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Just because thousands of people follow you, that doesn't suddenly make you an expert on a subject. And you've got all these people listening to you. And you're kind of like, what do I do with this?
This question is the point of discussion for this special episode of Making a Scene, hosted by diversity strategist Theresa Ruth Howard and featuring ballet soloists Shelby Williams and Harper Watters, as well as dancewear entrepreneur and meme creator Min Tan. They explain how the online space is creating new ways to have valuable conversations about inclusion, wellness and social justice in the ballet world, in this podcast organised in conjunction with Esplanade's da:ns series.
Shelby, a soloist with the Royal Ballet of Flanders, always struggled with having naturally flat feet (or, as dancers call them, “biscuits”). Making light of the anxiety that came with this, she started creating satirical ballet variations with poor technique. Now better known as the Biscuit Ballerina, her self-deprecating humour resonates with thousands of fans on Instagram, who send in recordings of themselves falling during performances for her “Falling Friday” video compilations.
Min, who is also an amateur ballet dancer, believes such self-criticism is inherent in those who pursue this artform. As she puts it: “What other kind of person would willingly do the same exercises over and over again and be perpetually dissatisfied with it?” Still, she says ballet helped in her recovery from an eating disorder, and her love for the dance spurred her to start making related memes and T-shirts as a hobby. That eventually led to the founding of her internationally beloved dancewear brand, Cloud & Victory.
Meanwhile, Houston Ballet soloist Harper has always loved social media, and shot to fame when his videos of him dancing in stilettos to pop music went viral. “Visibility is currency”, he says, and as a queer BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/Person of Colour) dancer, he sees social media as a rare opportunity for people like him to express themselves freely and show their success.
The speakers also note that their platforms come with certain responsibilities, and explain how they address issues such as racism and body image on these platforms. They also discuss the dark side of social media—the unrealistic expectations set by perfectly edited feeds. After all, making mistakes is how humans learn how to grow—in dance, and in life. As Min explains, “Social media should be a place that is helpful for them, and not something that brings them down because they’re just always seeing something that is perfect when it’s not necessarily reality.”
Check out Theresa’s article about whether Instagram is changing the dance world's value system.
This episode of Making A Scene is commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay in conjunction with da:ns series, with the intent to open new dialogues on important issues in ballet today. This episode is produced by Wong Kwang Lin and Hong Xinyi. The theme music of the podcast is More Than We Know from the album Seamonster by The Steve McQueens, a Mosaic Associate Artist supported by Esplanade.
Check out The Royal Ballet (UK) on Film at Esplanade's da:ns series from 13 – 27 Aug 2021.
Theresa Ruth Howard is the founder and curator of Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet a digital platform that preserves, presents, and promotes the memoirs of Blacks in ballet. She is a respected advocate and leader in the conversations surrounding diversity and culture in ballet and the arts as an internationally sought-after diversity strategist, speaker, consultant and coach to artistic, executive, and school directors and board members of ballet and opera. Her background as a dancer (Dance Theater of Harlem and Armitage Gone! Dance) and dance educator make her uniquely qualified to target, address and facilitate much-needed cultural shifts ballet leadership. In 2018, she was a member of the Design and Facilitation Team of The Equity Project: Increasing the presence of Blacks in Ballet, a three-year initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which assembled a cohort of 21 North American ballet companies.
As a curator, Howard has presented at both in-person and virtual symposiums. In October 2019, they held their first MoBBallet Symposium (MBBS), a multi-generational personal development and educational intensive, which convened an elite and diverse faculty of black ballet professionals and pre-professional ballet students. During the BLM uprisings in August 2020, MoB-Ballet hosted a three-weekend virtual symposium that centered blackness and promoted education, communication and restoration. In March 2021, the Ballet IS Woman symposium celebrated female artistic and executive directors in ballet.
Howard has been member of the design team for the Dutch National Ballet’s (DNB) bi-annual conference, Positioning Ballet, a convening of over 40 European and international companies, and curated their 2019 Black Achievement Month photo exhibition which paid homage to all of the Black ballet artists who have danced with the company since 1961. In 2019, Howard curated The Royal Opera House’s inaugural Young Talent Festival 2019 Symposium, Exposure, Access and Opportunity: Exploring the Cultural Barriers to Ballet Training. Most recently she has been tapped to curate a week of ballet for the Kennedy Center’s 2022 summer season. In addition, Howard is a dance journalist, having contributed to The Source, Pointe, Expressions (Italy), Tanz (Germany), and Opera America magazines. Currently, she is a contributing writer for Dance Magazine. Alastair Macaulay cites her as “One of the most valuable writers on dance today...Theresa Ruth Howard has written some of the most provocative pieces on ballet today”.
Min is the owner of Cloud & Victory, an ethical dancewear brand from Singapore. An adult ballet beginner who turned a hobby into a full-time job, she's also a digital strategy and branding consultant, and has written about dance for Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and The Straits Times. She uses her online platform to advocate for ballet to be a more mentally and physically healthy, inclusive space, and for dancers to eat more pizza.
Shelby received her professional training on scholarship at the Washington School of Ballet and the Houston Ballet Academy. Shelby began her career with Houston Ballet 2 and as an apprentice with Dresden Semperoper Ballett (Germany). She was a soloist with both BallettMainz and the Hessisches Staatsballett in Germany before joining the Royal Ballet of Flanders in 2016 under the direction of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, where she is currently a soloist. She has danced leading roles in works by Crystal Pite, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe, Akram Khan, Hofesh Schechter, Ohad Naharin, Johan Inger, Andonis Foniadakis, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham amongst others.
In Dance Europe Magazine Critic's Choice (October 2017), she was nominated in the category, Outstanding Perfomance of a Female Dancer, for her performances in Approximate Sonata 2016 by William Forsythe and Café Müller by Pina Bausch.
In 2017, Shelby created the viral social media personality Biscuit Ballerina® as a way to encourage a sense of humor around ballet and promote mental health awareness. Shelby leads mental health workshops for dancers around the USA and UK, and also publishes interviews and articles on the subject of dancer mental health on her website. Biscuit Ballerina® has been featured in The New York Times, Dance Magazine, and Pointe Magazine. The creation of Biscuit Ballerina® was nominated in the category of Best News in Dance Europe Magazine Critic's Choice (October 2018).
Harper Watters is currently a soloist with the Houston Ballet. Onstage, he has danced in ballets such as The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet, Swan Lake, and as the Prince in The Nutcracker, as well as in neo-classical roles with choreographers such as William Forsythe, Stanton Welch, and Tony Award winner Justin Peck. Offstage, his advocacy work has led him to be featured in campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Mac Cosmetics, and Abercrombie and Fitch as well as collaborations with IVY Park x Adidas, Adobe, and Instagram x Teen Vogue Advocates. He has both walked and danced in New York Fashion Week, was recently featured in Vogue for his social media presence, and starred in the documentary Danseur, a film about men in ballet. His goals are to empower by example, change the landscape of ballet for the future, and do so in the most fabulous way possible.
Making A Scene is an Esplanade podcast about how art gets made. In this series, artists reflect on topical issues and connections that bind them across art forms and countries, and talk about what inspires their art.