7 Dance Movie Tropes that *Flesh and Bone* Gets Right

Vulture totally called it when they wrote that Flesh and Bone, the new series from the Starz network, “is filled with clichés, but they’re melodrama clichés, specifically ballet melodrama clichés, and that automatically makes them feel less wearisome than cop or gangster clichés.” Exactly. Dance drama has its own brand of tropes, and it is the best, most stylish brand, like Lululemon or Nancy Rose Performance. And what’s fun about Flesh and Bone is that we get to see all of these clichés live and breathe in a decidedly edgy (and maybe a teensy gratuitous) cable TV world that’s so different than the filtered PG-13ness of most dance-focused flicks.

That’s why I was a little bummed when the article just sort of moved past this point, and then past Flesh and Bone all together. I suppose there are other new shows and movies that deserve to be reviewed, but as someone who owns the DVD of Center Stage and makes So You Think You Can Dance appointment TV every summer, I yearned for a deeper exploration. Hence this (not exhaustive) list of all the on-screen dance tropes that Flesh and Bone totally nails in its series pilot.

If, like me, you have a weakness for rehearsal montages and a good, old-fashioned final performance scene, wrap yourself in a pink cashmere shrug, grab half a grapefruit and read on.

Trope #1: The wide-eyed rookie that has to prove herself.

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This trope is our nucleus, and I’m not sure a ballet melodrama would work without it. Claire Robbins is Flesh and Bone’s ingénue. She’s beautiful, skittish and tragic, which infuses her dancing and makes everyone lose their minds. The super jaded ballet fascists that run her dance company are convinced she’s a star, but not before they’re convinced she’s a waste of time. They make her prove herself on the spot, which she does with aplomb and then almost gets to the studio door with her legwarmers and enormous duffle bag before they’re like, “Wait. Okay, fine. I guess you can stay.” Like everything she encounters, this totally surprises her. I guess it makes sense that ballerinas, because they spend their formative years chained to the barre, grow up as sheltered adults. But, then there’s…

Trope #2: The sassy, foul-mouthed dancer who shows her the ropes.

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Baby had Penny in Dirty Dancing. Nina had Lily in Black Swan. And Claire has Daphne. Daphne offers Claire plenty of real talk as well as carte blanche of her closet, a curated collection of racy cocktail dresses and designer stilettos. Then she takes her to the strip club where she, of course, is gainfully employed. Predictably, Claire responds with an adorable combo of shock and intrigue. But what’s that glimmer in her eye? What’s that about? We’re pretty sure it won’t be Claire’s last trip to that fine establishment.

Trope #3: The entitled OG dancer.

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Kiira, complete with a frosty eastern European accent and a cocaine habit, doesn’t waste any time letting Claire know what’s up. Don’t take Kiira’s spot at the barre, and definitely don’t take one of her solos. Seriously, Claire…You’re not gonna listen, are you, Claire?

Trope #4: The crazy/brilliant/abusive artistic director.

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“I WANT CHAMPAGNE!” Paul Grayson screams this at his humiliated staff within the first 20 or so minutes of the show. This is after dismissing an audition finalist for her too-wide hips, but before using Claire to manipulate one of the company’s most moneyed patrons. Like Smash’s Derek, this guy’s a tool. But a tool with a vision and a British accent, which means we’ll indulge his bullshit.

Trope #5: A burning desire to push the envelope.

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 “But every year we do the same, tired dance. Why not do something different?”

“Something different? Who do you think you are?! You can’t just go changing what we do every year!”

“But I have ideas!”

“Ideas? Are you crazy?”

You get the idea.

Trope #6: Busted feet.

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If you know one thing from dance movie tropes it’s that, for all their swan-like elegance and 1% body fat, ballerinas have gnarly feet. While most movies like to remind you of this with maybe a two-second shot of some poor dancer carefully sliding her bloody foot from a tattered toe shoe, Claire takes things up a notch with a dead toe nail and unhealthy amount of self-flagellation (even for a ballerina).

Trope #7: This guy.

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You know. The straight man (in regards to both his sexual orientation and the predictably grounded person he manages to be despite ballet world craziness.) But, also, this actual guy:guy

Once Center Stage‘s Jody got bad boy Cooper and his headbands out of her system, she settled down with Sascha Radetsky’s reliable, if slightly dopey, Charlie. And I’m pretty he’ll be there for Claire (this time as Ross) when she eventually crumbles under Derek’s Thomas’ Jonathan’s Paul’s impossible demands.

Flesh and Bone is on Sunday nights on the Starz network. If you don’t have Starz, you can still get a healthy serving of delicious dance tropes at Starz.com where the pilot episode is available for free.

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Making Room

By now, you’ve likely seen this video. It’s been making the rounds on the internet and, if you follow me on Twitter or Tumblr, you’ve seen me gush over it. I’ve probably watched it from start to finish a half a dozen times and I’m still thinking about it days later.

Part of that is because I love dance. I’m moved by the immediacy and vulnerability that’s so specific to dance. There is no hiding for an artist once they’ve taken the stage. And the best dancers can take who they are in the world around them at that exact moment and use it to add depth and nuance to their performances.

You can see that happening here. It’s sunrise in downtown New York City on September 11th. Twelve years separates these two dancers from tragedy. Like any other piece of art, the performance is up for interpretation. But, I see two people treating a very specific moment in time gently, with grace and care.

I was in my senior year of college in 2001, attending Pace University in downtown Manhattan. Somewhere I still have paper copies of our university newspaper from that week. Every single page was dedicated to coverage of the attack, and that felt necessary. Students with jobs or internships in the towers had lost their lives. Hundreds of people living in university housing were displaced, and the rest of us found our neighborhood – our coffee shops, our subway stops, bookstores, late night breakfast spots – destroyed.

I remember a young woman in my creative writing class breaking down while reading aloud part of our most recent assignment. Weeks later, school was finally back in session and she said, “I just don’t think we should have Christmas this year.” It made sense to me. How could we begin to even feign merry? The idea of even going through the motions – hanging lights or buying gifts – was exhausting. Just like there was no space for any other stories in our student newspaper, there was no room for Christmas.

If someone told me 12 years ago that I’d fully appreciate these two dancers perform in the footprint of everything we’d lost, I don’t think I would have understood. I’m pretty sure I needed 12 years to fall in love with this particular piece of art. People say that time heals all wounds, but (for me) it’s more about room and space. The wounds are all still there, but time slowly creates space for other things like dance, love, sunrises and Christmas.

Still BLUSHing

I’ve been keeping tabs on the Gallim Dance company ever since I watched them perform at City Center’s “Fall for Dance” festival a couple years ago. They performed I Can See Myself in Your Pupil, and I just remember sort of waking up and leaning forward in my seat the second the dancers took the stage. Everything about the piece – the colorfully oddball costumes (the dancers looked a bit like overgrown children allowed to play dress-up and do their own hair), a Balkan Beatbox soundtrack (they always manage to sound like ½ party and ½ political protest), and the aggressively quirky and sometimes comedic choreography – gave me energy. It all felt a little weird and uninhibited, but not in the exclusionary “check out the freak in the corner” type of way. It was cathartic and joyful. I wanted to go along with them and be weird and uninhibited, too.

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I saw BLUSH, Gallim’s newest work, at BAM last night and loved it even though the tone was completely different from Pupil. The athleticism and intensity of Andrea Miller’s choreography felt more serious this time around. Since last night I’ve been thinking a lot about the music choices and one of the most simple yet striking uses of body makeup I’ve ever seen (the dancers begin the performance covered in white body make up which slowly dissolves as they begin to sweat, revealing their flushed, “blushing” skin). I’ve read through the program a few times and listened to some interviews with the dancers.

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I won’t even attempt to boil things down to a theme or attach a meaning to the piece, but what’s resonating with me is this idea of revealing oneself. Showing another person something of yourself, and the awareness that they are aware of you. (I swear, I’m not high.) Like, if you think about the involuntary process of blushing:

–        You have awareness of something about yourself

–        Another person/people become aware of that thing

–        You become aware that they’re aware

–        You blush. Whether you’re embarrassed, proud, nervous, excited…

Makes me think about the first time I shared the draft of my manuscript with another person. For years I’d been creating this little world that only I knew about. The characters and their stories and the places they lived in were so familiar yet private to me. I’ll never forget sitting down to get feedback from one of my early readers and suddenly feeling oddly exposed! It was exciting to bring someone into that world, but also a little nerve-wracking…and kind of embarrassing in a weird way. (I may have blushed.)

But, that moment of exposure is a necessary part of the creative process for people (like me) who want other people to read their books. Or look at their photos or listen to their song or perform their choreography.

And even though it can be personally scary, I love the idea of a moment where something you’ve created is no longer just yours. Where, in order for your thing to get better or become something more, you have to show it to another person and ask “Is this something? Can you see yourself in this thing I’ve created? Can you see yourself in me?”

Question: Ever had a BLUSH moment?