The Salome Factor

How the sexualization of concert dance helped end a golden age.


Although most Americans don’t realize it— even those who follow the arts—we recently passed through a golden age that can be compared, without hyperbole, to the heyday of Florentine painting or Viennese music. It took place in the most ephemeral, least regarded, and most vital of the arts: dance. From roughly the mid-’30s to the mid-’80s, an entire catalogue of masterworks was produced by an astonishing series of geniuses—most prominently, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Agnes De Mille in ballet; Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, José Limon, Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, and Mark Morris in modern dance. Audiences and institutions were built, styles were developed and propagated, movements and philosophies did battle, legions of remarkable performers were conjured as if out of the ground.

Inevitably, the long noon couldn’t last. By all accounts, we’re well into an age of silver, perhaps of bronze. The geniuses died or lost their creative fire, institutions became sclerotic, revolutionary impulses dimmed. The New York real-estate boom that began in the 1980s blew studio and apartment rents skyward, making the hand-to-mouth existence that most dancers live increasingly hard to sustain. But something else has happened over the last 20 years, something that would have been avoidable if only some of the people who practice the art of dance had believed in it a little bit more, or had a little more faith in their audience, or weren’t quite so worried about being trendy. What has happened—not throughout the art, to be sure, but in much of it—is a degradation of the way dance represents the human body: a degradation, that is, of the very essence of the art itself. From a symbol of the uniqueness, dignity, and power of the individual, an image of the soul in muscle and bone, the body in dance—especially the female body—is being reduced, more and more, to an object of sexualized display.

To appreciate why this is so calamitous, it helps to understand a little about the history of the art. For if the 20th-century flowering of concert dance stood for anything, it was the liberation of the female body from sexual objectification. It is no accident that modern dance emerged around the same time as the New Woman of the turn of the last century. Just as women were beginning to assert themselves with fresh vigor in education, in the workforce, in the struggle for female suffrage, and even in sexual relations—creating, as they did so, a new kind of woman, strong, independent, and outspoken—so were Isadora Duncan and other women inventing modern dance by rejecting the image of women in dance. For Duncan, ballet’s pointe shoes, tightly fitting bodices, and rigidly erect posture were the equivalent of the Victorian corset that confined and controlled women’s bodies. Instead, she substituted bare feet, loose robes, and a fluid, pliant, improvisational aesthetic, creating new ideas about how the female body could move and how it could express itself through movement. Her solos, with their themes of pagan freedom and joy, challenged the gender roles implicit in ballet’s tales of demure princesses, evil fairies, and vengeful virgins. And while ballerinas were objects of sexual display, their legs uncovered by short tutus at a time when social dress was still quite modest (at the Paris Opera, where dancers were available for paid postperformance assignations, the display was not merely theoretical), Duncan and the other women who founded modern dance took control of their destinies, and their bodies, by acting as their own choreographers and managers.

Modern dance remained a matriarchy for three more generations. Its dominant presence from the early ’30s to the early ’60s (when Cunningham and Taylor began to emerge as important forces) was Martha Graham. Indeed, she remains the central figure in the history of the art. Both Cunningham and Taylor danced with her, and each developed his own style in response to hers. To this day, when someone takes a modern dance class anywhere in the world (she seeded the art across the globe), they are learning movement influenced by the Graham technique. That technique involved a thorough rethinking of the body as both an object of training and an instrument of expression. While ballet holds the spine straight, creating an effect of aristocratic imperturbability, Graham technique is based on the principle of contraction and release. In the sequence that forms the basis of nearly every movement in her repertory, students are taught to pull their abdominal muscles up and in, as if they were being punched in the stomach, then to release their torso from the taut curve they’ve created back to its upright position. It feels like you’re fighting with yourself, and it’s meant to. Graham developed her technique in the 1930s, and it embodies, literally, that era’s life-or-death sense of moral struggle and commitment. It is passionate, romantic, and heroic. It is humanist as well as feminist.

Her choreography elaborated on this idea of the individual, undaunted, against the world. Many of her pieces were stories of the great women of myth and literature: Clytemnestra and Medea, Dickinson and the Brontës. Graham endowed the human form in motion with an astonishing new expressiveness. Where ballet asks the body to transcend itself by transforming into a set of ideal shapes, Graham emphasized the body’s physicality: its suffering and joy, its muscularity and sheer weight. This was an especially revolutionary statement to make about the female body. Her dancers, and at first they were all women, were blocky and imposing, projecting a sense of primitive power. At a time when painting and sculpture were forsaking the human figure, when theater was becoming a scene of slavery and degradation, of the human being as beast or automaton or sheer refuse, Graham was defying the drift of the culture by asserting the body’s indomitable nobility, its absolute status as the source of all life, strength, value, and freedom.

Later modern-dance choreographers, even when they turned away from Graham’s rigors to develop their own methods, perpetuated this sense of the body as subject rather than object, creative agent rather than sexualized ornament. The same idea undergirded the modern form of ballet that developed in this country simultaneously with the great age in modern dance. Balanchine has been criticized as a patriarch, as well as for insisting on an unnaturally thin ideal of female beauty, but these charges aren’t really fair. Dance-company directors are all tyrants, by and large. As for Balanchine’s ideal of female beauty, it was thin, but it wasn’t anorexic (as it’s become); it was muscular. Balanchine found in America a bold, assertive new kind of femininity, and he placed it at the center of his revolutionary reinterpretation of classical dance. In his most innovative and characteristic works, he dressed his dancers not in tutus and tunics but in a streamlined version of practice clothes: T-shirts and tights for the men, leotards and tights for the women. Gender stereotypes were downplayed; speed, scale, and strength were brought to the fore. What ballerinas had traditionally done with the support of a male partner they now often did alone, relying on nothing but their own pride, courage, and sang-froid. He presented his dancers, women as well as men, as something like divine athletes.

Robbins took a different route. If Balanchine’s ballets were high poetry, his were closer to short stories—vernacular, informal, anecdotal. And if Balanchine’s women were fellow athletes to men, Robbins’s were friends. In many of his best works, a sense of comradely equality pervades the relations between the sexes, mirroring the kind of male-female friendship that has emerged in the last half century or so. That friendship is the byproduct of a larger phenomenon, one that may well be American civilization’s greatest contribution to the world: the invention of the American woman. And 20th-century concert dance, which was largely an art of women, played a vital role in that invention: participating in it, forwarding it, publicizing it, and creating many of its greatest images.

But in the last couple of decades, dance has faced a new kind of challenge from the culture at large. It is analogous to the challenge once posed to painting by photography (which forced it away from figuration) or to theater by film (which forced it away from spectacle). In this case, however, rather than differentiating itself from the new, technology-driven phenomenon that threatens it, dance has increasingly come to imitate it. This new phenomenon is our contemporary culture of the image. Film has been with us for over a century and television for over half a century, but in the last couple of decades the multiplication of mass-produced visual imagery has gone from a quantitative change to a qualitative one. When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, there were seven channels on our black-and-white TV— three networks, three local stations, and PBS. That was it: no cable, no VCR, no Internet. There were movies, but there were no multiplexes and no special-effects blockbusters. Today, we are surrounded by images: rushing at us from a thousand channels and a billion Web sites, blaring at us in bars and airports and waiting rooms and gyms, staring at us from posters and billboards and the covers of glossy magazines, colonizing our clothing and our telephones and our children’s bedrooms, so that our very minds seem by now to have become wallpapered with them.

These images that surround us are, overwhelmingly, sexualized images of the human body, and especially the female body. The most cursory glance through the magazine racks or around the television dial attests to this. Glamour and titillation are our chief obsession (which is why the cult of celebrity, which combines the two, occupies the center of our cultural space). Girls are eroticized at younger and younger ages, the most serious actresses must submit to the cheesecake routine, and porn stars are becoming culture heroes. Even women athletes, who are supposed to stand for something else, are becoming sexualized; when female Olympians, whose outfits are already much more revealing than they used to be, posed naked for Playboy last summer, no one batted an eye. Sexual liberation, which once held such utopian promise, now only means that men are beginning to get the same treatment as women. We have made the body into a commodity and put it on continuous display: objectified, eroticized, deprived of agency, dignity, and individuality.

This objectification of the body is the very thing that dance has stood against since Duncan and Graham. What is more, as the art of the body, dance is uniquely challenged by it. Indeed, where opportunities to watch dancing were once relatively restricted—the concert stage, Broadway and movie musicals, a couple of weekly television shows—a new kind of dancing has emerged in the last couple of decades that is available for viewing around the clock, the kind done in music videos. And that, as everyone knows, is little more than an energetic form of sexual provocation.

So how has the art of dance responded to this challenge? To be sure, many choreographers and companies have remained loyal to the old, core values. But more and more have not. During the 12 years I watched and reviewed concert dance—I have no reason to believe that things have changed substantially in the seven years since—I witnessed an increasing convergence with the culture of the image. Sometimes that simply involved choreographers incorporating video and other electronic imagery into their work. When this was done intelligently and in a way that didn’t subordinate live dancing to taped images, it created a valuable kind of artistic synergy. All too often, though, it was done in a spirit of slavish technolatry, as if video were superior to dance simply because it is newer and involves gadgets.

The more important way that dance has come to imitate the surrounding culture has to do with the presentation of the body. For one thing, dancers have been wearing less and less. Sometimes they don’t wear anything at all, though this nudity or seminudity almost never serves a discernable artistic purpose. Their magnificently stretched and muscled bodies, which they’ve developed as instruments of expression, are increasingly exhibited as mere objects of titillation— not in the direct manner of a Playboy spread, but through choreography that submerges individuality and highlights eroticism and the superficial flash of glamour. (There’s a flatness to such pieces that is metaphorically and often literally akin to the flatness of a visual image.) Indeed, sex has become the increasing focus of choreographic interest: sex not as the physical expression of complex emotions but as a one-night-stand kind of erotic aggression that’s presented as edgy and chic. As it happens, the most visible offender is Peter Martins, who in 1983 took over for Balanchine as head of New York City Ballet, the nation’s flagship dance company, and has been running it into the ground ever since. It is under him that the look of the company’s ballerinas has gone from thin to anorexic, an assault on female bodies that continues, in symbolic form, in his brutal, prurient choreographies.

I don’t actually think that most of this has been conscious, even on Martins’s part. I think choreographers have just been following their instincts about what seems most cutting-edge, most “sexy,” and therefore most marketable. Part of what has been driving dance in this direction, in other words, is the art’s increasingly dire financial predicament. Rents have risen, audiences have dwindled, seasons and tours have gotten shorter, government funding has gotten scarcer. Something needs to be done to put fannies in the seats, and there’s nothing sexier than sex itself. Besides, sex is in, because it’s what everyone, including those choreographers, is used to seeing everywhere else. To the people who trade in it, all that erotic aggression probably does feel edgy and chic, even though it’s become the biggest cliché in the business. Dancers are not usually thinkers, and dance does not tend to be a highly self-conscious or theorized art. Absent the kind of fierce vision that drove a Graham or a Balanchine, it’s easy for dance-makers to just drift with the cultural tide, unaware of where it’s taking them.

All this is even more deplorable given that dance, unique among the arts, is forever losing its history. The other arts produce tangible objects or definitive records in the form of books, recordings, or written scores. But dance does not. Even videotape captures only some of what’s important about choreography, and very little about style or technique. At best it provides an auxiliary to living memory. Dance is passed down body to body, so that its history slips out of life with its practitioners. It is unthinkable that the great 20th century advances in painting or literature will ever be lost, that those arts will somehow unlearn everything modernism taught them. But a similar catastrophe is not out of the question in dance. What a shame it would be if the one art most capable of standing against our current degradation of the body fell victim to it instead.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here. He is a contributing editor of the magazine.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up