My midterm essay was on a documentary film by Bess Kargman called First Position. This documentary explores the lives of several young dancers who participate in an internationally known, highly prestigious ballet competition, the Youth America Grand Prix. Through this film, Kargman set out to defy certain stereotypes about ballerinas and educate a larger audience on what it really means to be an aspiring professional dancer, exposing the blood and tears that are shed in the process. Through her use of characters from different backgrounds and identities, she illustrated that not all ballerinas are white, not all skinny ballerinas are anorexic, and not all male dancers are gay. She sheds light on existing racial and socioeconomic differences and captures the most mundane aspects of these dancers lives. She shows the pain and struggle these young dancers endure and unveils the realities of this overlooked community.
Her characters each have their own unique stories. One is an adopted war orphan from Sierra Leone whose parents were killed by rebels right before her own eyes. Another is a Colombian 16-year-old who moves to New York by himself in order to pursue ballet professionally and raise money for his family back home. Amidst these and other characters, Kargman still manages to include what we would perhaps consider your typical ballerina: a tall, blonde American whose favorite color is pink. First Position truly reveals the diversity that exists within the ballet world and how this worldwide art form touches the lives of so many different youth. I appreciate the ways in which Kargman makes the film not about the competition itself but more about her subjects and how the competition affects them and brings them together. She stays away from too much dramatization and conflict and rather films what these dancers go through off stage.
Through film, Kargman does a beautiful job of portraying the realities of dance to an audience that may not know much about the art form—a job that, as a dancer myself, I find can be rather difficult. However, that being said, Kargman focuses only on one facet of the dance world. Dance as competition can vary greatly from dance as art, and in this case the film is about dance as competition. This does not in any way undermine dance’s value, and in my opinion dance in either form should be both appreciated and respected. However, some people do in fact look down upon dance as competition. Although Kargman’s objective was to expose this one specific subculture of dance, I only hope that non-dancers are aware that competitive dance does not dominate all dance forms and that this film was in fact more about the grueling lifestyles and struggles of being an aspiring professional dancer and not as much about the competition or about dance itself, since dance comes in so many different styles and modes.