• Zoe Phillips

Reality TV's Battleground for Ballet Status

Updated: Sep 11

Mak's fierce attack of the "Take Me To Church" solo is, in many ways, breathtaking, and its 1.4 million views on Youtube adequately reflect her notability. Yet many in the comments section are left wondering: is this really ballet?

Kayla Mak on NBC World of Dance

NBC's World of Dance launched in 2017 and wasted no time in capturing the attention of dancers and fans of dance everywhere. Picture a dance version of American Idol complete with celebrity judges, impressively dramatic lighting, and a group of stylistically diverse competitors. This past April, junior division contestant Kayla Mak, 16, gained attention as the first dancer to appear en pointe in the show's short history. After the performance that would gain her a spot in the divisional final, judge Derek Hough proclaimed that Mak had proven ballet could "absolutely" compete "on this show," referencing how our art form compares to the more modern styles usually highlighted on World of Dance.

Mak's fierce attack of the "Take Me To Church" solo is, in many ways, breathtaking, and its 1.4 million views on Youtube adequately reflect her notability. Yet many in the comments section are left wondering: is this really ballet?

As I twirl for thoughts on this consideration, there exists a deeper question, too:

in the 21st century, what exactly is ballet? Where does one draw the line between contemporary and classical, and is there a difference between calling something "ballet" versus "classical ballet"?

These questions scratch at a debate worthy of far more than a singular article, but I've got to start somewhere. For the purposes of today, I'll hone my focus on Mak's performance; if you've got time, go ahead and watch it for yourself before reading my opinion.

I don't think this is ballet. Gasp! Don't hate me.

For starters, I just don't see a lot of ballet in Mak's dance. In fact, I counted and I could only find nine steps or positions that would easily be found in Gail Grant's manual. The rest were very modern or contemporary movements that wouldn't have a place in any daily ballet class. While I recognize that there are plenty of ballet companies branching into contemporary work these days, these contemporary works still remain grounded in classical foundations, which is a subtle but important concept.

Take this excerpt of a piece by Justin Peck, who is currently the choreographer-in-residence at New York City Ballet. The dancers, though moving in a way that is more athletic and modern than, say, Waltz of the Flowers, are still grounded in positions that fulfill the most basic rules of ballet.

First, look at the dancers' feet and legs. Peck's dancers are always either completely turned out or completely turned in. In other words, they stay turned out unless it's clear that Peck made an explicit choice for his dancers to turn their legs parallel. Mak, on the other hand, does a lot of steps in a position somewhere between parallel and turnout. For example, right around 1:00 in Mak's dance she starts doing waltz turns. These are common ballet steps that are relatively easy to turn out because you have the control of being in fondu, but Mak stays in her limbo between parallel and turnout the entire time. This limbo is a very common position for contemporary and modern dancers, but ballet rarely goes there and the fact that Mak stayed in this position for a more balletic step turns me away from classifying this as ballet. Moreover, her facility suggests that she'd be more than capable of reaching that turnout if she wanted, so we know she's choosing to place her focus elsewhere.

Next, Peck's dancers move their arms through the foundational positions of ballet (first-fifth). Of course there are times when arms go through positions that are new, but throughout they always come back to those five positions of our technique. Watch at 0:24 and you'll see them drop their arms down in a swooshing movement (modern and new), but they end up in fifth position (ballet).

See how Peck is pushing the boundaries of ballet technique while still staying grounded within it? On the other hand (or should I say arm?), Mak barely uses any ballet arms. Instead, her arms are often overstretched and her hands splay all five fingers, which is an extremely common attribute of acrobatic competition dancing. Even in the most fierce and dramatic of ballet roles, one's arms are supposed to maintain a soft bend at the elbow and the fingers are always layered rather than splayed*. Watch Peck's piece again if you don't believe me!

Finally, the culminating point of Mak's choreography seems to be centered around the goal of showing off her body's physical ability. For example, notice how many times she throws her leg into the air (or onto the ground) and shows the audience she is flexible enough to draw a 180 degree line (I counted about 15, which is almost double the number of ballet steps!). Don't get me wrong, that is impressive and beautiful and it takes a huge amount of flexibility and strength to achieve. However, there is not much art in hitting these contortions over and over again. Most ballet dancers have that flexibility and strength, too, but ballet isn't about tricks. Watch Peck's piece at 0:08 and you'll see the female dancers lifted into an aerial split, but notice it's not as exaggerated as Mak's; they are more focused on that split's connection to the following step than the jaw dropping nature of such a position.

Ballet is all about these transitions. The grace of ballet doesn't come from one step, no matter how perfect it is. Instead, ballet's beauty is found in a dancer's ability to connect each step together and then connect those steps to the music.

Of course, the physical beauty of the dancer's body gets shown off along the way, but in no way is that the main goal.

If this sounds confusing, you're absolutely right. The beauty that comes out of these transitions and connection is quite intangible and the intangibility makes it extremely hard to quickly place a numerical value on a dancer after only seeing a one minute solo. This is why other forms of dance have found a lot of fame through competitions (just look at Dance Moms), but ballet competitions remain a bit controversial.

In the words of Maria Kotchetkova, said beautifully in this interview with Anaheim Ballet, "ballet isn't a modeling business." Mak is dancing with the goal of modeling her body.

None of this is said with the goal of belittling Mak's performance or ability. She is a beautiful dancer who has clearly worked very hard to develop an impressive facility. We also don't doubt that she is most likely a beautiful ballet dancer when given choreography that is ballet. However, in this case, she is performing a dance that is more contemporarily styled with an eye for displaying her body as an acrobat. Though she completes the moves in pointe shoes (an impressive feat!), this doesn't make it ballet.

In fact, one of Justin Peck's most recent pieces is performed in sneakers. Yet, if you watch it with the criteria from above in mind, you might agree with us that it is more balletic than Mak's solo.

I first uploaded this article on my original twirls4thoughts blog on May 19th, 2019

It was also published on Medium.com on Oct. 7 2019

*See this video if you're curious about the incredible specificity required of a ballet dancer's hands.

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!