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Dance is everywhere nowadays. Movie musicals have made a comeback. Shows such as So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, America’s Got Talent, and Breaking Pointe have refocused the spotlight on our magnificent art form. However, the same resurgence of dance awareness over the last decade may be its downfall. Low-brow entertainment is presenting dance to the general public as a means to a trophy, a way to super stardom, or a world wrought with drama. One could argue that any publicity is good publicity, but is it really?

As a dancer, I can enjoy and appreciate the blood, sweat, and tears that go into these reality competition shows. Having lived it first-hand, I can even be entertained by the catty drama of the lives of the professional dancers on Breaking Pointe. But this prime-time exposure for dance is missing an opportunity. With government support for the arts rapidly dwindling and the National Endowment for the Arts on the brink of extinction, how are we to expect people across our nation to justify giving their tax dollars if we don’t begin to put our thoughts into educating audiences and not simply entertaining them?

We as dancers and choreographers are largely to blame. As highly trained yet usually poorly compensated artists, we should be doing more to promote awareness of how vital dance is to society.

In the mainstream media, dance is being presented largely as flashy and overly emotional. It’s product over process. Americans have a sick desire for instant gratification and it’s being manifested in mass media. How big can something be? How loud? How bright? Who is this week’s celebrity judge—who may have little to no real experience as a dancer? I enjoy watching the Olympics, but I really shouldn’t be called upon to critique the javelin throw. I enjoy watching dance shows, but how can we expect ‘Joe Shmo’ from ‘Middle of Nowhere,’ America to be inspired to support dance when he turns on the TV and sees a popular show that means nothing to him? Sure, it may be entertaining. But it doesn’t help him feed his family, and sadly, personal success above all is what comprises the American Dream.

This is why we need to stop deluding ourselves into thinking that overly saturating the media is going to change hearts and minds. If we want this exciting renaissance of dance to be more than just a reality show phase, we have to dig deeper within ourselves. Reality shows make for great, hot, and fleeting television. But by nature, they are designed to entertain and get you hooked. Is this really how we expect to grow awareness of our beloved art form? Are we willing to put our future into the hands of reality television producers and audience voting?

I’m not. It’s time to stop beating people over the heads in the hopes that they’ll take the bait for something they really know nothing about. It’s time to point our fingers at each other, as dancers, and start preaching to the choir. It’s time to be ambassadors of dance and discover authentic ways to genuinely reach out and educate people, proving why we deserve to be here.

The arts are vital to our society. But if we lose our funding because people don’t understand what we do, we will be largely to blame. Let pop culture help us in our efforts, not lead us. No longer is it enough to put our efforts solely into making great art. Art will always find a way to exist. Paintings look better when they are preserved over time in temperature controlled museums, and dance looks a lot better when companies can afford to put it onto a professional stage.

Dancers of America, take a stand. It’s past time…

Written by Matthew Donnell

Matthew Donnell

A graduate of North Carolina School of the arts, Matthew Donnell is a freelance dancer, actor, clown, instructor, and film maker residing in NYC. After a decade with the Kansas City Ballet, he turned his focus toward musical theater and teaching. He strives to bring the humor of his life into his art in order to promote artistic health for himself and those around him.