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"It's called Ballerina Farm not Hip-Hop Farm or Jazz Farm"
On ballet, whiteness, and the privilege of messiness with Chloe Angyal
I’m back on my bullshit today with some Ballerina Farm analysis, and I’m excited because this particular flavor of analysis is born not from my own personal preoccupation but from an external suggestion.
If you ever want to chat with me about the ways ballet is representing and reinforcing whiteness, I would be down for that!
And obviously my answer was: “HELL YES.”
Because wow. I’ve consider many facets of the Ballerina Farm brand. I’ve considered the performance of authenticity, I’ve considered the pageantry, I’ve considered Agnes the Aga stove, I’ve considered the aesthetic and ideological function of BF baby names, I’ve considered if I should be writing about Ballerina Farm at all, and obviously, I’ve considered how @ballerinafarm upholds and perpetuates the myth of the ideal mother.
But I have never considered the ballet.
Chloe Angyal is a journalist and author of the book, Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself, and is currently working on her first novel, Pas de Don’t, a romance set in the ballet worlds of New York City and Sydney.
Chloe and I chatted about the Ballerina Farm logo, the history of ballet as a white institution, and how Ballerina Farm’s band is built on both the performance of ease and the performance of labor. Here’s our conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
How did you first come across Ballerina Farm?
I think it was the interview between Anne Helen Petersen and Meg Conley. And I was like, this is really interesting but why aren't we talking about the ballet part of Ballerina Farm? Because it's doing a lot of work here that no one seems to be talking about. Like, yeah, there are the babies and the pigs and the JetBlue husband, but let's talk about the ballet part of Ballerina Farm because it's really important.
Okay, so let's talk about ballet!
First of all, it's Ballerina Farm, right? It's not Jazz Farm. It's not Hip-Hop Farm. It's not Tap Farm. It’s Ballerina Farm. We are talking about the whitest dance form that exists. All those other dance forms were originated by people of color, mostly by Black people. Ballet is the whitest art form, both in practice and also in the public imagination. It’s also really important to remember that it's not Ballet Farm. It's Ballerina Farm. We’re talking about the feminine person version of this dance form. We're talking about the pinnacle of a very specific kind of womanhood, a very specific kind of femininity.
And then there are all the other roles Hannah’s inhabiting, right? She's a mom. She's LDS. She's rural. She's a farmer. These are all positions that are heavily coded white in the public imagination. But I don't think any of those roles are more uniformly coded white than ballerina. So I don’t think you can talk about Ballerina Farm without talking about ballerinas and whiteness. And all of the symbolism that she's leaning on in the branding and in the presentation of her life online.
Can you talk a little bit about the history of whiteness and ballet?
Ballet originates in the Royal Courts of Europe; in Italy and France. And there are people of color in ballet’s history everywhere. A lot of them were sort of buried and then unburied, or their contributions were sort of lifted or uncredited. But even in the era of Misty Copeland that we live in now, if you were to ask someone to picture a ballet dancer, the default image that’s probably going to come to mind in the US is a white woman with a very slender body and long flowing hair. Someone who has achieved this simultaneously effortless and incredibly effortful version of femininity, through mastery of her body and through performance on stage. And she's non-disabled, she's straight, she’s cis. That is the vision of the ballerina.
And obviously, ballet as it actually exists in the world is more diverse than that. And it's shifting and changing pretty quickly. But that's still what most people think of when they think of a ballerina. And it just so happens that Hannah inhabits all those qualities perfectly in public all the time.
One thing you mentioned that I don't want to forget to highlight is the embodiment of apparent effortlessness, which actually indicates a shitload of effort. And I think the same can also be said of many beauty ideals and many motherhood ideals.
Absolutely. And this is probably the metaphor that animated writing Turning Pointe for me. Ballet can be a metaphor for womanhood in a lot of ways, or at least, a very particular experience of womanhood. Just with the volume turned all the way up, right? There’s the expectation that you present a perfect face and conceal the pain, that you work very hard to make it look like you aren't working very hard, that you be the public face of the work, when in fact you are laboring on behalf of a power structure that is mostly run by men.
I mean, for me the metaphor got very, very real when I got my first pair of pointe shoes, which happened about a year after I got my period for the first time. And I was one of those kids who really wanted to hit puberty, was really excited about growing up and like, having all the things that grown-ups had, which for me, meant tampons and pads. For some reason, I was like, that’s gonna make me a grownup.
And the same is true for a lot of people who grew up in ballet and look forward to pointe shoes. It’s a rite of passage. It's a sign that your technique has progressed far enough and that you've accomplished something and it also means that you have crossed a critical threshold to becoming a serious ballet dancer. You can’t be a serious ballet dancer as a woman if you don’t dance on pointe.
And then I actually got my pointe shoes and I was like, Fuck, this hurts like a motherfucker. It's so painful. It's just discomfort and bleeding. And it was like, a very interesting, interesting parallel. I had thought that these two rites of passage that I had been really looking forward to would, you know, imbue me with some new version of femininity, some new grown-up experience. And it's just work and discomfort and pain and constantly working to conceal that discomfort and pain, whether you are gritting through a performance in a pair of pointe shoes or praying to God that no one notices that you're wearing like a big bulky pad in PE class. It’s all the same shit. Just womanhood on steroids.
100%. And I'm gonna bring it back to motherhood again, because I can't not.
I'm not a mother. So I can't speak to that, but tell me.
Okay, so I idealized motherhood big time growing up, like, unthinkingly pursued it without question. I just idealized it. And it was like my primary goal. I sought it blindly. And as soon as my first kid was born, I mean, I had really severe postpartum depression. And it reminds me of what you're saying about pointe shoes. I was like, Oh, this isn't like, you know, like a fucking beautiful Johnson and Johnson baby commercial. This is blood. This is endless labor. This is exhaustion. Like, I've been fed this myth of motherhood as being this effortless, natural thing that I'm just supposed to easily embody. This myth of motherhood that isn't labor. And then you actually become a mother and realize it’s all about labor! It's almost nothing but labor.
It’s like the transcendence you are promised is not enough to offset the labor. And the transcendence is there. If you ask any dancer, once you get to the right place in what’s called the box of a pointe shoe, once you’re turning just right on it, I mean, it's fucking transcendent. It feels incredible. Especially when it’s happening during a performance, when you feel like all the work paid off, and everything’s connecting. I mean, it’s the reason people are willing to go through so much suffering. But the balance is nothing like what you were promised.
On the flip side, the labor of ballet, the labor of womanhood, the labor of motherhood, it’s like, yeah it’s hard. That's the point. The suffering is what makes great the work, the viscera is what makes it great. And you become so embedded in the belief that you are supposed to suffer, and obviously, when it comes to motherhood, that shit’s biblical.
But it's embedded in ballet as well. It's embedded in the general experience of womanhood as well. It’s like, yeah, suffering is part of this, so why are you even complaining? Like, of course it hurts to turn your legs out to 180 degrees. Of course it hurts to dance on your fucking toes. We weren't designed to do this. It's supposed to hurt. It's supposed to be work and so you're simultaneously in this situation where you're like, this is nothing like what I was promised, but it's also exactly what I was promised and so I can't complain about it. I'm supposed to take my small scrap of transcendence and feel like I like I've been properly compensated.
Something that continuously fascinates me about both Hannah and Naomi Davis (another famous Mormon momfluencer) is their narrative of being Juilliard dancers who gave it all up. They get into this majorly elite school, and then they communicate to their audiences that they were totally happy to leave it all behind to get married and have babies. And this narrative has always bugged me. The seeming simplicity of it.
Well, they won the lottery, right? They won the lottery and they walked away. And that is an incredibly difficult choice for someone to make when they've spent their entire life working to be good enough and lucky enough to get into any elite ballet school. But that life is also not for everybody.
Very few people have a good time at an elite ballet school. And a lot of people (to their credit) walk away from something they have been training for since they were five, and I don’t want to downplay that type of courage or the ability to walk off such a metaphorical cliff such a decision requires. I also understand that given how lucky they got, and how hard they worked, why it's hard for people to understand why they would walk away from that.
The other thing to consider is the juxtaposition of ballerina and farm. It’s very difficult to go to an elite ballet school or dance at a top-level company in a rural area or even a suburban area. You have to go to a city. We can’t ignore the moral valence of leaving the city for the country. And so Hannah’s narrative of walking away from ballet isn’t just about walking away from ballet. It's walking away from the unseemly urban center. It’s walking away from the supposed center of depravity that is Manhattan.
I think you can read it two ways. You can either read it as her saying, I left Juilliard, I left the city, I moved to the country, I got married had these babies. I raise pigs now, but I'm still dancing. I'm having it all. I can be all of these kinds of womanhood all at once.
I also think you can read it as a narrative of sacrifice. Like, I worked my whole life for this, but then I found something that was more important. And so I made a sacrifice. And what is more womanly than that? And I don’t know if either reading of her story is accurate to her own lived experience. But I think both possibilities are valid readings of the narrative she’s chosen to share.
Also the fact that Hannah had to make that choice at all is really an indictment of ballet. There are plenty of jobs where you could get pregnant at 21 and continue to have a career. Classical ballet as it's currently set up is not one of them. And that is classical ballet’s failing and loss.
One a positive note, as dance medical science improves, careers are growing longer, which means that ballet dancers are dancing well into the end of their fertility window.
Before quite recently, there was a very clear timeline. You spend your youth dancing and then have to retire because your body is basically broken, but still have plenty of time in your fertility window post-retirement to have babies.
Now you've got principal women dancers who are dancing well into their late 30s, which only used to apply to men. Megan Fairchild, Ingrid Silva, Misty Copeland, and Gillian Murphy are all continuing their careers as mothers.
Can we talk about the Ballerina Farm logo real quick?
The one with the pink tutu?
Yeah. And the pig and a little pail.
The way Hannah’s presenting herself here harkens back to her previous existence and it has absolutely nothing to do with her current presentation. Her hair is up in a bun. It's very sleek. She's wearing a tutu and she's wearing pointe shoes. She's doing this Glenda the Good Witch thing. Is she casting a spell on the pig? It's unclear. Is she feeding the pig? Unclear.
And like, I understand that this juxtaposition is what's so powerful to so many people. It’s feeding into that idea of the ballerina as this person that doesn't really exist in the real world. This totally reified person.
And the ballerina mystique is so complicated, right? Because you simultaneously have this ephemeral fairy bird creature thing who's like so feminine that she's not actually a real woman anymore? Which is why she's out in a field feeding pigs in a tutu, right. But at the same time, I mean, part of the draw of ballet for a lot of people I think, is this understanding that actually, ballet dancers are extremely human.
Underneath the gloss and the facade and the tulle and the satin is like, flesh and bone and blood and suffering. And feet bleeding. One thing I really didn't want to do when I wrote Turning Pointe was to like, present this shocked expose. Like, did you know that underneath this beautiful thing is secret ugliness? Because everyone knows that's part of the appeal. Part of why people are drawn to ballet is because they understand that under this illusion of perfection is just a deeply imperfect and suffering person. And I think the vision of a ballerina in a full tutu and pointe shoes in a field is supposed to make us think, what a strange juxtaposition! A farmer and a ballerina could not be more different.
I interviewed famed momfluencer baby name predictor Em from (@emdoodlesandstuff), and in her TikTok about Ballerina Farm, Em references their brand and aesthetic as being “glamorized humility.” You know, just taking care of the kids, making the sourdough, milking the cow while being sanguine at all times. I feel like the ballet piece is sort of part of that image of glamorized humility. In her ballet videos, Hannah’s never in a tutu, right? It’s very much like, here I am in my overalls after a hard day at the farm. The merging of this really beautiful ethereal art form with her prosaic down-home vibe is interesting.
You would be surprised how much of that initial deep joy you find in dancing gets completely stripped down by serious dance training and particularly by elite ballet training. And while it’s unclear if Hannah shares those dancing videos because she’s aware they are valuable as content or because she actually felt like dancing in that moment, I do think the joy is what's being communicated. Like, I just finished milking the cow and I look like crap, but you know what? I feel like dancing and so I'm going to dance. And I don’t know if that’s part of the glamorized humility thing, but I do think it’s part of the performance of authenticity, the very affected not-trying-ness of it all.
Yes! The performed ease. I mean, her whole platform is sort of about the performance of ease. And this comes back into whiteness and privilege for me because most people simply can't afford to have seven kids. Most people can't afford this million acre ranch. Most people if they had seven kids would be destroyed by exhaustion and overwhelm. Most people if they had seven kids would need full-time external help because they would also need to work outside the home.
And coming back to her walking away from Juilliard, that’s also a privilege to have spent that much of your family’s resources to get to that place, and then ultimately walk away.
Ballet is also completely life consuming that you don't have time to have seven kids. You don't have time to make sourdough. You don't have time to practice the Dirty Dancing lift with your husband (When I watched that one video, I was like, you're gonna split your head open. This is not going to end well!) So has she traded one all-consuming thing in for another?
But she doesn’t want us to think that because as you say, she's just like, raising seven kids without trying that hard. I think I see less ease than you do. What I see is like a glorification of manual labor. Like a glorification of manual labor from a bygone era. And that's what rubs me the wrong way. It's not actually the performance of ease. It's the performance of work.
And embedded in that performance is the implicit message that this work is somehow inherently noble. And morally, like, the best kind of work. Of course, neither Hannah nor Daniel are explicitly saying that but it’s there.
I mean, in addition to the actual products they're selling, they're very clearly creating an aspirational product and they don't have to explicitly say you should want this or that for it to be true, right?
Totally. Anything else to say about whiteness in particular?
I think it takes an enormous amount of white privilege to get to be a professional ballerina. And Hannah is a professional ballerina. Whether or not she would describe herself that way. She is profiting off of ballet training and her ballet performances, which just happen to take place in a barn with her kids running around her ankles. She is a professional ballerina.
And the idea that you can become a professional ballerina without having to move to a big city, without having to go through the ranks of a company, with having technique that has maybe stagnated or declined over the course of a decade, without even having to have neat hair, that to me is peak whiteness. Especially when you think about how many Black and brown girls (and boys but especially girls), are twisting and remaking themselves in order to conform to an idealized version of a ballerina that Hannah already fits but chooses not to accentuate.
She’s doing the equivalent of wearing a hoodie to work while her Black colleague sitting next to her is like, straightening her hair and never wearing anything less than a suit and heels every day. I don't think you can ignore the role that whiteness is playing in Hannah’s narrative, or how she is employing the identities of mother and farmer and Mormon.
I mean, it is a tremendous privilege to be a mess in public. It just is. I mean, messiness is a privilege in womanhood in general, but if ballet is womanhood turned up to 11, then messiness is an enormous privilege in ballet, and it's not one that you have if you aren't white.
Thank you so much Chloe! Definitely check out Chloe’s book and keep your eyes peeled for her new novel.
What do you guys think? Is it the performance of ease (I have 7 kids and apparently cook 3 hot meals for 9 people every day and somehow enjoy cleaning up after these meals as much as I enjoy being up until midnight milking before climbing into bed with a newborn but it’s all EASY because hold on real quick I’m gonna do a few pas de bourrées), or is it the performance of labor (I’m up until midnight milking but this is noble work because it’s work bound up in nostalgia for “the good ol’ days” so it’s worth it and because I’m a noble human I’m not complaining about being up until midnight milking and only this type of noble labor allows my soul to still crave the joy of dance) that draws you into Ballerina Farm’s brand and narrative? Is it something else entirely?
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