An Open Letter to Vogue, Kendall Jenner, and her Fans

Last week Kendall Jenner did a video shoot for Vogue España in which she dressed up in sort-of-dancewear-like clothes and pranced around a dance studio and talked about stupid, dreamy things, like how she likes running around “like a child” and being able to “not care” and “stupid stuff.” She flipped her skirt and leaned on the barre and wore these totally impractically decorated pointe shoes that she couldn’t point her toes in. Check it out:

Then she posted this absurd photo to her Instagram: 

kendall-jenner

She’s leaning (practically sitting) on the barre, wearing pointe shoes without ribbons that don’t fit her feet. She clearly can’t balance on her toes in them, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want her to try, because in addition to the fact that she has absolutely no training about how to do it properly, it’s apparent from the video that her feet are pretty darn flat.

A lot of dancers are really mad about this. And a lot of non-dancers are telling us to shut up about it, either because people think we’re being too sensitive, or we should only be concerned about the bigger issues going on in the world, or we should just look pretty and not actually have thoughts about things. (I haven’t actually seen anyone explicitly state that last one, but it’s pretty clearly implied in a lot of comment threads…and in the degrading title of The Huffington Post‘s article on the debacle: “Ballerinas Have Their Tights In Knots Over Kendall Jenner’s Dance-Inspired Shoot.” Since dance is largely a female-dominated field, dancers naturally must be prone to inappropriate fits of emotion. Gag.) So here is my open letter to Vogue, Kendall and anyone who’s supporting her over this issue:

Dear Vogue, Kendall Jenner, and Ms. Jenner’s fans,

I’m one of the many, many dancers who were insulted but not surprised by last week’s ballet-themed Vogue video/photo shoot. We’ve become accustomed to people and corporations who clearly know nothing about ballet exploiting the art form that we spend decades of our lives and tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars on, but that doesn’t make it okay when it happens. In 2014, activewear company Free People released an ad campaign for dancewear featuring models who obviously weren’t dancers doing a really poor job of imitating pirouettes and tendus. In 2015, Ciara tried to stand en pointe in a music video and nearly broke her ankles (or so it looked). And in 2016, Vogue España did a photo shoot with Ms. Jenner that portrayed ballet as cheesy and childish, and then Ms. Jenner also put on a pair of pointe shoes that she clearly wasn’t physically fit to wear.

Now some people are saying we should only be upset with Vogue, because Ms. Jenner just gets paid to do what she’s told, but a celebrity of Ms. Jenner’s status certainly must get final approval of the concept for a magazine shoot, or at the very least have some sort of veto power, so I’m holding her accountable too. I’m curious how many thousands of dollars Ms. Jenner was paid for her few hours of dressing up. Did you know that professional dancers are the lowest paid group of artists in the United States? If you don’t believe me, check out this 2012 article from The Huffington Post. If we’re not going to get paid decently for our talents and hard work, we at least deserve respect for the fact that we often wear out our joints by middle age; put our social lives on hold for rehearsals, classes, and performances; and can only reasonably expect a performing career of maybe 20 years.

Have you ever realized how hard it is for young ballerinas to accept that they should not be allowed en pointe until their feet, cores, and other body parts are physically ready? I was fortunate to grow up in a dance studio that cared about its dancers’ health enough that they would rather lose dancers than put someone en pointe before they were ready, and I knew at least one girl who left the studio because her mom was so desperate for her daughter to get pointe shoes. The thing is, if you attempt to dance en pointe without the proper strength and training, you can seriously damage your muscles, ligaments, tendons, and even bones, sometimes permanently, which will obviously put an end to any future dancing. When celebrities with no dance training slip on a pair of pointe shoes and just prances around willy-nilly or stands on their toes by leaning on a ballet barre (something my sister’s first grade ballerinas know not to do), it completely undermines the people who work very had to keep young dancers safe.

I’m curious about whether a Vogue publication would have suggested a ballet concept for a photo shoot with a celebrity such as Melissa McCarthy or Nikki Blonsky or anyone else who’s shaped like them – short, stocky, and curvy. I’m going to guess it wouldn’t even be a consideration for anyone who isn’t tall and willowy like Ms. Jenner. This perpetuates the stereotype that only people who are built like Ms. Jenner can be dancers, which is already dangerously pervasive within the industry (eating disorders, anyone?) and society at large. Yes, it’s true that ballet is easier if you have a certain body type, but that doesn’t mean that larger women and men are unable to do it or the many other styles of dance out there in the world. Again, I was lucky enough to grow up in a studio that encouraged dancers regardless of body type and employed teachers of many shapes and sizes, so I’ve definitely seen variety in the dance world.

And as for the people either implying or explicitly stating that dancers have no right to be upset about this issue when there are other, bigger problems in the world, let me just say that if you wouldn’t think of telling someone of a different race or religion than you what they should or shouldn’t find offensive, then you don’t get to do that to other non-mainstream demographics either. (And if you would tell that sort of thing to someone of a different race or religion than you, I’ve already written you off completely.) Now, I am not in any way trying to imply that this insensitive depiction of dancers is comparable to the hundreds of black Americans murdered by police officers or to bigoted business owners using their store windows and signs to demand that Muslims leave the U.S. But even so, dancers have a right to be upset when they’re portrayed in a degrading or otherwise unfair light, just as teachers and police officers and people of any other profession have the right to be upset when they’re criticized or parodied by people who haven’t taken the time to understand their daily realities.

I firmly believe that the dance community is owed an apology by Vogue and by Ms. Jenner, although I honestly don’t expect that we’ll receive that courtesy. And if you’re one of the legions of whiners crying foul on Ms. Jenner’s behalf, all I can hope from you is that you’ll take the time to actually think before you go posting uninformed blather on the Internet.

Yours,

Madeline Wilson

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