What if dance could save the world?

Over the past year, dance has shown its broader worth, from stage to film, #balletcore to music videos, TikTok tutorials to movement classes.

By Gia Kourlas

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Dancers in the Ballet National de Marseille, run by the collective (La)Horde, which appeared in New York this past fall, rehearses in Marseille, France
Dancers in the Ballet National de Marseille, run by the collective (La)Horde, which appeared in New York this past fall, rehearses in Marseille, France

Published: Mon 1 Jan 2024, 3:27 PM

Last updated: Mon 1 Jan 2024, 3:28 PM

There’s been a lot of dance seemingly coming out of nowhere. A recent unexpected sighting — one of many this year — happened just this month on Saturday Night Live, when Chloe Fineman, dressed in a Santa coat, appeared on Weekend Update with an idea for a sexy present: reenacting the dance that Julia Stiles performed at the end of Save the Last Dance. So random!

Stripping off her coat to reveal a leotard and ripstop pants, Fineman, with elfin ballerina determination, bops from side to side in an approximation of the choreography — snapping her fingers alongside high knees, carving shapes into the air with robotic arms, throwing in an occasional pirouette — while describing the plot of this 2001 film and its dubious dance style: street ballet. The surprise comes when Stiles herself jumps beside her to wrap up the number as a duet — folding chairs, shoulder rolls, fist bump and all.

I adore Stiles, and her table dance in 10 Things I Hate About You remains in my personal Top 10. But this was all about Fineman. As she deftly demonstrated the choreography’s awkwardness while playing it straight, my mind went for a moment to Audrey Hepburn’s beatnik dance in Funny Face. And then I thought, no. Fineman is our very own Danny Kaye; like him, her physical comedy comes from a terpsichorean place.

Was I surprised to see dance, the art form I hold above all others, valorised on just another Saturday night? I was, and wasn’t. It’s not only that dance has been everywhere recently; it’s that dance is cool. Our lives are full of words — and words and words. Dance can say what words often can’t. It can be watched, it can be felt through the watching, and it can be a physical part of anyone’s life. It has captured the imagination of people from all walks of life, and this is the fire of dance right now: You can’t put a label on it. It is what it is. You be you. That is dance in 2023.

The cool quotient of dance has been brewing over the past few years. It was boosted, on TikTok, by the solitude of the pandemic, and this year it seems that dance has really spread its wings. It’s not only fashionable to like dance, but also to have others know that you do. At New York City Ballet, where audience members look like extras in Emily in Paris, everyone is posing for pictures or asking me to take them. Sure, it’s basic, but it’s also endearing.

In January, I didn’t think that #balletcore would make it to the spring, but it’s still going strong. I’ve seen designer ballet flats selling for $550. Pink — the soft, cozy ballet version — is everywhere. In October, the clothing label Reformation released a collaboration with City Ballet; Urban Outfitters has a balletcore web page. It’s not the way the dancers I know dress on their days off — I find street tulle cringe — but as trends go, this one has its pointe shoes dug in deep.

At least balletcore has given more momentum to the efforts of @modelsdoingballet, an Instagram account and website started a few years ago by a pair of dancers who promote another approach. Their motto: “Just stop. Hire dancers.”

On their feed you can see models in a heartbreaking array of problematic ballet positions. The sight of a woman standing en pointe can be terrifying; feet are disembodied, stiff and lifeless (those are called biscuits); and ribbons, normally laced around the ankle, have been used to tie two legs together. Hashtags like #whodidthistothem point out the obvious, as do comments like “I do love a barre with a kitten heel”; “Looking at this image alone broke my ankles”; and “I keep forgetting I’m following this page and then I feel very confused and distressed for a moment."

I agree: Let’s use this moment of dance popularity to hire actual dancers as models. But dance worship is far-reaching and, mercifully, stretches beyond ballet — and beyond live performance. Along with a dance-inspired outfit, it could be a movie with a memorable dance moment. From late 2022 to now, there have been many examples: M3GAN, Barbie, Asteroid City, Poor Things, Maestro.

Yet there’s something just as compelling when choreography is less about steps and more about the way a body inhabits space, as it did in the movie Corsage. (The film was released in the last days of 2022; I count it.)

Vicky Krieps, as the rebellious, water-loving exercise enthusiast Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, moves through life with a somatic approach, floating through her scenes with dancerly levitation. Her sarcasm, her unhappiness, her wit — they are all ingrained in her body. (Throughout, she reminds me of downtown choreographer-dancer Jodi Melnick.) And stay for the credits, in which she rolls and curves in dreamy slow motion. It is a dance.

Looking for something new in dance doesn’t interest me as much as watching it morph and grow. As George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of City Ballet, used to say, “There are no new steps, only new combinations.”

At this moment when dance is everywhere, it’s time to give it deeper attention, to move beyond the ballet-centric surface of it all. Dance isn’t separate from life; movement is a part of life, after all. There is an urgent need not just for spreading the gospel of dance, but for recognising it, because within its wild wingspan the art form is also this: We all have a body, a body that needs to dance.

In the finale of the Apple TV+ show Physical, the troubled aerobics instructor Sheila Rubin (Rose Byrne) concludes that dancing with others releases a chemical “that makes us feel connected to the strangers around us.” She adds, “It makes us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.”

It does! I keep circling back to something that the French collective (La)Horde, which made its United States debut this year, said to me over the summer: “Maybe dance can save the world.” Maybe it’s not maybe. Maybe, under the radar, dance has already been changing the world in unassuming ways — in a street jazz class at a gym or the line dancing in the back of a Ukrainian restaurant, where movement is seen and shared through the bodies and minds of everyday dancers.

As the world gets darker, and it will, remember that we all have the capacity to be everyday dancers. But it's more than capacity: We just are.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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