When did your fascination with dance start?
I was a little kid living in Philadelphia. We were watching something on NBC, a ballet of some kind. And there was a ballerina there doing pirouettes, and she had on a tutu, and I said, “I want to do that.” I was 5, maybe 4.
What I did was go to the library and check out a book on ballet and started working on the positions by myself. Over time, I took a tap/modern ballet combination class at the Y, and did dance and gymnastics through high school. I started taking ballet classes in college at UC Riverside and have been taking them ever since.
And you founded a professional ballet company here on the West Coast. You also went to work in business and in municipal finance consulting. How did that come about?
Nobody wants you to be a dance major, at least not in my family. So as an avocation I always danced, and I majored in something else, eventually finishing with my bachelor’s degree in economics. Later, I was looking for an MFA program, but decided to do an interdisciplinary Ph.D. instead. My dissertation had to do with the way ballet companies are run in different countries.
Did you start researching dance in TV advertising because you liked ads with dance or because you couldn’t stand them?
Advertisers learned really early on that they had to go to aesthetics to get people to pay attention to their ads in the first place, because nobody wants to hear, “This is going to be good for you because….” Commercials like the Diet Pepsi “Brown & Bubbly” commercial, or the T-Mobile commercial in the Liverpool train station, or like the Kia Soul commercial with dancing hamsters: those are aesthetics. They’re beautiful art forms even though they reside in cyberspace or television. It was an iPod advertisement that actually got me really into this.
But there’s a problem, right?
Yeah. The problem is, the advertisers are taking something that would be considered sacred in a particular social setting and using it to further consumption of a product that people don’t really need.
Dances like hip-hop and jazz, or social dances like rave, are social commentary. When you see people out there dancing, they’re actually saying something back about the superstructure, making a commentary. When you take dance out of that context and change it so that it’s tied to consumption, you diminish it. You diminish the power that was there.
So would it be better to have ads without dance?
Look, everyone likes to have a good time. But I also know that we live in a world where fewer and fewer people are being exposed to dance in the streets and in the theater. I find that deeply troubling.
The other day I went to the Apple store and I downloaded some music, and I had it going into my subwoofers and my big speakers in my office at home, and I turned it up, and I’m standing there and I’m dancing by myself in my office. Back in the day, we used to do that in a group. You have your music outside, or you have it at a party. People might still be doing that – they probably are – but I think it’s happening less and less as a real social environment and it’s happening more and more virtually.
Why do advertisers think it’s effective to use dance? Are they right?
It works in this area of awe. When you see people dance, you go, “Wow. Oh, man, that was really, really awesome.” There’s some relationship between a positive movement in your body, whether you know it or not, and a perception toward a brand. This is part of what we’re looking into.
What happens in this car commercial for the Kia Soul, the one with the hamsters and the warrior robots dancing together in a post-apocalyptic landscape?
The animated cyborgs are so happy that they’re dancing. They stop fighting.
I mean, what makes the ad interesting for you?
A car is a high-involvement product, and high-involvement products are candidates for emotional appeals. And the ad has lots of African-American dance, hip-hop or whatever, moved off of an African-American body and put onto animated beings.
Depending upon how you read that, it might not be so cool for you. Black social dance has been in the background of television advertising since the 1950s, since the dawn of television, but people could only swallow the aesthetic on the television if it was on a non-black person.
And here it’s on cartoon hamsters and deadly robots. This seems like some sort of strange progression. In the Pepsi commercial, the can dances.
There’s a human universal that people have danced since the beginning of time. Maybe what’s happening is that the way that we dance is transitioning away from what it has been to something else. I don’t know.
If you pull up a Yahoo page, you’ll see a little ad over there with somebody dancing about getting a degree. The big question we should ask is whether this is favorable or detrimental. Do we get to a point in a society where we no longer have dance on the ground?