Warning: this article contains a brief mention of suicide and strong language.
Ask any bright eyed and bushy tutu-ed generation Z or millennial whose face basks in the warm light of a smartphone and they will tell you that memes are where it’s at these days. Given the common linguistic stylings of our young generation, that’s most likely exactly how they’ll say it, too.
Memes are hard to explain. Merriam-Webster calls them “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture of video) or genre of items that is spread widely online through social media.” In our eyes, though, memes can go further than this. They can hold deeper meaning. Memes work off of each other to build communities out of strangers. Extremely broadly, but perhaps most accurately, a meme is democratized communication.
We meme politics and pop culture. We meme collective experiences and consciousness, and of course, we meme dance.
As of August 2019, the #balletmemes had over 18,000 posts on Instagram alone. #dancememes reigns in about 35k, and the singular #dancememe sits at 21,000. Despite these numbers, no one talks about them; when we search for “meme” on Pointe Magazine, the latest post is from 2001. In meme years, that’s about a thousand lifetimes ago. Dance Magazine wrote about the @balletmoods meme account in 2017 but only in a brief list of their favorite posts.
There are plenty of other instances of dance humor online that gain attention from the above publications all the time. Pointe Magazine has over 80 articles mentioning the humorous dancewear brand @cloudandvictory. So what gives with these memes? They’re more complex than this meager attention might insinuate. We love them for their humor, but we also value their ability to provide commentary on the growing world of issues before us. Increasingly, though, we need to pay attention to what sort of commentary they create.
Before we go further: the internet is a vast an overwhelming place, even for our twirls. For the purposes of today, we’re using the meme landscape on Instagram as our focus group. We’ll leave Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, TikTok, and whatever else you’ve got as subject for discussion on another #TutuTuesday.
Memes provide us with an outlet to process societal overwhelm in the midst of political and cultural turmoil. For better or worse, they have the power to define collective attitudes and opinions. By capitalizing on common experiences, they normalize our fear. See an example below.
Ballet memes are obviously a very niche group along this spectrum, but this purpose still holds true. They provide impressionable young dance students with an opportunity to cope with and process the psychological pressure that comes with training. And the pressure abounds. Too often, the perfectionism required of ballet’s specificity often gives way to unfortunate sacrifices in mental health.
New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Jared Angle describes his career as “a mind game.” Andrew Veyette, Angle’s coworker, backs him up by saying “really what we do is about 80% mental and only about 20% physical.”
Memes are not the full answer to this, but they can help alleviate some pressure along the way. When we connect over similar struggles, we feel less alone. We feel allowed to laugh at ourselves, and sometimes laughter really can be the best medicine.
Take, for example, the meme above: Kermit the Frog joins us in cracking a joke about the ongoing fight for turnout. As dancers, we are always told to look for more. More rotation, more strength, more flexibility. There is always a stretch we could be doing or a different method we could be trying. We push our bodies to the limit in an effort to find the elusive 180 degree first position. On one hand, this is what many dancers love about ballet; in deciding how hard you work, you decide how much you improve. That improvement, however, doesn’t happen in a day or even a week or month, and this slow-going nature often leads to frustration. We spend entire careers searching for perfection that we know does not exist.
Here, Kermit uses humor to diffuse some of this stress just for a moment. We remember that it’s not just us who can feel lost, and we chuckle at the absurdity of seeing ourselves in Kermit the Frog.
For another example, take the meme above, which pokes fun at the all-too-common experience of a bobby pin entering one’s bun in the wrong direction. The bobby pin — a seemingly harmless piece of metal — really does hold the ability to turn into a torture device. One bad angle can set off headaches, serious distraction, and general crankiness. For another laugh, the meme below plays off of the also all-too commonly known experience of looking for that bobby-pin. It’s always the last pin in your hair that’s the troublemaker.
Both memes make us laugh at a situation that many dancers face on the daily; we bond over the commonality of it all and again rejoice in the feeling of connection that they spark.
We might be stretching our analysis here. Are there really four paragraphs-worth of meaning hidden in these badly edited photos? Some might say that they’re funny because they’re true and… that’s that. Unfortunately, everything that’s true is not the same as everything that’s funny.
In fact, one of the most common styles of memes that we encounter on our @twirls4thoughts Instagram browsing capitalizes on a detrimental normalization of self-hatred. This strikes us as absolutely not funny.
For example, below is the second of a two-slide meme. The first box reads “you guys wanted to se me dancing… swipe to see a dance pic of me.” When we swipe to left, this blurry photo of an overflowing trashcan reveals itself as the supposed picture of the account’s admin. We know this is supposed to be a joke about the owner’s low level of talent, but to us it’s a dangerous symbol of self-doubt. This isn’t a satirization of a specific struggle in technique or a common experience in grooming. Instead, this is generalized self-hate. Moreover, this self-bashing comes from someone in a growing position of influence. Though this account started only three months ago in April 2019, it already boasts well over 2,000 followers and regularly accrues over 1,000 likes per post. Essentially, this is an account using its social power to make it ok, even humorous, to draw connections between oneself and a trashcan.
What hurts us the most here are the comments: “same,” “meeee,” “hey we’re twins,” and “you don’t have permission to post me” are some in the long list of agreements found below the picture. If the post normalizes self-hate, the comments are proof that it’s working.
Of course this normalization didn’t sprout out of this particular meme or account; it happened over time and definitely affects more than just dance’s small corner of the internet. This commonality tells dancers in hopes of gaining an online following that this is the correct type of humor to pursue. There’s even an account out there with the handle @pas.de.shoot.my.self. We don’t need to be psychoanalysts to know that this ins’t a healthy way to discuss the third largest killer of American teenagers.
See another example above, which uses a shot from the show Shaun the Sheep to poke fun at the admin’s “trash technique.” This one includes an audience of “my friends” and “my teacher” looking on in disappointment.
Not only does this post foster self-deprecation, it also facilitates the idea that teachers and friends are not there for support and growth. In a discipline as detailed and as intimate as ballet, a strong relationship with one’s teacher is crucial for success. Like a good coach, a good ballet teacher will be intensely demanding but also fair and supportive. Seeing jokes about teachers that may not embody these important characteristics really break our hearts. See below for another example.
Let’s pause for a second and consider who’s actually seeing these memes. Legally, the age limit for most social media sites (including Instagram) is 13. However, this age is self declared by the account holder during registration so it’s exceptionally easy to lie. According to research from Influence Central, the average child gets their first smartphone at 10.3 years and by age 12, 50% of kids will have a social media account. All of these statistics tell us that the audiences and perhaps even the creators of these meme accounts (and thus these negative examples of internal dialogue) could be preteens. Propagating concepts of self hatred and institutionalizing unsupportive teachers is seriously damaging to the psyche of a 10 or 12 year old.
As we’ve said, this memery trope extends far beyond the accounts we reference here and we don’t mean to incriminate the admins cited. In fact, the content on most meme sites varies immensely. See below for an example of gushy positivity that we found on another very similar account. Positivity, however, does not cancel negativity: two rights do not erase a wrong.
The issue is of course not black and white, either; we’re not saying we can’t ever joke about doubting ourselves. Ballet training is far from the tiaras and satin that we see onstage. It’s hard work and requires some serious mental strength. Joking about self doubt and failure can sometimes provide us with a shared ground to bond with and subsequently encourage each other out of our funk. Too much, though, and we stay there for good.
There are certain dance accounts, notably @biscuitballerina and @cloudandvictory that do marry humor, positivity, and ballet in an expert cocktail of online influencing. Today, however, we’re focusing on accounts that post exclusively memes rather than an individual or brand that uses them occasionally to enhance their other features.
The Instagram account @balletmoods, which is run by professional dancers, is a better example of a slightly more positive account that is exclusively memes. They’re not perfect, and occasionally their posts do rub us the wrong way. However, it’s much less common than other accounts we’ve seen. By not constantly dismissing personal talent, we also find that @balletmoods comes up with more creative content along the way. The admin tends to focus on individual struggles and experiences, and this subtle presentation can often be really funny. See below for a group of examples.
Just like the memes from the beginning of this article, these are funny because they’re true. More importantly, however, it’s ok that they’re true. If a meme about a teacher trash-talking your technique is true, that’s not funny. If a meme about hating yourself day in and day out is true, that is also not funny.
As we’ve said, the curators and creators of these memes hold the power to shape our collective attitude towards an issue. Given the democratic power of the internet, those curators and creators are us (go ahead, download a meme app and get started today!).This means we have the ability to teach young dancers that it’s ok to hate their own dancing and normal to subject oneself to bad teaching. However, this also means that we have the much more positive authority change that narrative.
There’s power in those likes and follows. Let’s make sure we remember that.