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Porn performer or prima ballerina? They aren't so different

How do porn laws and ballet relate? Stoya breaks it down with a look into the life of nineteenth century dancer Emma Livry

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As part of our new summer US project States of Independence we've invited our favourite 30 American curators, magazines, creatives and institutions to takeover Dazed for a day. Porn star Stoya kicks off our State of Sex week, which takes an all-encompassing look at sexuality, gender and all the flavours of the American rainbow.

Stoya kicks against all preconceived cliches, from being photographed by Sean & Seng in Prada to writing New York Times columns and campaigning for sex workers' rights. Today she bigs up her favourite artist-turned-alt-porn star Zak Smith, takes on Verso author Melissa Gira Grant in a head-to-head and draws the parallels between the sex industry and French prima ballerinas. 

I went to Bluestockings in Manhattan recently and left with a stack of books. One of the books was Deirdre Kelly’s Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. It starts out exactly as salacious as the title implies and ends with a discussion of modern steps towards better workers’ rights and healthier job conditions. Somewhere in the middle is a relatively extensive retelling of Emma Livry’s story.

I was prepubescent and enrolled in a significant amount of ballet classes when I first heard of Emma Livry. She was so fantastically talented that the great Marie Taglioni herself was moved to choreograph Le papillon for Livry to dance the starring role in. After performing the role of Farfalla the Butterfly (in which the burning of her wings serves as the catalyst for the happy ending) Livry herself was actually burnt when her costume was set alight by the open flames of stage lighting during a rehearsal for the opera The Mute Girl of Portici. Then she died, because it was the mid-nineteenth century and antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet – which is definitely an ending, but difficult to classify as a happy one.

I’m unsure about the intent of the instructor who told me this anecdote. It could have been an attempt to instill gratitude for modern medical science or a desire to impart knowledge of a notable moment in the history of dance. My initial takeaway was that Emma Livry, the last major dancer of the Romantic Era, died in the most Romantic with a capital R way imaginable. 

Don’t act like Byron and his peers weren’t the poster children for opulent morbidity.

“I’m definitely not arguing for a dedicated pornography wing in the Louvre, but I would absolutely argue that adult videos are a kind of low art” – Stoya

I had no idea, until midway through reading Kelly’s Ballerina, that the French government had introduced legislation years before Livry's accident which required costumes to be treated with flame retardant chemicals. I also had no idea that a number of dancers had refused to wear the treated tutus because the chemicals made their skirts dingy and stiff, spoiling the ethereal effects they went through years of punishing physical training to achieve. 

Livry, despite having witnessed the narrowly averted death by burning of one of her coworkers, was one of the dancers who wrote letters to the Paris Opera protesting the flame resistant costumes. “I insist, sir, on dancing all first performances of the ballet in my ordinary ballet skirt, and I take it upon myself all responsibility for anything that may occur,” she writes.

After being set on fire by a stage light, experiencing burns on more than a third of her body, and suffering through treatments in which lemon juice was squeezed into her wounds, someone asked Livry if her opinions on flame retardant chemicals had changed. She acknowledged the increased safety, but maintained that she still would not wear them if she were ever able to return to work.

Dancing in a stage production, like performing in an adult film, feels like a combination of practicing the craft of performance and acting as a tool for the fulfillment of the director’s vision. The most likely negative ramifications of dancing are things like chronic snap-crackle-popping of joints at a young age and maybe a fractured or broken bone here and there. The likely negative ramifications of performing in adult entertainment are things like ostracization by family, peers, or society at large, and difficulty securing other employment later in life. 

Both careers tend to have an upper age limit, typically under thirty-five. Risks are taken and sacrifices are made for a chance at success. That success a slim possibility, and even if it is achieved it lasts for a very short window of time.

“Like Emma Livry’s distaste for stiff skirts spoiling her illusion of weightlessness, I dislike the idea of being forced to use barrier protection when the accompanying friction impedes my ability to deliver the best performance possible” – Stoya

To enter either profession is to accept the likelihood of certain harmful side effects and the risk of more serious damage. The sacrifices I’ve made for my work were willing, but they were sacrifices nonetheless and I would appreciate the freedom to continue to evaluate which risks I feel are worth taking and which safety measures I deem best to employ in each individual situation.

While I was reading Ballerina, I was spending most of my work hours attempting to hunt down a currently working adult performer who was pro-AB1576 and willing to give me an interview regarding why. California's AB1576 bill is the latest in a string of county and state legislation geared towards forcing adult performers to use condoms in sex scenes as a prophylactic, in spite of virtual mountains of statements from performers saying that what they want is the ability to choose for themselves which safety measures to use. I never did find a performer who agrees with AB1576, much less one willing to discuss it on public record.

I was struck by the similarities between the responses of the Paris Opera dancers and the reactions of California-based adult performers to outside legislation. I thought that I should probably be reacting to these new pieces of Emma Livry’s story by taking them as a warning – but I wasn’t reacting that way, and my opinion on forced barrier use at work didn’t change. I just admired Emma’s dedication to her work.

I’m definitely not arguing for a dedicated pornography wing in the Louvre, but I would absolutely argue that adult videos are a kind of low art. They are, after all, generally protected in the United States under the First Amendment. Pornography has undeniable mass appeal, and speaks to one of the most basic human needs. While it frequently caters to the lowest common denominator in an effort to be financially viable, it does occasionally produce timeless works. Consider Bettie Page, who appeared in pictures which were classified as pornographic at the time and are now deemed suitable for travel mugs and refrigerator magnets.

Like Emma Livry’s distaste for stiff skirts spoiling her illusion of weightlessness, I dislike the idea of being forced to use barrier protection when the accompanying friction impedes my ability to deliver the best performance possible. If members of the French government had listened to the dancers they were trying to protect, they could have explored options like moving the lights two feet forward or enclosing them in cages. Maybe the real lesson here is that performers and artists will do their work in the ways they consider best, and harm reduction can only be effective when their requirements are considered first.

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