With its unexpected turn into more serious subject matter, the Tiger Confessions Facebook page transformed from a place of light-hearted compliment sharing into a valuable platform for grievances of all kinds. Unsurprisingly, however, we are all still looking for ourselves within its postings—which is why a series of comments about the exclusivity of dance companies recently caught my eye.
I am a member of the student dance group diSiac Dance Company, where I have just rolled off a term as president. I assume that this group is one of a handful on campus that is likely a target of commentary about arbitrary elitism, because of our low acceptance rates as well as a few specific mentions on the page. Many dance groups, as people point out on the Confessions page, welcome all or nearly all applicants. Groups like Sympoh and Six14 rightly pride themselves on openness. Other groups like Princeton University Ballet come under less fire because they are more realistic about the years of experience that are a prerequisite for membership.
For a handful of companies, however, “No experience is necessary!” is touted as a slogan during frosh week, despite quite low acceptance rates. While a few members with little to no experience are welcomed each year, many have years of training, and this understandably leads to accusations of false advertising. On the flip side, many dancers with extensive training are rejected in favor of those relatively new to dance, when the latter is seen as more of an asset to our company at that time.
I sympathize with the fact that dance company auditions are flawed. We are ultimately just students, who have a good knowledge of our craft but are also basing many of our decisions on watching someone perform for less than three minutes total. But while I in no way seek to belittle the harrowing experience of rejection, what I am interested in here is why so much ire seems targeted against dance groups in particular, when we are far from the only exclusive group on campus.
I was rejected from five student groups as a freshman before being accepted into the dance group I am now a part of. This may not be a hugely impressive number, but some of these rejections did sting. It is interesting to note, however, how little pity a lifelong poet’s rejection from Songline elicits in comparison to a trained dancer’s rejection from diSiac or BodyHype. Even an untrained dancer’s rejection from one of these companies seems to be a cause of lasting hurt, especially if they try out multiple times. Many people seem to be attacking this latter scenario specifically on Tiger Confessions, when they call the “no experience necessary” slogan into question.
When considering why the sting of rejection seems particularly salient for these groups, the simple answer seems to be that there’s a disproportionate amount of hype around membership in certain dance companies. A certain mystique around dance companies has been created, in large part because of the unique way in which they act as economic agents on our supposedly sheltered campus. This hype comes largely from the companies ourselves—we blow money on lots of publicity, we emphasize the social benefits of membership, we strive to appear not only talented but professional. We do all this because amongst ourselves, we are competing for not only social but literal economic capital. We are doing what every successful business does in a free market economy. And make no mistake, the world of student performing groups at Princeton is such an economy.
I cannot emphasize enough how much certain dance companies rely on ticket sales to thrive—and thrive we must, if we aim to attract new members at a school with so many outlets and opportunities to dance. A show in the Berlind Theater, one of Princeton’s best performing venues, can cost up to $10,000 when you add up the price of the theater, the publicity, the lighting designer, the costumes. In recent history, only two dance groups have aimed to put on shows in this expensive space, and they are unsurprisingly two of the groups known for aggressive publicity tactics. While Frist Theater itself is free, many of these outside costs still apply. The primary means of making up this deficit for many dance companies are ticket sales. For hip hop and contemporary dance companies that tend to look similar on paper, there is a sense of direct competition to sell more, sell faster, sell out.
And what boosts ticket sales? Prestige. Dance companies understand that your time and financial resources are limited, so we want you to spend them on our show. We need you to care, about either the dancing or about the show as a desirable social event, because that’s how we survive. In the spring there are multiple shows every weekend, and we want you to know that ours is the best. This becomes a very testy word within dance company politics, in all its forms—“best,” “greatest,” “most respected,” “most prestigious.” I predict that unless the financial necessity of ticket sales drops, neither will the frenzy to achieve these titles. We will continue to encourage attendance at our auditions, in the hopes that it will elevate our status as both popular and elite. We will seek to maintain an image of “superiority,” whatever that means, because such an illusion is the bread and butter of our existence.
We are locked, quite simply, in ever-escalating economic warfare. Our aggressive marketing tactics might be offensive, but I argue that they should hardly be surprising. The only thing that could really bring an end to it would be a full-scale revision of the way we operate both financially and logistically. As for now, this is a free market economy, and your eyes are everything to us.
We are performers, after all.
Caroline Bailey is a junior from Palo Alto, Calif. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.