, so otherworldly?

Director Bess Kargman did, and she investigated it in ways we'd never seen. What makes this different from a competitive sport? Five minutes. As a voiceover in the film states: "You have five minutes onstage to prove to us why you deserve this chance." Five minutes, if that. No clock stops, no pauses. No substitutes. No penalty kicks. No do-overs. No overtime. No second chance.

For the dancers followed, everything hinges on their performance and preparation: A scholarship, a company contract, the future of their training. It is not just another performance, and therefore, First Position is not just another documentary. These are the dreams of the artists of our future, played out onscreen candidly. Their dedication to their craft is a passion some will not experience in their lifetime. It is rare, it is raw. It matters so very much.

Apparently, the loophole to qualify for the Oscars shortlist seemed to involve making a historical/issue-driven/or advocacy film. My question is: "How is First Position not one?"

Ballet is one of the most historical art forms we have left in the world. It is based firmly in tradition, which separates a ballet student from forms of more "current" dance, such as lyrical. Ballet's history is extensive, and the steps practiced tirelessly at the barre by students today are the same steps practiced hundreds of years ago. Ballet is enduring; ballet has made its mark in its permanency, its ability to transcend generation upon generation, to move with the current of modern times and still be true and pure to its roots. How many things like this do we have left in the world? Perhaps the better question is: Why do we not value and acknowledge the few we have?

To say that First Position does not detail a "social issue" is naïve and borderline offensive. Much of film's discussion surrounds the unbelievable Michaela DePrince, who is destined to become a bona fide star of ballet, not to mention an exceptional role model for girls around the world. DePrince was an orphan in the West African country Sierra Leone. While many young ballet students' earliest memories include cozy Nutcracker performances with their parents, DePrince's were watching her father murdered, her mother starved to death and her teacher's limbs ripped off. She was referred to as a "devil's child," due to a skin-lightening condition called Vitiligo. DePrince was adopted, and though the story obviously has an incredible conclusion, she still deals with stereotyping in the ballet world: Some teachers still refuse to work with black dancers, and much "nude" dancewear does not come in a shade that matches her skin. Racism is a real issue, even in 2012.

What has ballet represented to her? "It represented freedom, it represented hope, it represented trying to live a little longer. I was so upset in the orphanage, I have no idea how I got through it, but seeing that, it completely saved me," she told CNN.

To her, it certainly seems that ballet is a social issue.

First Position is an advocacy film. First Position plays advocate to some of the most fanatical, zealous and interesting young people in our world; to young people who have chosen a path not many do, and that even fewer experience at its fullest; and to young people who are, by much of the mainstream culture, forgotten -- the artists.

Why do the arts matter? Because simply, they save people. They give a place to the displaced and courageous, the vulnerable and curious, the investigative and story-tellers. They allow wholeness, completeness and sense of identity to those of us who are just a little out-of-the-box. They teach discipline, excellence and hope. And in this day and age, how can we deny something that encourages us to a dream a little bigger, step out a little further and experience a little more?

First Position lost a place on the Oscar nominations shortlist it rightfully deserves. But it gave a voice to insightful people who are chasing a dream, perhaps not a traditional one, but one unlike few will ever know. Ballet is a world all its own, and for the future of the art, and most importantly, the artists, its story deserves to be told. First and foremost, it is a tale of love and loss and the blisters in between, the most honest kind of love story.

The arts are historical, the arts are, and possess their own, social issues... and First Position is the advocate.