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Smile! You’re On Candid Camera
Privacy in the social media era. Essay by Melissa Kathryn
Last summer, I stumbled upon a video of Ulyana Loptakina performing the Dying Swan variation. Under a blue light, Loptakina appeared, as if floating, on the dark and empty stage. She undulated her arms like a fish dancing through water. Her eyes emoted the panic and melancholy of a bird who understands the existential implications of its impending death. Classical ballet technique defies nature; the external rotation of the legs, dancing on the tips of the toes, simultaneous grounded, and weightless.
After all, Marie Taglioni conceived the first pointe shoes to give the illusion of flying. Therein lies its beauty: the ability to make such demands on the body appear natural and effortless. Ballerinas always appear poised and graceful, despite the strenuous effort it requires to achieve such elegant lines, turns, and jumps. I’ve always wished I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve. If ballerinas can maintain such poise in the face of pain and difficulty, why can’t I?
I’ve always wished I didn’t wear my heart on my sleeve. If ballerinas can maintain such poise in the face of pain and difficulty, why can’t I?
Several times a week I go to the dance studio, a place that has become a haven. In the studio, I’m happy to forget that my phone, the internet, and the outside world exist. We are all present and engaged- an increasingly rare occurrence in a world of constant distraction. Class is a private space, safe from digital exhibitionism and voyeurism. We bravely look into the mirror for one hour and thirty minutes, bearing our flaws. We look to one another to learn and improve, instead of comparing. Except for the odd group photo taken by my teacher, the only photographs or videos are those in our minds.
In the studio, I’m happy to forget that my phone, the internet, and the outside world exist. We are all present and engaged- an increasingly rare occurrence in a world of constant distraction.
One evening, flopped on the couch as my boyfriend cooked dinner, I opened the TikTok app, long dormant on my phone since I downloaded it almost a year before. I typed “beginner pointe” into the search engine and flipped through the results. Within minutes, the Dopamine factory’s ingenious algorithm bombarded me with a dizzying array of pastel pink and pop music that appeared like a slot machine. Sifting through the hundreds of Get Ready for Ballet Class with Me and Swan Lake Choreography Challenge videos in search of tutorials required more cognitive dissonance than I was prepared to handle.
Yet, before quitting the app, my thumb swiped up as if moving on its own accord. Just one more, maybe this one will be it. My brain lit up at the recognition of the face that appeared on my screen. “Starting Ballet in my 20’s ep. 3,” appeared in giant letters on the screen, over the smiling face of a new girl I’d seen in class a week before. What ensued was a montage, set to a generic lo-fi beat, of her pretending to ‘wake up’ with artfully disheveled hair, getting dressed, taking the metro, putting on her ballet slippers, stretching – and there I was– in the left-hand corner of the frame, in my pink tights and purple skirt, stretching my hamstrings.
Smile! You’re on Candid Camera! I clicked on her profile and found a handful of similar videos, all furtively filmed at my studio. Each video has several hundred thousand likes. My chest tightened. I showed my boyfriend, “fucking Gen Z.” He laughed, “Who cares? It’s not like anyone will recognize you. Besides, you’re naked on the internet for your work.” He was, of course, stating the obvious. That others might recognize me was hardly upsetting. This felt personal.
Although I found filming a group of women in a private dance studio without their consent to be morally dubious, and consider forcing others to partake in one’s ruthless pursuit of self-documentation as a symptom of contemporary narcissism, the root of my frustration was much more selfish. My newfound ballet obsession is part of an overarching trajectory towards self-realization; the whittling away of a metastasized false self I adopted to make myself more acceptable to others. This 23-year-old Youtuber’s public documentation of her “daily life” clashed with my increasing desire for privacy and anonymity.
Cellphone cameras, smartphones, Reality TV, and social media democratize the pursuit of celebrity and groom us to anticipate an omnipresent, invisible audience.
We’ve evolved in a social context in which ordinary life has the potential to be extraordinary, so long as we make a spectacle of it. Cellphone cameras, smartphones, Reality TV, and social media democratize the pursuit of celebrity and groom us to anticipate an omnipresent, invisible audience. Millennials and Gen Z understand that anyone can be the director, producer, and star of their very own reality TV show. This is evidenced by the thousands of What I Eat in a Day and Morning Routine videos that proliferate across social media platforms over the last few years. My smug assurance that no one cares gradually gave way to a bitter resignation that, as it turns out, thousands of people do care about the eating habits, morning routines, and starting-ballet-in-my-20s journey of complete strangers.
The hardest pill to swallow is that in a post-social media society where any aspect of our lives can be offered up as entertainment, it follows that any private or public setting is a potential stage for content creation. The self is a commodity, and privacy is an illusion.
The saying goes that curiosity killed the cat, yet curiosity regarding the lives of others is a distinctly human feature. Somewhere over the more recent history of human evolution, this curiosity has become a compulsive obsession.
I’ve seen TikTok girl a handful of times in class after stumbling across her online persona. I never paid much attention to what others were doing before, but I found myself wary of her iPhone camera’s presence. Every time she comes to class, she sets her phone down against a wall or the bar, the screen darkened, and films various segments of the class. I watch her with insecure anxiousness, contempt, and fascination. The instinctive ease with which she inconspicuously films herself is foreign to me. Barring the non-consensual participation of the rest of the class, there is something admirable- almost artful- about the brazen confidence to film oneself in public, to share publicly.
For this essay, I attempted a selfie in the mirror in my full Repetto ensemble and pointe shoes before the rest of my classmates arrived. As one woman took her place beside me at the bar, I felt my cheeks flush as if she caught me enthusiastically picking my nose. The result is an awkward photo that is neither aesthetically pleasing nor a pleasant experience. It makes sense, that for those who prioritize digital representation over lived experience, digital peers’ approval or disapproval holds greater weight than those in the physical world.
The saying goes that curiosity killed the cat, yet curiosity regarding the lives of others is a distinctly human feature. Somewhere over the more recent history of human evolution, this curiosity has become a compulsive obsession. For many, particularly those of us who grew up in the age of Angelfire and Keeping up with the Kardashians, just as compulsive is the desire, or dare I say – the need – to reveal ourselves to others in search of connection. We may have different approaches, aren’t we all just searching for connection in life?
This morning, as I sat on the floor outside the studio tying my point shoes before class, I heard a soft voice ask me “How long have you been doing point work? I would love to one day!” I looked up to see TikTok girl smiling at me. I began to wonder, had I judged her too harshly? We all have our way of sharing and connecting with others. While I gush to my friends about how I learned to do a grand fouetté en tournant, creating YouTube and TikTok videos is her way of sharing what she loves. I am still wary of a growing lack of respect for others in the pursuit of content creation, but for now, I’m learning to tune out the potential gaze of the omnipresent cellphone camera.