10 reasons ballet dancers hate Black Swan

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I hated Black Swan. Successful film that it was, I hated many things about it, mostly the way it depicted ballet dancers in a way real enough to convince the mainstream population they were seeing the real deal, behind the heavy velvet curtains. But, oh, come on.

I wasn’t blogging when it came out in 2011. Everyone else wanting to rant has had their rant. Now I get mine.

Everyone knows what the movie’s about, right? You’re not going to make me suffer through writing a synopsis, are you? The heroine, for lack of a better term, is ballet professional Nina, talented but wimpy, over-connected to mommy, who commences a descent into madness while grappling with both her need for perfection and her inability to master both the White Swan and Black Swan for the company’s upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Oh, and toss into the equation rival Lily. Who’s far more intriguing than whiny Nina from the get-go.

Lame synopsis, I know. But so’s the movie. No, correction. It’s an award winning film, a great horror flick and psychological thriller. It’s just not a great ballet flick. I don’t know any ballet dancer who enjoyed the film. Why, you ask? Ooh, thank you!

Ten reasons we ballet dancers hate Black Swan

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1) Nina is a wimp. She’s timid. She spends most of her day with a panic-stricken expression. Zero confidence on her face, in her body language. She doesn’t pour her pathos into her dancing (maybe because the actress isn’t a real dancer and doesn’t understand how). Great acting, for the talented, lovely Portman. Except that, um, ballet dancers just aren’t that way.

2) In the morning, when the women arrive for company class and a day of rehearsing, apparently they flock to the dressing room and pile in there (one room), and carefully apply makeup, the full works. Um? That’s what you do 60 minutes before curtain for a performance. WTF, is company class a glamour show? You enjoy that mask-like full makeup feeling at 10am?

3) In company class, during barre, artistic directors don’t walk in and commence a digression, a motivational speech, while the dancers are immersed in their exercise. Barre is for doing barre. Announcements come afterward.

4) The artistic director is grossly over-sharing. “Sex – do you enjoy it?” he asks Nina. “I mean, come on. We need to be able to talk about this. [..] I don’t want there to be boundaries between us.” Well, now. That’s got the making of a functional, professional relationship. Um, best not to let the AGMA rep hear about this. Or the labor board. Or the BBB. And just when you thought it couldn’t get worse… “I got a little homework assignment for you. Go home, and touch yourself.” Ewww.

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5) In the movie, there is one lone principal. There is, at some point, the announcement of a new lone principal. There is a suicide of aforementioned lone principal when she becomes a “former.” (Oops, should I have said “spoiler alert?” Nah…) Oh, wrong in so many ways. Companies have a handful of soloists and principals. (See rant #9.) Not one lone star. And suicide over the loss? People. Career dancers go on to have other lives, even as they might struggle with the transition. Suicidal depression and ballet meet far less than you’d think, watching Hollywood’s rendition (as do psychosis and ballet). Ballet dancers are warriors. From an early age, they’re well trained to cope with tremendous pain and disappointment. To rise to the top of the top, you understand that pain and disappointment are part of the package. The eventual pain and insecurity of pondering “what comes next?” are, as well. You deal. You are a survivor.

6)   Mommy is Nina’s roommate. Mommy helps undress her. Mommy helps her sew her pointe shoe ribbons. Mommy clips her nails too. Just in case you don’t get how wrong this is, let me elaborate: the average professional ballet dancer, particularly one in a top tier company, has quite possibly been living on her own, fending for herself, since age 14. If you live in a ballet city, that’s way cool. But ever so many young dancers whose talent will take them to the rank of principal, will head off to New York, San Francisco, Paris, Moscow, London, Amsterdam, etc, on their own. Live in a dorm. The Vaganova Academy takes kids at age ten. If you’re good, bound for the high echelons, you learn at a very early age how to be self-sufficient. Further, real dance moms are such unsung heroes, such diligent, solid supporters of their daughter’s careers, it burns me to see a dance mom portrayed in such an icky fashion. Creepy, creepy. Okay, successful psychological thriller flick fodder. Just not how it is in the dance world.

7)  Lily, Nina’s nemesis, dancing in rehearsal, laughing and relaxed, has her hair down, swinging all over the place. We are made to believe that she is somehow upstaging the uptight Nina, the ultimate bunhead. Okay. The tucked-away hair thing—we dancers like the feeling. As a lifelong exerciser, I want my hair to be out of my face while moving. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t. It looks stupid and distracting, all that loose hair. It gets in your mouth. It clings to your sweaty parts. It does not feel liberating. It’s claustrophobia-producing. A woman doing ballet with long hair down (unless it’s a contemporary ballet performance and thus intentional) doesn’t look free and relaxed, she looks like someone who isn’t a ballet dancer and who has no sense of the dance etiquette.

8) Sarah Lane didn’t get the recognition she deserved.

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Don’t believe the Fox Searchlight/Portman camp propaganda. Natalie Portman didn’t do 90 percent of the dancing. There’s all sorts of neat editing you can do with one person’s moving body and another person’s head superimposed. Great job there! There was a lot of hype, just before the Academy Awards, at how neat it was that Natalie could dance like a professional after only two years of training. That would certainly be a neat trick. But we can tell, we ballet dancers, when we’re seeing the real deal. Hint: the tight neck and expressions were Natalie’s. Hint: the ungainly hands were hers, as were the stiff port de bras movements. On the other hand, the tight fifth positions, the bourrées, the turns, the elegant lines, were Sarah Lane’s. Yes, you can “learn” ballet in two years. But you will look like someone who learned ballet in two years. Someone who has been at it since childhood, who spends six hours a day at the craft, will have a finesse, an authenticity, an innate sense of grace that you simply can’t learn quickly.

9) Lily, the newcomer, has been made Nina’s alternate for Odette/Odile (AKA the white/black swan). Well, gosh, that’s fine thinking on the artistic director’s part to have more than one dancer learning the lead role. Positively inspired. He’s really thinking outside the box there. This is sarcasm. I’ll stop now, in order to inform you that there are usually multiple casts when a ballet company performs Swan Lake. It’s not a cheap production to put on; companies that can afford to produce it will have the means and funds for multiple casts. And a smart artistic director knows to share the wealth and not piss off talented dancers who are at the same level. Early in the movie, it looked like there were five or six talented soloists vying for the role. Poof, they disappeared, it seems. Too bad, so sad.

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10) Most of all, we ballet dancers hate how our beautiful ballet world and craft have been distorted, made tawdry and sort of unclean. This pure art of ours that’s so much about beauty and grace and, okay, yes, the pursuit of perfection and its impossibility to arrive there, and yes, that is neurotic to strive so passionately, ignoring physical pain and the low odds of success. But it’s the good kind of neurotic. Say, the obsession of someone training for the Olympics. In fact, consider this: what if they did a similar movie on the Olympics, the dirt behind the scenes? Not the administrators, but the athletes? Their training, their grueling struggle to achieve the highest echelons. Feels kinda wrong to propose it, huh? I don’t know about you, but in my mind, we need our purer endeavors, vocations, to make up for the cluttered nature of the commercial world.

Okay, so maybe I’ve gotten a little sanctimonious here. Preachy about tainting high art with commercialism. I have a sense of sport, a sense of humor, honest. Even about ballet. Which is why I’m offering a bonus reason here, in the opposite direction. Here’s the number one best thing about seeing Black Swan: I can really, really enjoy the SNL spoof of it, with Jim Carrey as the ultimate black swan. Oh, too much fun. Readers, enjoy. And don’t go saying The Classical Girl doesn’t have a sense of humor about Really Bad Ballet. (If embed isn’t working, go HERE.)

30 thoughts on “10 reasons ballet dancers hate Black Swan

  1. kathleen

    Good to know that Hollywood doesn’t balk at creating a story that will sell big, without the accountability of accuracy. Because I am not “in the know”, this was mostly new information for me. And then I think about all the movies and books that have informed my view of the world, history, etc. Kind of frightening really. In fact, most of what is true and real is much less interesting. But then again, why would I want to spend money to live in a borrowed fantasy for a couple of hours if it didn’t entertain? In today’s world it takes a lot to capture people’s imaginations—no surprise that they invent a story that couldn’t possible be true.

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  2. Kayt

    As a fellow dancer, this “review” actually bothers me, a lot. The movie at no point said “this is the life of all ballet dancers” however, in your “review” you group every single ballet dancer ever into specific stereotypes . And you really want to tell me that EVERY dance mom is a diligent unsung hero? HA. Bull shit. You’re an idiot. Glad that you were born sucking on a silver spoon and had everything handed to you by your amazing mommy, but not everyone is quite so lucky. Your “review” is so self-important and ignorant it’s ridiculous. It was a MOVIE. Get over yourself dumbass.

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    1. admin Post author

      Whoa. Someone’s a crabby little dancer.

      I’m not sure whether you’re a troll (and/or a teen), or just an angry person to have left this vitriol-infused response. Rather than mark it as spam or censor offensive/inappropriate wordage, I decided to leave it as is. It’s good to have a variety of opinions presented in the discussion section, and besides, there’s always something comical about a person whose anger prompts them to say stupid, ill-informed things. (Dumb-ass? ((Chuckles)) I know for a fact that my ass is very smart, because all my life I’ve been told to stop being such a smart-ass. So there.)

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    2. Siri

      Even though the movie may not have said at any point that it was representative of all dance companies and ballet dancers, there is a certain percentage of people that will still project the movie’s representation onto what happens in real life. When people don’t know the dance world, they might think that this is the norm, which it isn’t.
      A critique I COULD render to make would be to comment that this movie was more about psychology than ballet. Calling an author ugly names doesn’t help anyone, especially since you took the time to read the review. It’s a review. One person’s opinions. The number of Buzzfeed and Huffpost reviews and lists similar to this one that are out there is pretty huge. They’re fun and yes, not always representative of everyone’s opinion that falls under the category (like how this one is about ballet dancers thoughts). I don’t know if anyone could manage to write a list like this with the intention of covering EVERYONE’S actual thoughts on the matter.
      It’s just a review, so Miss Kayt, I’d say you should get over YOURSELF.

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  3. Donna

    I found this review quite appropriate. Though I’ve never been a ballet dancer or a dancer of any kind (except the “shake your booty” kind), and I haven’t seen Black Swan, I remember very distinctly when the previews were shone I thought to myself there is no way I would want to see that movie. I felt Natalie Portman was some weird, stiff alien. I have been around ballet and marveled at it for years (be still my heart Misha and wow, wow, wow Michaela DePrince)! But there was nothing about this movie’s preview that made me ever say “oh yay! finally a movie about the craft that I dream of and love and wish I were a part of”! And now after this review, I can honestly say, I’m so glad I didn’t waste my time with it. Thanks for keeping it real!

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  4. admin Post author

    Thank you for your comments, Siri and Donna! Nice to hear multiple (and reasonable) voices chiming in on the discussion.

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  5. Geri J.

    You so nailed it. Especially No. 8. Even my non-dancer husband could tell who was dancing. “Whether a long shot or closeup, if the dancing looks good and the upper back looks strong and lifted, it’s Sarah. If it’s a scrawny-necked closeup, it’s Portman.”

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  6. Annette

    Well said all around my smartass sis. I for one can confirm you were indeed not born with a silver spoon in your mouth, and that you are a survivor. That whole mommy thing was predictably creepy – a dysfunctional dynamic that could certainly drive Nina mad.

    Love from your rebel child sis.

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    1. admin Post author

      Annette, thanks for commenting! Did you just laugh your ass off [except not really] on the line about the silver spoon and amazing mommy? Not that I want to knock our mom. Twelve pregnancies, nine live births, one dead infant, eight kids on a tight budget, a nervous breakdown – she did the best she could. We all did. I remember the ballet class I finally was allowed to take was chosen because it was walking distance to/from the house and didn’t have to further inconvenience Mom. Hey. When you’re born to dance, you’ll take what you can get. Am remembering, as well, that the piano lessons you, Maureen and Laura took were chosen for the same reason: you could walk to/from the lesson. That’s what kids from families of ten do.

      But I digress. And yes, we can all agree that Black Swan did a great job for a thriller/horror flick of making Mommy pretty creepy. Barbara Hershey did a great job on the role. Very convincing.

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  7. Annette

    Terez – I did in fact laugh my ass off. It’s still sitting there on the floor and, and for the life of me I cannot figure out how to get it back on. Plus, what with my buxom Mertes bosom, I can’t even stand up straight anymore; I keep falling forward. So now I just crawl. One final thought… I hated those piano lessons and I kept asking if I could take dance lessons instead but the answer was no no no. Sigh… Eventually got over it, though every time I attend a dance performance I want to get up and join in right then and there. Thankfully for others I don’t.

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    1. admin Post author

      I’m having a very good time visualizing your response, Annette. ; )

      And OMG, I didn’t know you’d asked to switch piano lessons with dance. Dang. Then again, you had/have a real talent on the piano, so your loss is the world’s gain.

      Reply
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  9. olivia

    The vast majority of your points are extremely weak and can be defeated easily. Sorry, but they wreak of self importance. Ballet dancers are warriors? So they would never be wimps or commit suicide?? Get real. Last time I checked ballet dancers are human beings and I can give you several examples in the news of some that have killed themselves when their dream career was over. I happened to know a couple of dancers who others would call ‘wimps’. Dancers are human and they do come with all sorts of personalities, not just one. And it seemed to totally go over your head that Mommy was her roommate that took care of everything because she suffered from Schizophrenia and her mother knew she wasn’t well. Like most parents of schizophrenics she kept her as close as possible and kept sharp objects away- including sharp fingernails. Schizophrenics are fearful people in general and stress often unleashes hallucinations and fits. (I happen to have two of them in my family. One of them is a male in his 40’s and his mom – my grandma- keeps an even tighter leash on him than most moms have on their 12 year olds).

    I can poke a big fat hole in just about every point you made. The only valid points I see there are the one about putting on makeup for rehearsal and The lack of clarity involving the alternates. And yes- the point about portman not dancing like a top dancer makes sense also, but the main job of a film is to tell a story and if the director was able to do it by using the stand in dancer as often as possible while leaving portman in when he had to, then that is the absolute best that one could hope for. So in that case it’s just a matter of whether you’re willing to forgive the director for giving the ‘telling of the story’ priority over the dancing.

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    1. admin Post author

      Olivia, I’ll just cut straight to the point. Your comments about schizophrenia actually went straight to my heart and rendered the rest of your comments more pale. So, I hope you’re okay that I don’t address the other stuff. Schizophrenia is heartbreaking and you’re right, that aspect of the story was brilliant and left the viewer wondering just what was schizophrenia and what was really happening. A writer friend of mine brought up this fascinating point that I’d never considered before. She said, “what if the mom never existed, and it was a product of her imagination?” Wow – not something I’d ever considered, and surely a source for a lot of vehement discussion. I love thinking about it, tho, just as the movie, A Beautiful Mind, really messed with my mind, but in a good way. Schizophrenia is ghastly, as is all mental illness, and, like you, I’m struggling with a form of the latter in my family. It’s brutal. It colors my world. I lash out at things that produce a trigger. So. Looking at the movie through your lens, I do indeed see a different story. And yes, in that context, of course I forgive the director for giving story-telling priority over dancing. If the movie had involved an ice skater, I likely would have been far more predisposed to it all. Well, maybe not. I hate horror films. This really was, a sort of elegant horror film.

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    2. oli

      I agree with everything you wrote. This wasn’t much of a ballet movie to me, rather a story about life, inner struggles, relationships – how those can influence and change us, striving for achievement etc. Ballet was as important as was ski jumping in the newly made “Eddie the Eagle”. With that being said, I was myself a professional classically trained violinist and I used to always judge and compare others, as did my peers and teachers (Vanessa Mae while making millions, was considered as horror by my school with her “poor technique” and “cheap flashiness”). It was exhausting! It took a while to see and not judge, envy or compare.. and it took one amazing teacher who wasn’t willing to brag about someone messing up, but rather always look for positive things, even if it was a movie with musicians motive that wasn’t quite true. And so I also love the admin’s response to your post. Perfection is important for our own work; understanding and kindness is far more important than perfection when it comes to the work of others.

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      1. admin Post author

        Thank you for your contribution to this discussion thread, Oli. I’m enjoying all the spirited conversation taking place! There’s room for every opinion here.

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  10. Annette

    Terez – I especially enjoyed this post again just now. The day after I saw Swan Lake so beautifully performed last week by KC Ballet, I gave in to the urge to watch Black Swan, this time with a more critical eye. Like you say, a great thriller. Not being a ballet dancer, I was able to forgive the oobvious disparities and enjoy the movie. Even better, I enjoyed the SNL spoof. Jim Carey was superb! Keep up the good work. 🙋🏻

    Reply
    1. admin Post author

      Oh, isn’t the SNL spoof HILARIOUS? I think I’ll go watch it right now… for the 20th time.

      San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake on Saturday night was INCREDIBLE. Wow, anyone in this area who hasn’t seen it before – it’s well worth the [hefty] price of a ticket. For the next time, that is; the program closed yesterday.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment again, Annette!

      Reply
  11. JudasFm

    Thanks so much for this post (okay, I know it was ages ago, but I only just found it ;)) I always wondered how close Black Swan was to a real ballet company.

    I feel your pain on the makeup. Though if it’s only 60 minutes before the performance starts, you ballet dancers have it easy in that respect =P When I have costume makeup applied for filming, it takes 2-3 hours to put on, around an hour to peel off again and we’re stuck in it all day 😉

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    1. admin Post author

      Ooh, cool, love hearing your filming-oriented perspective, JudasFm – thanks for posting your comments!

      Reply
  12. Paris

    Thanks for this review, I’ve watched it twice and hated the storyline, but dammit I wanted to watch some dancing!

    I danced a bit when I was younger and recently got back into it along with my 3 youngest girls and youngest boy. We have 2 others daughters who Irish dance as well, and a total of 10 children. 🙂 No silver spoons here either. I really enjoy your writing, thank you for allowing us to enjoy it.

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    1. admin Post author

      Yay, someone else who felt ambivalent about the movie but loves all things dance!! I agree, it’s worth watching the movie for its dance-ness.

      10 children — eeeee! You go, Mama! No silver spoons, no indeed. But a hell of a great in-house chorus line. : )

      Thanks for your comment, Paris. And keep dancing!

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  13. Jo

    Lily was boring. Not much to her except to be the antithesis to Nina, the “cool girl”, the Veronica to her Betty. Nina was the interesting one by far. A timid girl with an obsession with perfection that had a grip on her stronger than steel.

    And yes, I have to agree with the other poster about calling disabled people/emotionally manipulated people “wimpy”. This reeks of victim blaming and is just insensitive.

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    1. admin Post author

      >…the “cool girl”, the Veronica to her Betty

      LOL, that’s great. : )

      As for the rest, okay, whatevs. We can agree to disagree there. But I do, nonetheless, appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment, Jo.

      Reply
  14. LAURIE A BUTLER

    I’m not a dancer. I’m an audience member. I will go see any movie with ballet sequences, because I love the beauty and the spectacle. More so, however, I love ballet because I have more respect and admiration for dancers than I have for any athletes. Professional dancers work so hard at their art, and they make so many sacrifices, that they have to be totally committed. I see stories about football, basketball, and baseball players tossing money about in bars, with gorgeous party girls hanging off their arms, but I never see the same thing with dancers (Of course, I doubt that many dancers get paid several million dollars per year, despite the fact that they deserve it).
    That said, “Black Swan” wasn’t about dance. It was about obsession. The movie could just as easily been about a symphony violinist or a runway model or an actress. The story was about the mother’s obsession with being the biggest star in the ballet firmament, which she would achieve vicariously through her daughter. The story was about the daughter of a hypercritical mother who’d never been allowed to dance for the sheer thrill of it; instead, she was pushed and pushed and pushed to be her mother’s dream. It was about how obsession killed a young woman’s ability to recognize friendship or kindness, because she was trained to see everyone as a rival in the narrow world her mother allowed her. It was about craving and needing parental love and approval, instead of learning that the only approval anyone really needs has to come from within.
    A lot of people say “The Red Shoes” is the greatest ballet movie ever made, and maybe it is. My favorite dance movie will always be “The Turning Point,” because Leslie Browne was absolutely beautiful, because Mikhail Barishnikov was amazing, because Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine were incredible. It was a movie that said it’s okay to devote oneself to something to the exclusion of everything else, but it’s also okay not to. It was about living in the moment. My favorite line in the movie was when Leslie Browne was asked what she wanted to do, where she wanted to go, and she replied, simply, “I want to dance.” She wanted to dance at that point in her life and wasn’t looking any further along. This is what I want to do now; I’ll worry about the future later. Very Zen. Live in the moment.

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    1. admin Post author

      Ooh, I love your reference to, and comments about The Turning Point. I was crazy about that movie. Watching it changed my life (from then on, ballet mania). Thank you for all your thoughtful comments – they contribute nicely to the discussion! (And my humble apologies – your response got held up as spam – who knows why?? – and I’m only now seeing it, a week later. Reminder to self: always scroll through spam scrupulously for the gem reply that might have otherwise been tossed out. Yikes!

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    1. admin Post author

      I’m thinking you put exclamation points where you wanted at least one question mark, Jen, unless you’re simply very excited about the fact that it’s a movie. Thank you, nonetheless, for posting a comment – I enjoy hearing others’ opinions on this lively topic.

      Reply

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