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Ballet Performance & Political Production

Meryl Lodge is discovering how professional ballet in South Africa reflects both culture and politics
December 9, 2015

Portrait: Meryl Lodge

Portrait: Meryl Lodge
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

PhD student Meryl Lodge started learning ballet when she was four, but when she was 12, she realized that her body wasn’t ideally suited to become a ballet dancer. Now, Lodge studies how ballet and privilege are intertwined. When Lodge began studying sociocultural anthropology, she realized that most studies examining ballet were being conducted in Europe, and, furthermore, South African studies often didn’t explicitly address white privilege. To address this gap in the literature, Lodge chose to do ethnographic research with professional ballet companies across South Africa.

Through funding provided by the Department of Anthropology and the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change, Lodge has been able to take three trips to South Africa to conduct her research on professional ballet companies. After spending over a thousand hours watching ballet classes, rehearsals, and performances, Lodge discovered that ballet is more than an art form that’s reflective of society; ballet is a political act in itself.  “Dancing and watching dance creates new kinds of knowledge,” Lodge asserts. For example, a ballet dancer’s posture and gaze change how she views her body, her fellow dancers, and her audience members when she is performing and rehearsing, giving her a unique vantage point on the world.

When the British and the Dutch colonized South Africa, they not only brought in European settlers and a new form of government, they also brought ballet. During apartheid specifically, professional ballet companies were heavily funded through the government. “They saw ballet as a way to assert their European civilization,” Lodge says. “The majority of dancers were white.”

When apartheid officially ended in 1994, the ballet companies lost their government funding and had to find a new way to get financial and cultural support and had to begin diversifying their companies as a result. Lodge’s research examines this transition. By studying the processes that have changed (or remained), Lodge sees how ballet continues to privilege certain people and excludes others. “In South Africa now, one of the important things these companies have to do is show how they can be racially diverse—and that’s really, really hard for them,” Lodge says.

South Africa has a minority of white citizens, but ballet companies still struggle to reflect the country’s diversity. Despite the growing black middle and upper classes, Lodge says these families are unlikely to encourage their children to choose ballet as a career over more stable and practical choices.

Moreover, it’s difficult for non-white South Africans to participate in ballet: it’s expensive, few ballet schools are in historically black neighborhoods, and it’s viewed as a risky choice since ballet dancers make relatively little money and have short careers. “Nearly all female ballet dancers that I talked to were in some way supported by their parents or partners,” Lodge says. “You need that financial safety net to succeed because they make no money, or very little money.”

Although Lodge is finished gathering ethnographic research, she still has a lot of work to do before she has finished compiling her findings. Luckily, this year she has a Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship from the University to write her dissertation—but she doesn’t think her research will stop there. “Hopefully, I’ll become a professor and this will become a book. And the research will always be ongoing.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.