Joyce Kilmer thought she would never see a poem as lovely as a tree; well, I’m pretty sure I will never see a thesis as lovely as Virginia Taylor’s “Ballerinas in the church hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet and dancing school.” (PhD, University of Chichester, 2003). I had known Virginia Taylor’s work from the papers she published on why girls go to ballet, but only recently noticed that her thesis is now freely available online.
It is so beautifully written, I thought all the time about what John Law wrote in After Method (2004):
Why do the books fall into two heaps, the novels on the one hand, and the academic volumes on the other? [. . .] What difference would it make if we were instead to apply the criteria that we usually apply to novels (or even more to poetry) to academic writing? . . . if we had to write our academic pieces as if they were poems, as if every word counted, how would we write differently? How much would we write at all. [. . .] How, then, might we imagine an academic way of writing that concerns itself with the quality of its own writing? With the creativity of writing? (Law, 2004, pp. 11-12)
I enjoyed reading this thesis as much as any of my favourite novels, and I could read it again and again for pleasure. She takes apart woolly, ideological thinking about ballet so elegantly, it’s like watching a surgeon at work. I burst out laughing several times, and I copied and pasted quotes from almost every single page of the thesis, sometimes several paragraphs from the same page. If you have suffered for years with the art form you work in being denigrated as girly, fluffy, pink, feminised, uncreative, hierarchical etc. (as if all those things were inherently wrong) and ideologically inferior to state dance education, then this will be the oxygen you need, but she’s paid for every cylinder with razor-sharp arguments and critiques of texts that are often regarded without a second thought as canonical in the dance education world. The thesis pre-dates the Jordan Petersoning of ballet which requires it to be manned-up into something masculine, athletic, and sciencey for boys and girls alike, but the tools you need to unscrew that screwed-up thinking are right here.
It’s not just that. It’s beautifully structured, and her methods are so clear and down-to-earth, there’s never a point where you can say “Ah yes, but. . . ” because she’s already pre-empted you. One of my favourite moments is when she asks a senior examiner from one of the dance teaching societies how she would explain the global spread of ballet teaching:
“She replied, ‘Parents all over the world want their daughters to be graceful’; although indeed she laughed when I added ‘just like us.’ (I was washing the car, she was walking her dogs.)” (p. 128)
I’ve been at conferences where people post up quotes from their respondents on the PowerPoint screen (“Anna, aged 19, name changed to preserve anonymity”), against the snazzy colours of an off-the-shelf template with a University logo in the corner, sharing Elizabeth’s hope in Pride and Prejudice that it will be “something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.” To admit that you were washing the car or walking the dogs at the time is—never mind that it’s also responsible scholarship—pure class.
Altogether, the paragraphs I copied and pasted for my own notes amounted to 6,467 words. I think I’m going to be saying “see Taylor (2003)” for many years to come, because there is, to my knowledge, almost nothing out there right now that attests to and celebrates the lived experience of everyday ballet teaching and ballet dancing. What is more commonly represented and what is studied is the rarified world of professional ballet companies, or the vocational training that serves as preparation for them, as if this were the platonic ideal of ballet of which dancing in church halls is a corruption, or not even an instance at all. And that would be correct, because the two are different things, but it takes a doctoral thesis to unpick the political and ideological problems that confuse them. Increasingly, dance education research also focuses on the experience of dance students in higher education, but that’s another story.
One of the things that she dissects is the idea that there is something old-fashioned, “traditional” and anti-progressive about ballet teaching (and therefore morally wrong), and something inherently ideologically pure about state education and child-centred progressive education philosophies. In her interviews with children about how they felt about it, something quite different emerged: they like dance school, because they get seen, not stuck at the back of the class. It’s so simple, and yet I hadn’t really thought of it before: of course, for all the formality of ballet class, there are times when it’s your turn, when you’re in the centre, when your line is at the front, when it’s your turn to come from the corner. You get seen. You get corrected, not because you’re wrong, but to get better.
Choreography and ideology
For years, every time I see an article saying that it’s a disgrace that there are so few female choreographers, my first thought is “But what is so culturally important about being a choreographer that this is such a disgrace?” It promotes the idea of the 19th century genius, but sticks a skirt on him, as if Christine Battersby wrote Gender and Genius in vain. I also wonder about boys who have no desire to choreograph—are they emasculated by wanting to “just” dance? I have avoided saying this for fear of being misunderstood, or changing my mind, but Virginia Taylor puts what I mean more clearly:
Here I have an unashamed polemical aim, which is to convince the reader that all dancing is creative. Ballet, and other dance, is a creative experience. It may not be original, but it is ideologically specific to consider dance-inventing a superior activity to dance-doing. Indeed, I question that ‘self-expression’ and ‘creativity’ are only to be found in dance-making, or in improvising. (Taylor 2003, p. 167)
She exposes ideological positions for what they are, to the extent that I think this thesis ought to stored in the fridge with the EpiPen for anyone who is allergic to current educational dogma. Speaking of a performance by two dance-school girls accompanied by their friend on flute, that was frowned on by state school teachers who saw it, she says:
If a girl thinks the tune from The Deer Hunter (1978) is beautiful, and plays it as well as she can, and her friends make what they see as an appropriate dance to a piece of ‘classical’ music borrowing classical dance forms, what is the cultural position which denies this validity?” (p. 168)
Quite. I have too many other favourite lines, but this is one of them, which wins my prize for the best use of italics in a feminist sentence: ” Thomas the Tank Engine pulls coaches Annie and Clarabel, who are identical to each other, without much of a character, and most importantly and with startling Freudian implications, they have no motor.” (Taylor, 2003, p. 102)
I love “Ballerinas in the Church Hall” not least because it’s so close to what I’m writing about in my own work: how teachers in everyday situations deal with music, how music gets “done” in the studio, how people deal with music in terms of tum-te-tums, diddly-diddlys and “I don’t do time signature.” It’s also about how teachers don’t deal with music, or the latest educational theory, because frankly, there’s too much else to deal with, like the former student of mine who told me about a particularly bad day in the studio: her teaching course demanded an assignment from her about peer assessment in ballet. The reality of her teaching experience was that she was having to clean the tutu of a girl who’d sat down on a very ripe banana, before taking another baby ballerina to the toilet to wash the diarrhoea out her knickers. You won’t read about that in the scholarly literature, but you should.
Ballerinas in the Church Hall: Ideologies of femininity, ballet, and dancing schools. Virginia Taylor, 2003. (Free download of the full text)
Postscript: on research and note-taking
Finding this thesis has ended a search that has lasted several years: some time in perhaps 2013, I was in the RAD library, and read an article that said that on current numbers, you had more chance of becoming a premier league footballer or member of parliament than a professional ballet dancer. It was one of those surprising, clever formulations that stuck, to the extent that I wanted to quote it several times. But where had I read it? Wherever I thought I had read it, I was wrong. I could have sworn I remembered the shelf I took the box of journals from, and what colour the journal was and so on. I couldn’t just say the same thing without acknowledging my source. It turns out, it was Virginia Taylor who said it—and I guess I must have read it an a conference paper, while I was reading a box of journals.
I have drawn attention before to the employment opportunities – or rather, lack of them – for professional ballet dancers in the UK (Taylor 2000a, 2003). On-line company lists in February 2003 revealed the grand total of 219. Statistically therefore, you are three times more likely to be a Member of the House of Commons at Westminster (659), or thirteen times more likely to be a professional footballer (2875) than a ballet dancer with a regular pay packet. (p. 9)
Apart from shouting my joy from the rooftops at finally finding the source, this is a warning to anyone writing an essay, dissertation, thesis or whatever: keep a file somewhere for quotes, and use it, all the time. Don’t read stuff on the train, or for pleasure, unless you are at the same time rigorous about adding accurately to your sources at the point of reading. Always add quotation marks, because if you don’t, years later you won’t remember whether you were paraphrasing or quoting.