No Give Back’s: The Appropriation of Contemporary Dance in Pop Culture

As a teenager, at summer camp, my friend and I shared a wardrobe one summer. Instead of organizing our closets separately, we lumped everything into a pool of tops and bottoms. We were sixteen, it was the nineties, there were a lot of cut-offs and spaghetti straps. The deal was this: if a compliment was received about the other’s clothing, the wearer had to say that “these are Ori’s” or “this is Darya’s”.

At the end of those six weeks, having thoroughly worn through one another’s collections, we divvied up the goods and went home. I’ve never loved my clothes so much as those first days after I got them back. Mine, all mine. Seeing someone else in my clothes always makes me love them more.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I saw Katy Perry’s new album cover for Chained to the Rhythm. The cover, which features a sketch of a nude woman, torso up, covering her eyes with “o” shaped fingers, was so familiar. Reminded me of summer. A different kind of camp.


In 2011, on my thirtieth birthday, I arrived in Vienna for the biggest, coolest, baddest (in a good way) contemporary dance festival on the planet. I had received one of 65 sought-after DanceWeb scholarships, meaning that for five and a half weeks, I was a guest of the festival, had free reign to attend all shows, workshops and events. Dance camp for dreamers.

The festival’s poster is one I won’t forget, because we saw it all over that gorgeous gem of a city. It was the same exact image as Perry’s, only the sketch was of a man. Otherwise, everything is identical, the black on white lines, the pink shading, the posture.


Perry isn’t the first or the last to dip into the deep aesthetic pool of contemporary dance for pop culture needs, she just reminded me of the trend.

For years, our little world has kept an eye trained on Beyonce, knee-jerking at every reference (always uncredited) to Anna Teresa de Keersmaker, Alvin Ailey, Bob Fosse.

Seeing the cast of Netflix’s The OA performing Ryan Heffington’s choreography, it seems that contemporary dance has gotten one step closer to popular entertainment. Or that pop culture is stretching its hands deeper into our terrain.


I can’t help but feel nervous.

The appropriation of contemporary dance into pop culture both strengthens and weakens our form. We love the exposure but feel angry that those benefitting from our hard-won aesthetics and practices are not the true owners. Tourists not citizens. We don’t see bigger audiences at Revelations because of a twirled umbrella in Formation. Non-dance-goers don’t flock to our performances because they liked what they saw in Chandelier. And when our field takes one budget cut after another, it’s pretty tough seeing how great it looks when Beyonce does it. Because we all know that money can’t make good art but it can make art look good.

At the end of the day, we don’t get our tank top back. We don’t get credit, we don’t get paid. We get to watch someone else strut their stuff in our favorite outfit and deal with the fact that not only do they look good in it, no one’s asking where they got it.


Ori J. Lenkinski