When Free People, American Dance Fell On Their Faces

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Free People
Image from the Free People ballet ad.

Free People, the “boho clothing and bohemian fashion” brand, recently released a campaign called “FP Movement,” featuring a video of a model narrating her experience as a young dancer while strapped into a pair of pointe shoes and performing awkward, pseudo-balletic movements on wobbly ankles and dangerously hyper-extended knees. The model is presented as a committed dancer who has been “dancing since [she] was three,” yet her movement appears — particularly to professional dancers — offensively amateurish and physically hazardous. The video set off an onslaught of embarrassing blow-back for Free People, including coverage from Adweek and CBS depicting the ad as “appalling” and “offensive.”

The model’s lack of movement experience is immediately obvious to anyone with that experience (if to no one else), rendering the video simultaneously inoffensive fluff and inauthentic malarkey, exemplary marketing and ghastly ass-hat nonsense. Dancers hamfistedly flocked to comment on the video, lamenting the horror of the model’s lack of ballet technique and the incongruity between her stated and apparent dance experience.

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On YouTube.com, +Jasminesfeels commented on the offending video, “DANCING SINCE 3 MY ASSHOLE,” while +Thompson228 contributed, “this is so disturbing i blew vomit all over my computer.”

+MegBond wrote:

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I feel very offended I have been dam ring [sic] since I was 3 I’m 13 now and I’m prob 10x better than what you displayed but don’t get me wrong I do appreciate that free pepole [sic] recognizes ballet.

Meanwhile, many non-dancers commented that the “dancer” looked beautiful and, like +spncer1, accused the offended of being “butthurt whiners,” or, like +Nik Brown Bear, commented on the dancers’ behavior, offering, “I can’t imagine why ballet dancers have a rep of being super-snobby, condescending and elitist.”

That a video of a woman dancing poorly could be overwhelmingly mistaken for ballet suggests an opportunity for reflection: How is it that dancers see ourselves so differently than the rest of the world conceives of us? What does it mean that an untrained woman flapping her arms in pointe shoes is, to the majority of viewers, credibly ballet? As the aggrieved party, it was incumbent on dancers to state their expertise and to explain their dismay. This could have been a moment where dancers leveraged ordinarily scant mainstream media attention to argue persuasively about how ballet conditioning strengthens the body to perform physical feats of expression and thoughtfully articulate the difference between the ballet-intrigued and the balletically trained. This could have been a moment for Dance/USA (the service and national advocacy organization for dance in the U.S.) to capitalize on search traffic and act on member outrage to execute a counter-campaign, using its stature in the field to foster a public dialogue with Free People. Meanwhile, Jezebel, the popular snark-blog for women, published a commentary on the kerfuffle entitled, “Ballet Truthers Are Coming For This Free People Ad,” aligning the angry dancers with such grammar-disinterested whack-jobs as 9/11 conspiracy junkies and Obama birth-certificate-forgery aficionados. The story is now as much about a dumb ad as dancers’ dumb online behavior, and tidily describes the arc of a potential learning moment as it careens into caps-locked flame-baiting.

Image from the Free People Ballet ad.
Yikes.

It is admittedly fallacious for me to typify the collective behavior of the “dance world” on the basis of cherry-picked, trolling comments, such as the above. Yet such a fallacy is the way of the Internet, and why dancers as a category now appear so angry and so terrible at spelling. It was the rage-y, oversharing, laughable calls for a boycott of a silent corporation that made Free People a news item, not the ad itself. Jezebel didn’t seize on the story because of dancers’ convincing rhetoric but because the dancers looked like whining, inarticulate idiots embroiled in a dyspeptic rage fondue brought on by a slight imperceptible to anyone else. And that is what dancers look like to the world online. We have fed stereotypes about dancers being dumb, proven categorically that as a field we’re terrible at the Internet, and abundantly demonstrated our incapacity to communicate with anyone outside our tribe. Worse, we have been neither convincing that we were wronged nor articulate about why anyone should care.

Free People, for its part, has executed a classic, corporate spin job. They have acknowledged no wrongdoing, have not commented on a single negative post and have not responded to any requests for comment. A few days after the initial campaign they “re-launched” the line with images taken “in collaboration” with Ballet Zaida, which reduced the negative charge of the online conversation. The moment of media attention and dancer outrage, in a matter of just a few days, passed. The window for a public online dialogue closed quickly.

The intended function of the original ad was to deploy wistful fondness for ballet to sell expensive clothing. It was a consumable — if unmemorable — ad that will likely succeed despite the negative feelings of “real” dancers. In fact, as Marc Kirschner of TenduTV pointed out, all the cranky sharing has served to bolster the video’s search ranking on YouTube, thus making it even easier for the casual observer to mistake it as a credible representation of ballet. The anger of the dance community at the public ignorance of our art has had the perverse effect of making it even easier to remain ignorant.

Such a dumb ad could have been an opportunity to translate hurt into rhetoric, to counter misconstruing marketing with constructive feedback. It could have been a moment where those who can articulate their understanding and love for ballet fostered a dialogue with the many who do not understand that passion. This whorl of discourse around the ad is a proxy for how the American dance community articulates its cultural relevance, and makes its case for its rightful place in contemporary culture. Concert dance is a contested art form. It doesn’t bode well that we care about perceived slights only so much as to be enraged, but not so much as to effectively act.