Karen X Cheng (@karenxcheng) is probably best know as the girl in the viral internet video “Girl Learns to Dance in a Year” which has been viewed well over 5 million times. In 2013 Karen released a YouTube video showing her progression over a year of daily dance practice:
But this single video is far from the whole story. Before teaching herself to dance in a year, Karen changed careers after teaching herself graphic design. Her article on how she did remains Google’s #1 result for the query “How to become a designer.” And through her company GiveIt100, she went on to teach others how to take the little steps towards impossible goals. (Herearesome of those success stories, which we discuss in the interview.)
In the last 5 days more than 5 million people have viewed this video of American Ballet Theater controversial soloist Misty Copeland perform in an advertisement for Under Armour.
Her performance and sheer physicality are stunning. But there is more to this exceptional piece of viral advertising than just good dancing.
In stark contrast, my friend and teacher Robert Dekkers’ company Post:Ballet performed a several exception pieces of contemporary ballet, including a World Premier, all at a full but not sold out Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
I’m excited that Misty has gained even more notoriety. If the best in the world in an industry aren’t noticed, those below them certainly aren’t going to be! I’m also not disappointed that Robert’s company wasn’t more well received – from their intended audience Post:Ballet received rave reviews.
But there is something more going on here.
Who is the intended audience?
First of all, who is the intended audience? Misty’s Under Armour ad is targeted at populations who can relate to her: anyone who wants more from their bodies, who has been told no, has overcome an obstacle of any kind. The message is designed to be internalized by a wide audience. Under Armour just comes across as the backer – an organization the audience can trust to back their winning underdog.
Post:Ballet addresses contemporary issues, but does so artistically. The narrative of the final piece in this season’s show “ourevolution” shows a progress that can be equated to human evolution, and leaves me personally feeling inspired while considering our species future. I’d call that a successful performance! And yet, even I am more likely casual recommend Misty’s performance.
Misty’s performance is the ideal length for spreading: short. But when intermission came at the Post:Ballet performance I had a moment of feeling cheated, thinking that the show was only a “paltry” 50 minutes. Misty’s performance is also free, whereas I paid $25 for an evening of Post:Ballet.
It is easy to see why Misty’s performance has been viewed (and largely admired) by 5 million, whereas Post: Ballet has not gained thousands of new adopters. It is easy to tell the story of Under Armour’s success and Post:Ballet’s predictable audience. But what about the reverse? What about the controversy around Misty and reasons why Post:Ballet isn’t gaining audiences like Beonce (who was also performing in San Francisco the same week).
Misty is a controversial figure in and out of ballet. Even within this specific performance I can see some reasons for concerns. Either she is a genetic abnormality (arguably the case for any dancer at the highest level) or she is unhealthily low on body fat. I have hear a lot of comments about her “beautiful physique” but simultaneously her calves are bulging with muscles to a degree I have only ever seen on collapsed Olympic sprinters. What kind of message does those calves send to already physically insecure viewers?
In contrast, Post:Ballet’s piece “ourevolution” could well become a draw for a younger audience looking to express themselves. While the dancers are extremely talented and experienced professionals, they are relatable and led by a young Artistic Director. For a young, affluent San Francisco audience looking for expressive outlets, it is conceivable that they could find such in a company that promotes itself as being what comes after ballet.
As a dancer and advocate of many of the benefits that dance can bring I’m left with more questions than answers. (To anyone who knows me and my love of questions, this will come as no surprise.) But I see a dilemma if we want there to be more local high quality performances and performing artists.
From these two performances it is clear that physical prowess speaks to us all. And there are some smaller stories about viral growth that are further reinforced: small spans of attention are easier to engage than large, the experience of awe is one that spreads. I’m glad that Under Armour and Misty are promoting dance, and that Post:Ballet puts on live performances for me to see. Beyond these facts, I’m curious what the future of dance will hold.