February 11, 2008

Some thoughts and stats on ballet

- It's far less gay-friendly that I had assumed. Sure, gays are more likely to follow it than are lesbians or straights, but this just follows from their being more into any aspect of culture. In the end, ballet is more restrained than effusive, has nearly no potential for campiness, and on stage the dancers rarely give off a bitchy "I'm not your slave anymore" attitude. This is why homosexuals flock naturally to musicals and Cher concerts instead. (It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the stars are female: again, see the popularity of Cher, Madonna, and so on.)

- Female ballet dancers are much more girly than I would have thought, given their narrow hips and broad shoulders, which suggest masculinization. They're quite girly, in fact. Girls with tomboy behavior to match their boyish figures are more likely to go into gymnastics. I rarely, if at all, see a gymnastics girl on campus in anything other than her workout sweatpants and sweatshirt, no matter the occasion. They walk around like guys, puffing up their shoulder blades and holding their arms out, stiffened. And they're very likely to have a promiscuous streak in their public behavior -- whether this reflects their private lives, I don't know.


- Writing up a ballet counterpart to the post on attractive classical musicians would be unnecessary, since there are virtually no ugly ballet dancers, and I don't just mean their bodies, which is obvious. Some are average, but most are above average or very good-looking from the neck up. Have a look at the dancers of the American Ballet Theatre. If Isadora Loyola should break her ankle, God forbid, she could surely support herself as a cover girl during the recovery process.

Some fools will suggest that this is evidence of discrimination, that the ballet companies cynically choose the better-looking dancers in order to make more money through broadening their audience. Since dancing skills of this caliber are an honest signal of excellent health and likely of "good genes" that brought about this health, and since we find signals of health more attractive than signals of sickness, it's no surprise that good-looking people make better dancers. At any rate, I showed previously why this argument does not even apply where it appears most promising -- in pop music. Those who played the inaugural feminist Mardi Gras, Lilith Fair, are almost all good-looking, even though discrimination against ugly women is absent among the organizers. This doesn't mean the correlation is perfect, but it's clearly strong.

I don't think it's due to cross-assortative mating between pretty mothers and talented fathers, as I've suggested in the link above for pretty singers. Ballet dancers tend to come from middle-class families or above, and those fathers aren't dancers who married trophy wives. This can be put to a simple test: within families, does the best-looking sibling tend to be the most natural dancer? If so, the cause is probably a suite of genes that helps you excel in both, whatever the mechanism is (again, could just mean they strengthen your health).

- Ballet dancers would make ideal girlfriends. Aside from their looks and talent, the average personality traits augur well for a smooth enjoyable relationship. Although gregarious, they're also a bit coy, not wild-child types. They're needy and anxious enough to qualify as girly, but they have plenty of independent time and can handle pressure well. They're very curious and open to new things, but not in a way that would make your eyes roll -- they wouldn't take non-serious modern art seriously or get into astrology. More like learning French or Italian just for fun. They're conscientious enough to make flaking out a non-issue, and when they get distracted, it's in a productive way (the way I get when I think I've hit upon something important enough to table other things for the moment). And they're agreeable and empathetic while still having plenty of confidence and enough toughness to keep from getting annoyingly complaisant.

Admittedly this reflects my own tastes -- if you hate girls, you might love dating a banker or lawyer. (It's not that they're evil or insufferably boring, as the cliches go -- just not feminine.) As a plus for those in academia or the professions, having a dancer girlfriend or wife prevents career incestuousness and avoids the awkwardness that may result if you compete with each other, even remotely. For example, one professor might get envious of another if one was promoted faster, published more papers (or more important papers), and so on. The same is true for dancers who date or marry. By choosing a partner whose dimension of talent is orthogonal to yours, you steer clear of such potential obstacles (although you probably want someone whose magnitude of talent is comparable to your own).

- More, they're one of the few groups of good-looking girls who aren't very conceited about their looks. I suggested before that calibrating your self-image to a higher mean would make you more humble than otherwise. Since dancers live most of their lives surrounded by other toned and pretty girls, they may not think their looks are very special.

- In general, they're very likely to have an immunity -- whether inborn or acquired, I don't know -- to all sorts of modern vices. The average young adult female may not rob, murder, assault, and so on, but they are awfully likely to get blind drunk at frat parties, fall in love with skateboard dudes, and so on. Ballet dancers do not bring up at every chance how sketchy the average jock or drug-user is, or rail against fraternities -- it's just assumed that such things aren't worth their time, and so they pay them no mind. So, that suggests that it isn't acquired through a bad previous experience. Because people differ in temperament, some find it easier to lead a virtuous life.

- Ballet dancers age very well, not just their bodies (here is Maya Plisetskaya at 50). Women face a difficult transition after 30 since their attractiveness has faded, and while dancers can forestall that time by five years or so, they too must try to age gracefully. That's not something women do much of anymore, but ballet prepares them well.

It is emotional and approval-seeking, which is youthful, but the restraint keeps her from appearing desperate, which is unflattering on older women. She can showcase her feminine grace, though the formality prevents her from competing with younger girls in informal contests, where flirtiness counts for more. And just as her movements connote both fragility and strength, so her performance as a whole suggests both diversion and dedication. She will naturally come to embody sprezzatura, while her peers either fade into the background or embarrass themselves through exhibitionism.

- To return to Plisetskaya, who is regarded as the greatest ballerina of the 20th century, she is Ashkenazi Jewish. The man regarded as the greatest dancer of the 20th century, Fred Astaire, was also Ashkenazi Jewish. [Correction: no he's not! When I know a person changed their name from something German or Yiddish-sounding to enter Hollywood, I assume they were Jewish.] Looking through the rosters of leading ballet companies, I didn't notice an overrepresentation of Jewish surnames, so this case isn't like physics or math. In fact, the stereotype is that Ashkenazi Jews are goofy klutzes on the dancefloor. So, while stereotypes do tend to be true, here we may have an exception -- probably due to the penchant this group has for self-deprecating humor.

- Pursuing a hunch based on the programs of the few performances I'd been to, I looked up some data on whether Chinese or Japanese people are more likely to become ballet dancers -- Japanese by a longshot. What's the importance? Well, it fits into a larger pattern in which the Japanese are more bold and excitement-seeking than the other East Asian groups. They are more likely to have an interest in some form of daredevilry, more likely to perform or enjoy rock music, more likely to innovate in some area, and so on. And they're noticeably better looking. I'm unbiased here, since I tend not to find East Asian females attractive. But Japanese girls are somewhat appealing -- and those who are only 1/2 or 1/4, more so. I'm not alone here, judging from the non-Asian guys who prefer Asian females, who typically desire Japanese women more than Chinese or Koreans.

For the data, I looked at 10 prestigious ballet companies, although I could not use the Russian ones or the Paris Opera Ballet since they either had no Asians or did not provide a roster of their dancers online. Those examined: American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Royal Ballet (London), National Ballet of Canada, Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet, Washington Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Houston Ballet. I tallied the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Southeast Asians at three levels: top (e.g., principal dancer), middle (e.g., soloist), and bottom (e.g., corps de ballet).

There were 5 Koreans, 5 Southeast Asians, 12 Chinese, and 19 Japanese. Nearly all of them came from their ethnic motherland, rather than the US, Canada, or the UK. Since the Chinese outnumber the Japanese by 10 to 1 in general, whereas the Japanese outnumber the Chinese by 3 to 2 in this case, it's clear that the Japanese are more likely to make it to the elite level, so that a formal significance test is unnecessary. I then assigned 1 point for a member at the bottom, 2 points for a member at the middle, and 4 points for a member at the top. Since it becomes increasingly harder to make it to the top, they should get more points for being promoted. The Japanese scored 39, the Chinese 25, the Southeast Asians 7, and the Koreans 5.

The National Ballet of China has existed for almost 50 years and was more or less founded by a Russian, so it's not that the Japanese got a huge head-start. The Chinese dominate in Olympic gymnastics, so they must have the basic kinesthetic requirements covered. Western dance companies frequently travel to China, so they do not want for influence. Again, the main difference seems to be that, while to Westerners both populations appear rather boring, the Japanese are more dynamic and exciting than the Chinese.

- While most music composed specifically for ballets is Romantic or later, I think Baroque works best in general. Counterpoint just seems to fit the spirit of ballet better. Here is the Kirov Ballet performing to Bach, as well as one from a more modern Brazilian company.

23 comments:

  1. I'm not so sure about ballet dancers making excellent girlfriends. AIUI, success as a dancer requires starting at a very young age and a constant focus on dancing, to the near-exclusion of anything else. That would seem to result in boring, one-dimensional personalities.

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  2. Well, personalities are never one-dimensional, but I take it you mean they have narrow interests since they don't have time to explore anything other than dance.

    However, as I noted, that's wrong. Ballet dancers (and artists, performers, and scientists in general) score highly on the trait Openness to Experience.

    Ballet dancers are far more likely than the average girl to be interested in learning foreign languages, reading real books (they really like Jane Austen), and so on.

    It's true that success in any field requires dedication, including a fair amount of what could be leisure time. But I've found that the most boring people are those who have no ambition and are content to piss away their time indulging in a thousand hobbies. Think of Wikipedia-editing nerds.

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  3. reading real books (they really like Jane Austen)

    Your post contains a lot of truths, but Jane Austen is by no means universally adored by prolific book readers.

    Well, it fits into a larger pattern in which the Japanese are more bold and excitement-seeking than the other East Asian groups.

    Having taken ballet lessons when I was younger, ballet is both creative expression of the body and a rigorous discipline. The Japanese are known both for their strict adherence to tradition and bold displays of rebellion. The Chinese culture often only emphasizes the adherence -- if you research modern pianists, I am sure more of them will turn up Chinese than Japanese.

    I'm not alone here, judging from the non-Asian guys who prefer Asian females, who typically desire Japanese women more than Chinese or Koreans.

    It may be more that that the Japanese -- who are more westernized culturally -- are more tuned in to the western aesthetic and know how to appeal to the western eye.

    Interestingly, as I've become more westernized, I dislike Chinese "things" more and more, and start to veer toward Japanese culture in general. Right now I'm obsessed with a Japanese manga/anime series.

    Out of all the eastern cultures, the Japanese has the most in common with American culture. I won't say that I love American culture itself, but the dynamic, creative and spirited parts of it are endearing.

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  4. Those who played the inaugural feminist Mardi Gras, Lilith Fair, are almost all good-looking, even though discrimination against ugly women is absent among the organizers.

    I'm pretty clueless when it comes to the contemporary pop music scene, but I recogize most of the performers as having been around and well-known years before the first Fair in '97. If the pool of female artists centers a SD to the right on the attractiveness scale, isn't it just about inevitable that most women chosen to play it (even if attractiveness plays no part in the decision-making) will be attractive? That doesn't tell us anything about how they broke out in the first place, does it?

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  5. The most beautiful of ballerinas has to be Canada's own Karen Kain. There is a CBC TV interview with her here. Nureyev wanted her for his partner once Margot Fonteyn started getting too old. You are right about dancers continuing to look great into old age. Kain still still looks fantastic at 57.

    Whether or not dancers tend to have promiscuity personalities, there is a fairly promiscuous culture around dance. Half the male dancers are gay (with very few lesbians on the other side). This has two effects: 1. any culture with lots of gay men around is going to be fairly heavily sexualized and 2. it radically skews the sex ration among the heterosexual dancers. Add to this that dancers don't have much of a life outside the dance world, and you have a situation where the hetero guys can just pound away. If I were younger I'd go into dance, no questions asked. If your son has any sort of talent and you want him to do well with the ladies, make him to do ballet. Force him to do it. He'll thank you later.

    Robert Altman has a great interview about his dance movie The Company.

    The Company is a decent film, but best ballet movies are Powell and Pressburger's
    The Red Shoes and Ingmar Bergman's Summer Interlude. I would also recommend you seek out Karen Kain and the National Ballet of Canada's superb version of Giselle.

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  6. Have you read any of former NYCB dancer's Toni Bentley's work on ballet dancers & ballet life? M. Blowhard wrote about it here Her book gives a good description of the lives & personalities of these girls.

    Also, I have to agree with Thursday - ballet dancers can in fact be pretty wild & promiscuous. This is actually one major drawback to being the boyfriend of a dancer when you're not actually from that world & are thus not around on those crazy, celebratory nights after a show & on those long tours away from home. Ideally, you aren't needy & anxious.

    And as far as fertility & single-minded ambition goes, dancers are not that different than bankers or lawyers. In fact, they're probably much worse because their work fulfills them in a way their sisters in finance or corporate law probably don't feel. They may not be ideal wives for most men.

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  7. That doesn't ring true for the college ballet dancers I've met -- maybe they suffer cougar and soon-to-be-cougar syndrome as they age just as others do?

    Point taken about fertility -- you probably won't have any kids if you marry a dancer.

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  8. Another thing to bear in mind is that memoirs from a performer of the NYCB are likely an exaggeration of the experiences of ballet dancers. It's like if you tried to understand how mathematicians are by reading / watching a documentary about Paul Erdos.

    It gets at some tendencies, but which are far more pronounced at the elite. I haven't read Bentley's books, but from what Michael Blowhard describes, the dancers sound more like modern dancers than ballet dancers.

    And as elsewhere, it's well to remember that the New York art world usually looks different from art worlds elsewhere.

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  9. Whether or not dancers tend to have promiscuity personalities, there is a fairly promiscuous culture around dance. Half the male dancers are gay (with very few lesbians on the other side).

    Are male ballet dancers less likely to be gay than other types of dancers?

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  10. Those who played the inaugural feminist Mardi Gras, Lilith Fair, are almost all good-looking, even though discrimination against ugly women is absent among the organizers.

    Silly argument, the performers at Lilith Fair were almost all mainstream pop performers before the festival, which means that the entertainment industry had already put them through a rigourous screening processes.

    A useful control group is German opera singers. The women who sing Wagner and Strauss have beautiful voices, but the technical demands of the singing are so great that you wouldn't expect their looks don't matter. And surprise, surprise_those_singers are not particularly attractive.

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  11. While most music composed specifically for ballets is Romantic or later, I think Baroque works best in general. Counterpoint just seems to fit the spirit of ballet better.

    Funny how the greatest choreographers, Petipa, Balanchine, and Ashton, seem to prefer Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel. Maybe they know a thing or two about what is best. Rare outliers like Balanchine's Concerto Barocco aside, dance seems to work best with . . . dance rhythms.

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  12. BTW the greatest screen adaptation of an already existing ballet is Nureyev's Don Quixote. The fiery Tatar was almost as good a film director as he was a dancer. Interestingly Nureyev and Balanchine represent two different poles of gender orientation for ballet. The gay Nureyev tried to force ballet into a vehicle for male stardom, while the very straight Balanchine famously said "ballet is woman."

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  13. Funny how the greatest choreographers, Petipa, Balanchine, and Ashton, seem to prefer Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel. Maybe they know a thing or two about what is best.

    Maybe, or maybe it reflects one phase in a cycle of fashion. It's been documented that which composers, and which works, are played in concert show cycles of fashion. I worry about this in ballet even more because it's so young, like movies.

    Should actors act like Sir Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando? Does black & white or color work best for movies? Etc. It would be surprising if similar things don't happen in ballet.

    When I say I think Baroque fits better with the spirit of ballet, the only real quarrel is over what "the spirit of ballet" is. And since it's not science or math, this is up for grabs and subject to cycles of fashion.

    Maybe a crude way to think of it is just which ingredient we'd like to see more of -- the abandon or the restraint, even if both are there.

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  14. Although I should clarify that just because something shows cycles of fashion doesn't mean that one of their stages can't be objectively better than another. Guys dressed better in the '50s than in the '70s, and Jane Austen is better than Arthur Miller.

    There hasn't been a Baroque obsession in ballet to compare it to another stage in the fashion cycle, though.

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  15. Since dancers live most of their lives surrounded by other toned and pretty girls, they may not think their looks are very special.

    this might explain the common perception among american men that beautiful russian au pairs are easier to pick up (and more adoring once picked up) than equivalently beautiful american girls, especially if it's true that russian women are getting mysteriously more beautiful with each passing generation.

    or it could be, as i suspect, that russian men don't put their hot women on pedestals to the degree that american men exalt their own hot women, resulting in russian women having a humble self-assessment that carries over into their new country of residence.

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  16. The Superfluous Man2/15/08, 11:42 PM

    As for the Japanese vs. Chinese and Koreans: It's always seemed like the Japanese had more elongated facial structure whereas the Chinese (and maybe Koreans less so) have a more peasant, rounded face look to 'em. The Japanese just look classier.

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  17. The Japanese often have pretty sophisticated musical tastes and there are a lot of Japanese fans of obscure European art rock bands, comtemporary classical music etc.

    In that regard they seem to be more sophiticated than the Koreans and Chinese.

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  18. "Fred Astaire, was also Ashkenazi Jewish"

    Are you on drugs?

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  19. Haha, apparently so... I don't know why I thought that. I guess anyone who I know changed their name from something German / Yiddish sounding, I assume they were Jewish.

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  20. If you go to Chinese countryside, western style attractiveness become symbol of ulgy. Standard of beauty is very subjective.

    We might all look like ulgy ape without hair to our dogs.

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  21. I cannot believe I am reading this! How can you possibly make such sweeping generalizations? Whatever you said about ballet dancers, Japanese women,etc. is purely a reflection of your own tastes. No culture culture is not monolithic. And if you observe how Japanese women behave when they're in the west and how they behave in their own country, it may give you a clue as to why they appear to be more risky people - the cultural and gender-based oppression rampant in that society churn out a few rebels when they are removed from that society. Ever heard of cultural studies, the study of sociology or politics? Ballet dancers are not one-dimensional either! Ballet focuses on discipline and discpline does not neccesarily mean one-dimensional. It is a trait that all successful people have, including pianists. You are a complete idiot making sweeping statements without ANY critical analysis to support that! Please refrain from speaking as if you were some expert. You are unbelievable!

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  22. I think you are off your rocker and need to do rechecks on all of your "facts" because a) ballerinas are not all incredibly and ethereally attractive, and attractiveness of face has no correlation to body type and ability to dance well b) how can you judge who likes ballet more culturally in the Asian sector? Why is that even important? C) Fred Astaire Jewish?really? D) ballerinas are dedicated first and foremost to their profession. I would know because I am an aspiring dancer. A ballerinas character is her own, she may still get into astrology, she may also despise it or not even care. She is not all

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  23. Fred Astaire was half Ashkenazi Jewish. His father converted from Judaism to Roman Catholicism.

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