What is a Bunhead?

The number of ballet dancers that have no interest in watching ballet, or indeed engaging in anything dance-related outside their own practice, is alarming. It is also pervasive. Watching performances and reading dance publications or literature hold no interest for many ballet dancers. Those that do show a continued hunger for learning about their discipline even have a name – bunhead (I’m not sure if there is a male analogue). The fact that bunhead has become pejorative says it all: it’s not cool to care too much. In other dance disciplines, it is more common and indeed expected for dancers to actively continue their education, seeking out opportunities to increase and exhibit their knowledge.

The difference between ballet and other forms of dance is the formality of training: strictly codified and harshly critical, especially among those with professional aspirations. The depth of ballet technique is now so highly developed, only intense training and carefully-monitored teaching will result in these professional standards ever being reached. An unattractive by-product of this mode of training is that constant criticism makes a dancer both critical of themselves and critical of others – anything outside the accepted ideal just isn’t good enough.

From this vantage point it’s easy to see why so many dancers lose interest in their art: watching a performance can be just a hit-parade of flaws, their training having resulted in them being wired to see only the wrongs and not the rights: the dance becomes no longer enjoyable. It may also be that in watching others one is reminded of one’s own shortcomings; again, there’s not much joy in that.

Dance is a job; maybe not the same as other jobs, because we expose ourselves every day; with exposure comes criticism, both from within and without. However, like any other job, we need to take this on the chin, acknowledge our flaws and work on them, and just remember that we only dance because we want to.

Diarmaid O’Meara

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One thought on “What is a Bunhead?

  1. You’ve articulated this so strikingly.

    I think teachers should always look for and point out their students’ gifts as well as their weaknesses, and help them showcase their strengths. But, as you say, many teachers only criticize – they usually do this because they want to help the student improve, but constant criticism without any positive reinforcement can destroy a student’s self-confidence and dampen their intellectual curiosity.

    As a teacher I always challenge myself to find an element in each student’s technique that I can praise, before zeroing in on a fault that I want them to correct. It may sound like a trite approach to teaching, but I want everyone to leave class feeling some of the pure joy of dancing and not just the burden of having failed (yet again) to meet the impossibly high standards of perfection that ballet demands.

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