After repeated side-eyes from my mother and incredulous reactions from friends, I finally made it to the theater to see Us, Jordan Peele’s latest thriller. The dancer and budding culture critic in me are both glad I did.
Us is the kind of work where every bit of imagery carries weight. At the same time, every viewer has permission to draw their own conclusions after seeing the film. Because there’s so much to see and take in, everyone is going to zero in on one thing or another that jumped out at them. For me, the visual that stood out the most was Peele’s use of dance to drive the story.
Obligatory disclaimer: This article has spoilers. If you haven’t seen Us and plan to in the near future, read at your own risk.
Dance and Us
Dance, specifically ballet, plays an integral role in the development of Us’ central characters Adelaide “Addie” Wilson (played by the stunning Lupita Nyong’o) and her tethered twin Red. Addie’s growth as a ballerina speaks to themes surrounding expression of Blackness, assimilation, duality, the other-ness of the Black body and Black liberation.
From the film’s start, dance takes centerstage as a mode of communication for Addie. She uses ballet to recover from a traumatic experience with her tethered reflection at a funhouse in Santa Cruz that rendered her mute. Several flashbacks show Addie doing exercises at the barre as a little girl. Notably, Addie avoids her reflection in a studio mirror as she practices out of fear of seeing her tethered reflection smirking at her.
Over the course of the film, ballet becomes a recurrent part of Addie’s relationship with Red as Red reveals that a solo Addie performed as a teenager (which she recreated underground), inspired her to help the tethered escape and murder their human counterparts.
At the climax of the film, the two engage in one final pas de deux as images of Addie’s teen solo (set to The Nutcracker’s “Pas De Deux: Intrada”) flash in between. Addie ultimately bests Red and kills her as the two share one last, jarring embrace.
But, just before the movie’s conclusion, we learn that “Addie” is actually one of the tethered, and dragged her real world counterpart underground after their first meeting, taking her place above. So it was actually the tethered Addie studying ballet, avoiding her reflection as she did pliés, and performing a solo in front of a crowd, as real-world Addie became her subterranean shadow.
Ballet and Blackness
As I said before, Jordan Peele’s selection of ballet to drive Addie’s growth is no accident. As Addie grapples with the existence of a tethered version of herself, her study of dance parallels her attempts to regain and perform normalcy as she addresses her blackness.
Historically, dance has acted as a method of communication, celebration and identification in the Black community. Take, for example, Crip walking, which allowed gang members to identify themselves through a series of detailed foot movements and hand signs. On college campuses, Black Greek letter organizations (of which I am a member) codified their history and distinguished themselves with stepping and strolling. Even traditional African dances held a variety of purposes, from courtship, to denoting social class or occupation.
By contrast, ballet is a genre that originated in renaissance-era Europe and was traditionally inhabited by white people as a demonstration of class and nobility. Though Black ballerinas have made important strides throughout dance history, it remains a style known for rejecting Black people and their bodies. Why else would it be news that a pointe shoe company finally started making brown shoes in 2018?
Addie, in her study of ballet, attempts to fit its rigid, Eurocentric standards, sacrificing elements of her Blackness in the process. During her solo, we see her childhood pigtails and oversized Thriller tee replaced by a sleek bun and a sparkly white tutu. Her body is lithe and thin as she twirls onstage. But, as she gains acceptance through the lens of a style that glorifies white bodies, Addie ultimately loses her innate, rhythmic connection to Black movement as viewers see when she struggles to snap on beat in the movie’s opening scene.
Reflections in Ballet
Conforming to the demands of the ballet world, Addie finds herself unwilling or unable to see herself, even as she dances in a room full of mirrors. Addie’s literal fear of her reflection becomes symbolic when you consider the timing of the movie. Us, and presumably, Addie’s dance training, begin in 1986. In 1986, the Rockettes hadn’t accepted their first black dancer. Lauren Anderson hadn’t made history as the first Black principal dancer in The Houston Ballet – and wouldn’t for another four years. Misty Copeland was a child and more than two decades away from becoming The American Ballet Theatre’s first Black female principal dancer.
We as the audience are led to believe that Addie avoids her reflection out of the dread of seeing her tethered twin grinning back. But, as Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz said, “[I]f you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” One can only wonder if the person gazing back at Addie really is a monster, or if a lack of representation in the ballet world forced Addie to see herself as other and recoil from her own image.
Ballet and the struggle for liberation
The film’s plot twist further connects the idea of assimilation to Addie’s ballet career. Rather than pursuing dance to heal, Peele seems to imply that tethered Addie actually used dance to help her assimilate and appear human. Meanwhile, her formerly untethered self, now Red, dances with her underground, hitting walls and collapsing as Addie soars at center stage, with both finally realizing their own individual freedom during the peak ballet solo. Addie releases herself from her tethered past, gaining acceptance in a white art form, and Red sees that she can liberate the tethered through her dance. In their final confrontation, the two characters’ interpretations of their movement and corporeality merge as they fight for dominance in the untethered world.
It seems this choreographic struggle for freedom between Addie and Red is intentional. In an interview for Vanity Fair, Us producer Ian Cooper mentioned that the choreography for Addie’s solos revolved around the idea of “[P]recariousness—as if you should have a partner but you don’t.” As teens, Addie and Red dance separately but together. When they meet face-to-face years later, the two perform their adversarial duet as it was meant to be danced–in urgent unison, with the knowledge that liberation and the ability to live and move without inhibition are at stake.
The idea of the phantom partner and two opposing identities moving together reinforces the ideas of two great Black intellects: W.E.B. Du Bois’ and James Baldwin. Du Bois’ concept of double consciousness–the notion that Black people have multiple warring selves inside them, held together only by their intrinsic strength– and James Baldwin’s assertion that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time” both shine through in Red and Addie.
For me, this duality is key to understanding how ballet weaves through Us’ plot. Though Addie appears calm and serene onstage as she performs for an approving audience, her inner consciousness of herself as a Black woman, lies just beneath the surface, embodied in Red’s attempts to copy Addie’s solo. This private ego becomes more frustrated and enraged as it is suppressed and hidden. Similarly, no matter how much we try to conceal and code-switch our Blackness away, it remains. And just as Red finally escapes her prison, our anger, history, trauma and our desire for freedom will eventually emerge and wreak havoc on the people and institutions that try to bury it.