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Edification or Entertainment? The High/Low Argument in the Dance World

Every Monday night, I adjust my television antennas and somewhat guiltily watch an hour of So You Think You Can Dance, a reality TV show that searches for America’s favorite dancer. It pains me slightly to admit this, because many artists in my profession feel that TV shows like SYTYCD, Dancing with the Stars, or World of Dance diminish the art form. The performances on the shows are usually under three minutes long, and the choreographers work with the dancers for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. In concert dance, or dance that is performed by a dance company for live audiences usually in a performance venue, the dancers are in process for months to years before the premiere of the work. The relationships between the dancers, the choreographer, and often the composer, are vital, and take time to develop.  In contrast, commercial dance is created for TV and film, and the key relationship is that of the viewer and the individual dancer. Audience is still an important aspect of commercial dance, but the audiences are rarely live and are typically watching on a screen. Specifically, commercial dance has infiltrated Instagram and social media, and dancers as young as eight or nine years old are using these platforms to further their careers.

I never considered the connection between commercial and concert dance and the various categories of art until my final workshop in the BURNAWAY Art Writers Mentorship Program. Our mentor for that session, Cinqúe Hicks, had us read and discuss chapter two of What Good Are the Arts? by John Carey, in which the author explores what makes “high” art “high.” He examines why mass art, which is overall enjoyed by more people, is considered inferior to art that is generally less relatable to the public. Each argument that he brings forth, from high society judgments to cultural awareness, can be applied to dance as well. Throughout our discussion in the workshop, I kept comparing “high” art to concert dance, and mass art to commercial dance. I couldn’t stop thinking about a panel I attended during a Dance USA conference, in which they discussed “Bridging the gap between commercial and concert dance.” However, there was more heated argument than productive discussion. Even though we were all dancers or artists, there was still a very “us” vs. “them” feeling between the groups. 

When reading Carey’s chapter, I wondered if we could have more successful conversations if we acknowledged the observations that he made about high art and mass art. In order to explore how “high” vs. “low,” or mass art, came about, Carey presents research about early art forms and the purpose of art within society. Specifically, he looks at scholar Ellen Dissanayake’s argument in her book What Is Art For?, in which she observes that human evolution has always compared “high” to “low,” within society, with beauty, health and athletic skills, as well as with art. Art, in particular, contributed to the survival of communities. Carey writes, “Her argument is that human communities that made things special survived better than those that did not, because the fact of taking pains convinced others as well as themselves that the activity – tool manufacture, say – was worth doing.” One key aspect of art was its use in communal tasks. Carey writes, “So art’s function was to render socially-important activities gratifying, physically and emotionally, and that is how it played a part in natural selection.” Art made everyday actions special, and helped communities connect to each other and to their emotions. By making this connection, communities increased their chances at survival.

Like art, dance exists to take movement from the ordinary to the extraordinary. It originally had a communal purpose, as with tribal and ritualistic dance. Concert dance successfully does this in terms of bringing an audience together to experience art, but the performances are only accessible to a small group of people at a time, which makes it difficult to connect entire communities. In order to see concert dance, one must have access to transportation to and from a venue, and be able to afford the ticket, which can range from $25 to hundreds of dollars depending on the company and venue.  Carey writes, “Whereas high art is exclusive, popular art is receptive and accessible, not aimed at an educated minority. It emphasizes belonging, and so seeks to restore the cohesion of the hunter-gatherer group.” In contrast to concert dance, commercial dance is accessible to anyone who has access to a TV or the Internet. Some concert dance companies have started integrating video into their process, but it’s rare to have a full-length piece up for viewing on YouTube. Commercial dance is more accessible, but still does not quite connect people to one another, as we often watch these performances alone on our laptops or phones.

Carey demonstrates the various ways that high art is associated with social class and assumed to have a deeper, emotional meaning. The assumption he presents is that high art is for the intellectually advanced and financially successful, and mass art is for the lower classes who just want to be entertained. “It may also carry connotations of social class – ‘high’ art is that which appeals to the minority whose social rank places them above the struggle for mere survival” he writes.

In the dance world, concert dance is viewed as more serious and prestigious than commercial dance. Maybe it’s because of the dancer’s educational background. Often, concert dancers attend universities and receive their Bachelors of Fine Arts at a conservatory before going on to join a company. While some commercial dancers may also follow this path, it is more likely that they move to Los Angeles or another urban area to start auditioning as young as possible. However, these are generalizations, and certainly not true for every dancer. So, why do many people feel that an 18-year-old ballet protégé in pointe shoes is more artistic than the same teen in a crop top and booty shorts dancing to house music in a music video? According to Carey, the answer lies in culture.

These changes in dance and art directly result from the recent changes in our society. By researching the arguments made by philosophers, artists, and novelists, Carey comes to the conclusion that “the differences between high and popular art are not intrinsic but culturally constructed.” This conclusion can absolutely be applied to the differences between concert and commercial dance as well. If we didn’t have social media, music videos, and pop culture, the differences would not be nearly as apparent. Each and every style of dance is an artistic expression that requires hard work, creativity, and dedication. Perhaps if concert and commercial dancers shared their experiences with one another and occasionally mixed the two categories, we could grow together as an art form. Keeping Carey’s words in mind, I’m determined to enjoy next Monday’s “live” showing of So You Think You Can Dance without any guilt or judgment.

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