Code of points
Or, how to solve a pipeline problem
Hello, good readers —
Who’s exhausted? You’re exhausted. I’m exhausted. We are all bone-deep, full-body, whole-soul wiped out, fatigued on a cellular and spiritual level.
This year has just been so much. I say that as someone who is not a parent, who has not been sick, and who has not lost a job. There are so many people who are worse off than I am. And now, as we head into what is supposed to be the joyous, fun, family-oriented stretch of celebrations, all we have is rising positive test rates and the grim truth that right now, to gather with our family is to risk killing a member of someone else’s. It is going to be a long, dark winter.
If you are the kind of person who likes the Nutcracker, though, there is some good news to be had (I say “if,” because plenty of dancers who grow up in American dance schools cannot bear to hear even a few notes of Waltz of the Flowers because they’ve performed so many Nutcrackers that their brains just can’t handle it anymore).
San Francisco Ballet, for example, is putting on a digital Nutcracker, a filmed production (from 2008) and a “digital journey” that will include choreography tutorials and a virtual tour of the War Memorial Opera House, the ballet’s stage home.
Houston Ballet will be screening excerpts of its regular Nutcracker, plus premiering new works set to Christmas carols.
Boston Ballet will air its Nutcracker on NBC six times in November and December.
And your local ballet school or company might be doing something digital, too (my local dance school, for example, has filmed scenes from its Nutcracker outside and all over town, and will cut it all together into a streamable production). Ballet schools and companies are doing what they can, trying to replace the revenue that this production reliably brings in every year and that, for some companies, accounts for 40% or more of annual ticket sales. Help them out, if you can.
A few weeks ago, I sat down with the Dance Data Project as part of their Global Conversations series, in which they’ve been interviewing creative and institutional leaders in the ballet world to talk about surviving the coronavirus crisis and rebuilding more equitably on the other side. DDP’s research on the gender gap in choreography and company leadership was essential to me as I was writing Turning Pointe (did you know that for every one woman running a ballet company in America, there are three men, and that only one of the largest ten companies in the country is run by a woman? Not great!).
Anyway, one thing that was cut from our conversation, which you can watch here (it’s 25 minutes) is the question of how to make the bodies that are put on professional ballet stages more representative of the population at large: by race, by size, by shape, by (dis)ability.
As often happens, the challenge of finding dancers who are not super-skinny, white and able-bodied was termed a “pipeline problem.” Another way of saying that is, “we would totally hire those dancers and put them on stage, but they don’t audition for us because no one’s training them to our standards.” I heard that from artistic directors a lot as I was reporting this book.
And to that I say: You have it precisely backwards. If you are a leader in ballet — if you are a leader anywhere — then you make the pipeline. You set the standard. You send the signal about what you want, and the rest of the ecosystem — the schools, the teachers, the curricula — adapt to that. This has already happened: as ballet companies perform more contemporary work, ballet schools have added contemporary training to their curricula to give students a better chance on the job market.
If you’ll permit me a detour, I want to talk about gymnastics for a second. Gymnastics, as you might have noticed if you’ve made a habit of watching the summer Olympics, looks very different than it used to a few decades ago — and it’s basically unrecognizable from what it was a few decades before that. The level of difficulty that girls and women are now incorporating into their routines now borders on the superhuman, beyond all understandings of physics. That’s especially true on floor, where tumbling has taken over from dancing, and on balance beam, where the acrobatic skills are now more advanced on a 4-inch beam than they used to be on the floor exercise.
The reason that shift happened is because of something called the Code of Points, which is the rubric gymnastics’ governing body, the Fédération International de Gymnastique (FIG) uses to determine how to judge a routine. The Code of Points gives every skill in gymnastics — every backflip, every turn on beam — a difficulty rating from A (the easiest) to J (the hardest), and determines how much that skill is worth, in points, when it’s inserted into a routine and executed perfectly.
In 2006, the code was overhauled, and now instead of one score out of 10 that takes in both difficulty and execution, gymnasts received separate scores for each of those: an execution score out of 10, and a difficulty score that’s theoretically limitless. Those two numbers are combined, and now a good score in gymnastics is in the 15s, instead of the 9.9s.
That overhaul changed what gymnasts are asked to do with their bodies in some fundamental ways. Because they’re now rewarded for performing more difficult skills, they’re incentivized to add those skills into their routines, even if they won’t be able to perform them flawlessly. Innovation has been valued over, or at least equally to, perfect execution. (For example, the Code of Points bumped up the difficulty value of wolf turns, and wolf turns are hideous and basically no one can do them well, but everyone does wolf turns because even if you do them badly… D-points).
And now, gymnastics looks very different than it used to. It’s not only that it’s harder now. It’s that different bodies with different strengths have been rewarded in the sport. Gymnasts who are strong tumblers have risen to the top of the ranks, because tumbling is now more valued by the Code, and those gymnasts are now getting higher scores. Simone Biles, a once-in-a-generation talent in tumbling and vault, would have succeeded under the old system. Under the new one, she has become this era’s most dominant athlete.
All of this is to say that what happens at the top shapes the pipeline beneath. If you incentivize tumbling, you’ll get better tumblers. The same can be true of ballet, although it doesn’t have an official Code of Points. If leaders at the top signal that darker-skinned dancers and larger dancers, and dancers with disabilities, are actually hireable — by hiring them — then the landscape of schools will shift to meet that demand. The pipeline will change if the people stocking that pipeline — namely teachers and parents — see that their dancers actually have a place to go, a chance at a job. Ballet teachers will stop funneling their fatter dancers away from ballet and encourage them to stay in it, or suggesting that their Black dancers audition for modern companies where they might have a better shot at getting a job. Ballet parents will see that their kid actually has a chance of dancing for a living, and support them to keep training towards that goal.
Artistic directors, remember, would totally hire those dancers and put them on stage, but they don’t audition because no one’s training them to their standards. If that’s true, it’s because you’re not incentivizing them. You’re not showing them you’re serious about hiring them. Your Code of Points, unspoken but very easily understood, shows them there’s no place for them in your company. You won’t fix the pipeline until you fix your Code of Points.
In short, the pipeline is not the problem, as leaders in ballet like to say (and leaders elsewhere: I’m looking at you, corporate America). Leaders are the problem, and the solution.
And here’s a video of Simone Biles, as a reward for sticking with me through that.
That’s all from me this week. Thanks, as always, for reading.