What’s All the Fuss about that ‘Free People’ Ballet Ad?

Recently, an ad by fashion company Free People has generated a sleuth of attacks from the ballet world regarding the use of a model who apparently has not had proper ballet training.

Free-People-Model“Why the outrage?” Some folks outside of the dance community have asked. To the untrained eye, the model looks totally pretty—slim and flexible—an image that fits that of a ballet dancer. However, it doesn’t take much for a ballet dancer—or a ballet student who has undergone any meaningful training, to be able to tell that this model has had no proper ballet training at all. Her technique is weak and incorrect, and her lines are neither clean nor classical. For trained dancers—and even serious “recreational” ballet students, this is an insult to the art form. Many feel that it makes light of the years and years of training—with blood and sweat, no less—that yield the proper aesthetics of ballet dancing, which this ad is anything but.

Perhaps it would not be so outrageous if the voice-over had not mentioned that she had been dancing since she was three. Granted, in the advertising world, most of what we see is just make-belief. Still, if the marketers were to do a more convincing job, at least they would have made a more careful choice of picking the model among real ballet dancers during the casting process. In fact, a growing number of commercials have employed trained ballet dancers, including some world-renown dancers such as Diana Vishneva, Tamaro Rojo, Polina Semionova, Yuan Yuan Tan and Misty Copeland. Even if their budget is limited, it would not be that difficult or expensive to find a real ballet dancer who would have done the job a million times better.

A main argument against the ad is that having the model dance en pointe posed a serious danger to her as obviously she does not have the required strength to dance properly en pointe. Her ankles are sickled, weak and wobbly. Many of the dancers who expressed their outrage were concerned about the model’s safety.

From a philosophical viewpoint, I think the debate has gotten so heated because dancers are defending their art with their life and passion. They have spent decades training for an art form that demands not only supreme athleticism but perfection that comes from within—an artistry that cannot exist without input from the soul. In my opinion, this is where the world of advertising and marketing diverge from art.

The commercial world has put a strong emphasis on superficial beauty and appeal to consumers through attempts of mood-making. Ballet is not just about external beauty—the costumes, the make-up, the body. Sure, it is about those and so much more. The inner strength, the dedication and tenacity, the expression of human emotions and the transcendence of the soul—these are the qualities that actually move and touch the audience.

My lament over the superficial focus in the commercial world does not stop here. It concerns also how yoga, a spiritual practice that centers around the soul, has been reduced to a physical exercise by adoptees in the Western world. But that’s a discussion that does not belong to this ballet blog and so let me not go there.


Saving grace: Free People was quick enough to have teamed up with Ballet Zaida to do a new series of photo shoot with professional dancers. I think they should simply take down the original ad and product images and replace them with the new ones.



Related links:

Dancers’ comments on Free People’s Facebook page:

A Huffington Post article on the subject:

AdWeek’s article: