Dance in the Digital Age (or, Why It Took Me So Long To Write This)

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It’s been a while since my last post – 5 months and 4 days, to be exact.

When In Defense of the Dance Major went viral back in April of 2014, I was shocked, humbled, and a little overwhelmed. My tiny wordpress.com site was visited by thousands of people internationally, many of whom left kind and inspiring stories of their own experiences as dance majors in the comments. (There were, for the record, a few not so nice comments as well, but hey – that’s the internet for you.) Dance Teacher Magazine and Cosmia Magazine featured the post, as did several other sites, and it was reblogged many times over. Almost instantly, it was something of an internet sensation – to my great surprise and delight.

Then, as does happen in our new “.15 seconds” of fame culture, the hubbub died down, the shares slowed down, and I found myself staring almost daily at a blank “New Post” screen thinking, “What on earth do I write about next?”

The pressure to repeat In Defense of the Dance Major‘s performance was palpable to me.  Like most artists, I’m always worried that my last piece will be the pinnacle of my success – that I will never quite live up to past glory. Like most artists, I find this both a blessing and a curse. It leads me to constantly strive to create better choreography, design a better class, give a better performance, but it is also a source of subtle anxiety – there is always that little voice saying, “You’ve reached your peak, you’ve reached your peak …”

This anxiety feels heightened in the digital era. It’s easier than ever to get noticed as an artist, thanks to the magic of blogs, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Once you push something of interest or maybe even a little value out into the online world, there is a relatively good chance that someone will see it, like it, share it – and instantly, there is another person, or two or three, or a few thousand who know who are and want to see what you can do.

The relative success of In Defense of the Dance Major got me thinking about the relationship between dance and digital media in general. Everyday, my Facebook feed is overwhelmed by viral dance media: “10 Things You Should Be Thinking About in Ballet Class,” “50 Pieces of Advice from an Older Dancer,” “Watch This 8 Year Old Do More Pirouettes with a Single Preparation Than You Could Ever Hope to Do in your Entire Dance Career Combined, Including the 2 Years in High School when You were Nailing Quadruples on a Regular Basis,” “Check Out this So You Think You Can Dance Routine that Looks Suspiciously Like Every Other So You Think You Can Dance Routine but with a More Recent Song and More Backflips.” These articles and videos fill up Facebook walls and Twitter feeds for a day or a week before slipping off into the digital netherworld, perhaps reappearing randomly a few months later, but otherwise fading into our Clouds and our hard drives, or maybe even our short-term memories if they were really, really good.

In this environment, dance novelty seems reign supreme, followed closely by decent imitations of recently-novel things. It has certainly lead to a brand new interest in dance by the general public, one that did not seem to exist in my youth. When I was a kid, us dance nerds secretly recorded PBS “Great Performances” of Swan Lake on VHS and watched them at sleepovers with our like-minded friends (if we were lucky enough to have them), pining over Alessandra Ferri’s grotesquely beautiful arches. We posted quotes by Balanchine and Baryshnikov on our AOL Member Profiles with the same reverence with which our peers quoted Bob Marley, the Bible, or Britney Spears. Today, even my non-dance friends readily follow dance shows on TV and regularly share excerpts from dance movies, commercials featuring Misty Copeland, and music videos with elaborate, well-choreographed dance scenes.

But even with all this new attention being lavished on dance in social media, it is clear to me that more exposure to dance does not necessarily mean more public knowledge of or appreciation for the art as a whole. My middle school students and even older friends are quick to talk about every video with cool breakdancing moves or a catchy tune behind it, but how many of them know who Merce Cunningham is, or have ever attended a dance performance in “real life”? Is the online interest in dance translating to box office sales, more dance education in schools, and funding for companies, theatres, and outreach programs? If not, why not? What can we do about it? How do we take the current viral status of dance and translate it into real-world benefits for students, teachers, choreographers, and performers so that the art of live dance performance can grow and thrive (or even just stay alive) in our increasingly screen-centered lives?

But, perhaps I digress a bit.

This is all to say, essentially, that I don’t want to be just another flash in the digital dance media pan. I want to make a lasting impact on the field, to create writing and choreography that is relevant, important, and remembered. I don’t take lightly the fact that many people have come to follow this blog, dancers and non-dancers alike. As soon as I realized it was happening, I saw myself (perhaps with some delusions of granduer) as an advocate for Real Dance on the Internet. I went back through my earlier posts, judging them for ease of readability, quality of content, and value to the dance universe in general.  I thought briefly of deleting them all, of starting fresh with a newer, more educational, overall just better blog that would contain only pieces that I deemed worthy of potential viral-ness. I thought about deleting it entirely, figuring that In Defense of the Dance Major was already out there in the world, and that nothing I wrote would ever come close to it’s success. I thought about blogging religiously every day, assuming that if I devoted myself to the act of dance writing on the regular – even if some of it was really bad writing, eventually I’d find another diamond in the rough.

But I didn’t do any of that. Somewhere, a little quiet voice inside me said, “Just step away, Shannon. Just give it time.” After weeks of obsessively monitoring my stats and replying to comments, I logged off and didn’t sign back on for months. Writing used to be my outlet, a way to process and release things that bothered me, excited me, made me think. It had nothing to do with the increasingly saturated online world of dance media in general. The more I focused on the piece’s success and worried about how I would repeat it, the more it became a chore – one more thing for me to worry about. So I put it aside for a while. I chose to think, to process ideas quietly, to write them for myself with pen and paper. I threw my energy into choreography, and found joy in writing short pieces about my artistic process for my company’s site, www.newstreetdancegroup.org. There was no expectation or desire for these entries to be widely read or recognized; they existed solely to provide some insight about the creative process for our audience.

I’m feeling ready to get back to blogging again. There are certainly a great many things on my mind, and I hope to touch on all of them at some point in the near future. But I will do so, as they say, “without hope or agenda.” I will do my best of contribute to the ever-growing presence of dance in digital media without being beaten down by the demands of it.

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