Sitting down in a plush velvet seat in the upper rows of Lincoln Center, I resigned myself to two hours of confusion and boredom. The possibility that I could enjoy the ensuing ballet seemed remote at best. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ballet, “Whipped Cream,” was a joyous but intense adventure of a boy trying to evade an evil, giant, doll-like bobble-head doctor set against the backdrop of a whimsical candyland. To my great surprise, “Whipped Cream” hooked me from the get-go with its elements of humor, stunning choreography, and magical costumes that seemed to come alive to Strauss’s music.
Though I had taken ballet for several years as a child and appreciated the difficulty of the dance, before watching “Whipped Cream,” I had dismissed ballet as an incomprehensible art form accessible only to old, rich people in ballgowns and tuxedos. My friends shared my opinion—they knew they didn’t like ballet because it was “boring,” but didn’t really know why. Ballets aren’t a part of teen culture the way other theater forms like plays or musicals are. We play songs from musicals on repeat even without watching the show (“Hamilton,” anyone?), but we’d be hard-pressed to name more than two ballets and their composers.
This is dismal in New York City, which offers a world of options: Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, and many more. Tickets, compared to other forms of entertainment, are fairly cheap—ballet tickets for students can be bought for as little as $20 or $30 while Broadway tickets routinely go for hundreds of dollars. This phenomenon stems in part from a lack of exposure to ballet. Elementary school children put on yearly plays and musicals, slowly but surely absorbing show culture as part of their education. Ballet, on the other hand, is not seen as relevant to children and is therefore neglected. “The only time I was exposed to a classical ballet was [in] Music Appreciation class,” junior Jennifer Lee commented. “We know [ballets] exist, but they’re just not mainstream with most kids.”
Lack of exposure only accounts for part of the problem—even those who dance ballet as teens don’t watch it. “Only the girls who are serious about ballet watch [ballets], and just for famous ballerinas,” Masha Yepishkina, 16, added. “For them, it’s like going to see your favorite artist at a concert, but most people, like me, don’t know ballerinas.” Yepishkina, who has four years of experience at Brighton Ballet Theater, thinks ballet’s lack of popularity lies with the perceptions that surround it.
“I think that a lot of the reason teens aren’t into ballet is because it’s seen as an art form that excludes them,” Haley Henderson suggested. She is 15 and has been practicing ballet on and off for 10 years. Henderson feels that teenagers don’t see themselves and their values represented in the traditionalism and strictness of ballet. There is little diversity in ballet—ballet dancers are typically white with slim, perfectly proportioned bodies and long limbs. However, important strides have been made: Misty Copeland became the first black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater in 2015. Her performances drew large crowds, diverse in age and race.
Along with representation, teenagers are also more attracted to ballets with flashy dynamic action, loud sounds, strange characters, frightening plot twists, and scandalous love triangles. It is not a coincidence that “Whipped Cream,” which featured all of these elements, attracted a significantly younger audience. This need for drama comes from a shortened attention span in our digital age. A Microsoft Corp. study found that today, people, particularly younger generations, lose concentration after eight seconds, as opposed to 12 seconds in the year 2000. Classical ballets, characterized by murky, often confusing plotlines and classical music, clash with our desire for quick and easy consumption of information. Songs and dances become popular because they are simple and catchy, while ballet requires thought from the viewer that teenagers often aren’t willing to provide.
Yet in ballet’s complexity lies its value, and teenage interest in and appreciation of ballet are essential to its preservation. The way to attract teens to ballet is for ballet to tiptoe along the thin line between art and entertainment, integrating the beauty and simplicity of ballet with teen values of rebellion and uniqueness. Teenagers need to see themselves reflected in ballet through more dynamic ballets and more diverse dancers. They also need to learn to connect with ballet early on, a job that falls on parents and educators. Schools need to expand their arts curriculum: school trips should include ballets as well as plays. As for teens, go see a ballet some time—you might be surprised.