Dancers and Instragram

Writing about dancers using Instagram is having its fashionable moment. The New York Times dance writer, Gia Kourlas, suggests dancers’ self promotion online humanises them, as opposed to placing them on an impersonal ‘high culture’ pedestal. Dance Magazine’s Kristin Schwab goes so far as portraying The New York Times’ coverage of dancers using social media as a step towards a revival of dance journalism, categorising it as middle ground between specialised and tabloid press. In exploring this, she expands on Kourlas’s article and argues that dancers first have to be “demystified” in order to generate interest in expert opinions on dance.

My interest in Instagram stems from very different observations than those of Kourlas and Schwab. Whilst Kourlas thinks it’s only natural that dancers express themselves through photography, she seems to overlook the fact that dancers are not typically the authors of their own image. Dancers, particularly ballet dancers, know very well that choreographers tell them how and when to move and costume designers and makeup artists determine how they look. Furthermore, despite ballet being exceedingly photogenic, dancers are rarely in charge of ‘framing’ it. Arts organisations decide when and where they’ll have an audience and even determine how prospective audiences are engaged through marketing campaigns.

Although dancers showing what goes on back and off stage via Instagram may break through some negative stereotypes (think Black Swan), as Kourlas mentions, she does not see this as more than dancers merely rounding out their onstage persona. However, when one looks more closely it would appear much greater developments are afoot. The dancers are not only becoming more personable, they have more control over their public persona.

Research for this article coincided with the Australian Ballet’s Instagram account (@ausballet) being ‘followed’ by the 50 000th user. This number now exceeds 70 500 and the milestone reflects the success of the company’s marketing strategy. In comparison, other world renowned European companies and opera houses such as the Royal Opera House (@royaloperahouse) and the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (@balletoperadeparis) both have a comparable following, despite their international significance and the large populations of England, France and neighbouring countries. Key to the the Australian Ballet’s Instagram popularity is a small team busy perfecting the company’s online image who regularly upload quality images taken by professional photographers for ballet fans. These images differ from the usual posed photography studio images audiences have come to expect from the Australian Ballet’s posters and other publicity material, as they capture fleeting moments in rehearsals, costume fittings and various other ‘off-limits’ areas of the Australian Ballet headquarters instead.

In relation to large arts organisations most company dancers have modest followings. The Australian Ballet corps de ballet member Rohan Furnell (@rohan_furnell) has 4 000 followers, while coryphée Brooke Lockett (@brookelockett) has 9 500. Furnell and Lockett are examples of dancers who have found a niche audience by committing to a certain ‘angle’ when taking, selecting and posting their photos, rather than following the trend and posting virtuosic dance photos. Lockett captures moments out and about – with celebrities, in designer clothes – and in doing so presents a rather glamorous take on dancers’ social lives. This is contrasted by the documentation of her knee operation and the hard work and frustration associated with her recovery. Furnell is a talented street and fashion photographer who seems to have developed his photographic eye in and around fashion circles. Also non-typical for a dance account is his focus on architecture and objects, as opposed to bodies and selfies.

Despite their comparably small number of followers one mustn’t forget that Australian Ballet principal dancers who also post regularly have similar or smaller followings, such as Kevin Jackson (@kevin.j.jackson) and Ako Kondo (@akokondo). This is not a competition, although unexpected seeing as the dancers who are most visible on stage and in press material are not necessarily those the public chooses to see more of on social media.

Adding to this confusion is the fact that dancers are sometimes even more popular than their employers, a kind of popularity role reversal. The New York City Ballet (@nycballet), for example, has 28 000 followers, whereas its principal dancer Sara Mearns (@saramearns) has 34 000. American Ballet Theater’s Kathryn Boren (@katieboren1) has 70 000, more followers than companies with social media specialists employed to attract followers, and Misty Copeland (@mistyonpointe) has an astounding 883 000 strong following.

Copeland has become a politicised figure since her emergence online and has used her public profile and online following to confront institutionalised racism in the ballet world. Since then the American Ballet Theatre has promoted her to principal dancer and now benefits from her celebrity and the activism that accompanies it. When Copeland headlines a production, tickets are sure to sell (despite critics noting her shortcomings in classical roles.)

On a smaller scale, the Royal New Zealand Ballet (@nzballet), which has 5 500 followers, has produced an Instagram starlet in ensemble dancer Tonia Looker (@toniaroselooker) who boasts over 15 000 fans. Similar could be said of Mayu Tanigaito (@mayutanigaito). Looker’s account resembles many of the most prominent dance accounts and would attract the attention of any aspiring ballet dancer, ballet aficionado or fitness freak. There are close ups of stretched feet and toned bodies, an abundance of high extensions, make-up mirror selfies, and video snippets from rehearsals and performances. Looker has even gone one step further and branched out into blogging and YouTube instructional videos, e.g. body conditioning exercises and hair tutorials.

Unlike the dancers in the Australian Ballet who seem to attract followers in spite of their rank, whilst riding on the coat tails of a world renowned dance institution, the dancers of the American Ballet Theater and Royal New Zealand Ballet outshine the organisations that provided them a platform for online fame in the first place!

Although much can be gleaned from dancers’ social media accounts alone, as discussed above, to find out more three Australian, Australian Ballet School trained, professional dancers – Brooke Lockett, Rohan Furnell and Tonia Looker – were invited to take part in a social media Q&A. Why do they do it? What do they post and for whom? What are the benefits/drawbacks? How do their employers feel about it?

Why do social media interest you?

BROOKE LOCKETT: I’m a very visual person so I loved Instagram from the get go. It’s so great to be kept in the loop and up to date with the latest hangouts, fashion, styling and artists. I draw so much inspiration from Instagram, it’s like my personalised mood board.
For ballet it has also been sensational and gives you a little glimpse behind the scenes. I wouldn’t say I set out to achieve or gain anything, but what I love is the excitement around social media, the ability to inspire people. If I can make just one or two little aspiring dancers realise that your childhood dream can come true that makes me happy beyond words.
I’m still surprised by my following, but I don’t take being a role model lightly. Young girls need more women to look up to for the right reasons. My career and success has been built on a childhood dream, passion, perseverance, discipline and a lot of damn hard work. I love sharing that.  
ROHAN FURNELL: Originally Instagram was a way for me to connect with friends and family, especially as the nature of touring with the ballet takes us away from home a lot. I thought it was a creative and interesting way to stay in touch, I didn’t join with an intention of finding followers, although it has evolved into a means to share my world with people outside of it. 
TONIA LOOKER: They provide a fantastic way of communicating and sharing ideas on a platform that is available to an incredibly wide audience and I can share my passion for what I do with more than just a live theatre audience.
I actually just began using it to share pictures of my life in New Zealand and things that inspired me with family and friends. It was only later that it developed into more of a dance based account.

How do you actively find/attract followers?

BROOKE LOCKETT: I haven’t actively looked for it but I have been incredibly fortunate to collaborate with some seriously talented artists like the Ballerina Project (@ballerinaproject_) in New York, Napoleon Perdis (@napoleonperfis) and photographer Jennifer Stenglein (@jenniferstenglein). I also have a real awareness and interest in branding, media and marketing.
You want to stay very true to your personal brand and image and also the Australian Ballet umbrella that I am contracted under. A lot of collaborations I have to say no to, not because I don’t want to but purely because it just isn’t my personal brand. But I’m certainly stepping out a bit and I want to be seen as more than just ‘Brooke the Ballerina’.
The only conscious decision I made very early on was being strategic in how much of my personal life I show. I love sharing elements of my world and my profession but I am actually very private about my personal life and the people in it. Sharing my surgery and rehabilitation has been so exposing but the response has been incredibly touching and motivating. People have been quite fascinated by how hard the recovery is and I’m so glad I have documented it.
ROHAN FURNELL: For me I it has been about being an active participant so I post fairly regularly and consistently. I also spend time following and appreciating what other people are sharing. I am fortunate to have a unique insight into an industry that is fascinating and very visual, people are interested in that access and my perspective. 
TONIA LOOKER: I was very fortunate and surprised when I was featured on a dance account that had many hundreds of thousands of followers (@worldwideballet) and my follower number boomed over night! It was quite crazy! I then became much more aware of the power of social media and studied hash tagging etc. I am all about the hashtags.

What are the benefits of having an online following? How has it affected your career?

BROOKE LOCKETT: I’m still getting my head around the amazing opportunities and people whom I have met through social media. In this profession you have barely any control over your career trajectory. Social media have given me some control and alot of off stage opportunities have come my way, some within the organisation. With regard to my dance career having a following has had no effect on my artistic casting. It’s just connected me with amazing individuals and made me aware of my strengths beyond ballet.
ROHAN FURNELL: I get to be creative, explore things visually and create a dialogue with people who respond to what I post, as well as people I find inspiring.  It has been more of an extension of my career rather than an enhancement of it and continues to facilitate connections and collaborations with other creative people.
TONIA LOOKER: I love educating people on my job and art form and getting people more involved in what I do! It’s such a great way to get people involved in the arts! Everyone who sends me messages and comments is always so lovely and seems to want to share in the love of the art form, so that is a huge positive! The attention certainly keeps me in the dance studio longer and working harder. Aside from that it’s really something I do for myself.

How do you feel about the circulation of your images online?

BROOKE LOCKETT: I did a super fun shoot with Jennifer Stenglein and she posted an outtake and it was my bottom in the air upside down in a tutu. A great image but a little exposing. Frank Body (@frank_bod) with a 658K following regrammed it and I felt like the world could see my butt.
ROHAN FURNELL: I think it is part of the nature of social media. I wouldn’t post something I wasn’t happy with or felt couldn’t be shared. I get that you release an image and it is there for the taking and I love it when people share what I post.
TONIA LOOKER: I am incredibly flattered that other people would want to share my posts! It’s great to get the artistic message to as many people as possible, which is why I share it on social media so readily. I have seen photos posted that I hadn’t noticed or expected before which is always a lovely surprise.

How do you see yourself and your Instagram account in relation to the company you work for? To what extent does the company know about/follow/control your online activity?

BROOKE LOCKETT: Our social media team monitors everyone and do statistics on what’s trending. Over the past year the company’s brand and social media development and growth has been mind blowing. It’s fair to say that social media has become a vital part of marketing and PR in the arts.
I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time with our exceptional Marketing Director and Marketing team so I have a very clear understanding of their activities and extraordinary vision. My social media is personal and not linked to the company and I stay within all social media guidelines, but I love to stretch the rules wherever I can. At the same time I’m very respectful of my colleagues and would never post anything without permission.
ROHAN FURNELL: The company plays a really considerable part in my life and what I do day to day. The ballet is influential and very inspiring to me and I feel that the people who follow me on Instagram have some connection to or admiration for the art that is ballet, and how I see it and work with it. 
The company’s social media guidelines are important as often the works we perform are strictly protected. There are also restrictions about taking photos and filming side stage during performances, dress rehearsals and in the theatre. They are for the protection of artists and the maintenance of a safe working environment. I would think that I am very considered about what I post and what those images are communicating.
TONIA LOOKER: In a way I do see that I represent the Royal New Zealand Ballet and I am very proud of the company I present to a global audience. Although it is my personal account and I don’t always post things relating to the company, the thought is always there. The company is definitely aware of my online presence and follow my online activity and it’s fantastic that everyone’s positive about and supportive of my social media presence!

These dancers are clearly doing more than self promote. It also goes beyond simply showing the general public the ballet world from a different perspective. In the first part of the article it was considered how dancers are regaining the power to shape their own image and (to an extent) determine their own dance career path. Following interviews with Lockett, Furnell and Looker, it emerged that the interviewees do not see how their dance careers might have directly benefitted from their online popularity, as is the case with other high profile performers. This, of course, conflicted with the idea of social media as just an empowering tool.

Much more, based on their responses, it appears social media acts as an incubator for side projects the dancers may not yet have been able to pursue concurrently with full-time dance commitments. Does Lockett have a second career in PR in her sights? She has, after all, already been appointed philanthropy ambassador at the Australian Ballet. Is Furnell aspiring towards a future in design or curation? Will Looker continue to educate others about dance through interactive media?

It is likely the fashionable nature of writing about dancers and social media will pass, however, these networks will surely remain and continue to provide a range of opportunities for dance artists. Whether they’re used to connect with audiences, celebrate dance, experiment with the idea of a career after dance, or maybe overcome impasses posed by conventions and tradition in the ballet world, these forums commonly marked as #instagramfordancers #ballet_instagram #worldwideballet (and the list goes on) are certainly spaces dance fans should follow with interest.

– LUKE AARON FORBES

Published in the February/March 2016 issue of Dance Australia magazine. Support dance journalism and subscribe at http://www.danceaustralia.com.au/toolbar/subscribe

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