Turning Pointe

How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself


By Chloe Angyal

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A reckoning with one of our most beloved art forms, whose past and present are shaped by gender, racial, and class inequities—and a look inside the fight for its future
Every day, in dance studios all across America, legions of little children line up at the barre to take ballet class. This time in the studio shapes their lives, instilling lessons about gender, power, bodies, and their place in the world both in and outside of dance.
In Turning Pointe, journalist Chloe Angyal captures the intense love for ballet that so many dancers feel, while also grappling with its devastating shortcomings: the power imbalance of an art form performed mostly by women, but dominated by men; the impossible standards of beauty and thinness; and the racism that keeps so many people of color out of ballet. As the rigid traditions of ballet grow increasingly out of step with the modern world, a new generation of dancers is confronting these issues head on, in the studio and on stage. For ballet to survive the twenty-first century and forge a path into a more socially just future, this reckoning is essential.




Every day, in dance studios all across America, legions of children line up at the barre and take a ballet class. This book is about what they learn there, not just about dance, but about gender, race, and power, about the value of their bodies and minds. About their place in the world both in and outside of dance.

The vast majority of those who take ballet classes in the United States are girls, many of whom aspire to grow up to become the ultimate in femininity, the epitome of a very particular kind of womanhood: a ballerina.1 Very, very few of them—an infinitesimally small number—will achieve that goal. This book is also about what awaits those who do: what the select few who make it to the top of the ballet world experience and endure in order to live their dream of dancing professionally.

Despite its widespread popularity in the United States, despite its central place in American childhood, ballet can seem a world apart—a place governed by different rules than the larger culture of the country, isolated from its most pressing problems and its overlapping crises.

Certainly the nature of ballet—its association with the economic and cultural elite, its cultivated glamour and opacity, its inescapable Frenchness and fanciness, and the almost nunlike lives that so many of its professional practitioners lead—all contribute to this sense that ballet is another world entirely.

And it’s true that ballet does have some very odd rules. For example, a ballet class doesn’t end until the students bow (or curtsy) to the teacher and he or she bows back. Sometimes the bows are performed as an elaborate choreographed sequence, completed, like every ballet exercise, first on the right side and then on the left. It’s both an odd rule and a reinforcement of the sense that ballet is a separate world, governed by a different set of laws than the world where most people live.

But as the dance scholar Brenda Dixon Gottschild wrote in her landmark book The Black Dancing Body, “Dance is a measure of society, not something apart from it.”2 And ballet—just like American society—is cracking under the weight of multiple interlocking crises, some of them of its own making.

Given the millions of children whose early lives are shaped by ballet, the art form demands our attention. And perhaps the crises rocking American society can be seen with greater, necessary clarity by examining ballet. Because ballet, like the larger society in which it sits, finds itself at a turning point: Will it remain mired in its old traditions and entrenched prejudices, or will it remake itself into something less broken and more beautiful?

While I was reporting this book, I met and interviewed dozens and dozens of inhabitants of the ballet world—dancers, teachers, choreographers, artistic directors, parents, health care providers—who told me stories that demonstrated just how badly ballet needs to be saved from itself.

What I found was an ecosystem in crisis, made fragile and brittle by years of inequality and rendered dysfunctional by sexism, racism, elitism, and a stubborn disregard for the physical and mental well-being of the dancers who make the art form possible.

I interviewed a gifted gender nonconforming dancer who was pushed out of ballet because their teachers refused to imagine what the art form might look like without its rigid gender binary. I interviewed a Black ballet mom whose biracial daughter was subject to racist treatment at the hands of a white ballet mom. A professional dancer who injured himself onstage and continued performing through excruciating pain because his company did not offer adequate health insurance and he could not afford to miss a show. A dancer who was kept offstage because she wasn’t thin enough for her artistic director’s taste, and an artistic director who described firing dancers for being “out of shape.” A Black choreographer who watched his white classmates get handed opportunities he was denied despite his comparable talent and potential. A former elite ballet student who remembered the creepy requests her teachers had made of her and her teenage classmates—and another former elite ballet student who sued one of the world’s most revered ballet institutions for creating what she called a “fraternity-like atmosphere,” a fertile environment for sexualized abuse of women by men.3

Each of these stories suggested that some essential part of the ballet world was breaking down. Together, they revealed that the ecosystem was perhaps already broken, and that, in turn, it was breaking people.

Inhabitants of the American ballet world—people who loved ballet and needed it to love them back—warned me that unless something changed, unless ballet’s gatekeepers could radically reimagine what the art form could be and whom it could serve, it would die: death by irrelevance, death by inaccessibility, death by excluding the very dancers and creators and audience members who could keep it alive and carry it into the future.

For some observers the die-off might have been difficult to detect, but the more marginalized members of the ballet world, made prophetic by their exclusion, could see it happening. They could feel it. It was a slow-motion extinction happening one ballet dancer and one ballet dream at a time.

And then the flood came.

By April 2020, just a few months after I finished the bulk of the reporting for this book, the coronavirus pandemic had swept over the ballet world, wiping away familiar structures and leaving others in a desperate state.

Theaters and dance studios sat empty. Spring recitals were called off. Emerging choreographers had their debuts postponed, and retiring dancers had their farewell performances canceled. Ballet schools pivoted to Zoom classes and then to drastically reduced class sizes, and students staged digital performances and recorded video competition entries. Ballet companies pivoted to digital offerings, emergency fund appeals, and dance pods after canceling their spring seasons.

Around the country, professional ballet dancers kept dancing as best they could in their cramped apartments, using kitchen counters and balcony railings as makeshift barres as they tried to stay in shape through furloughs. Footage of dancers making do in their homes went viral, supposedly inspirational videos of dancers jumping on shin splint–inducing hardwood floors and attempting grand battements in their living rooms as their confused cats dodged their swinging legs.

Some dancers had company contracts to go back to but no idea when they’d be able to go back to them; others were still employed but were barely being paid. Still others saw their freelance dance performance opportunities disappear overnight but remained hopeful that the second half of the year could be salvaged.

By May, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen, as theaters stayed dark and companies that had canceled their spring seasons canceled their summer intensives and residencies. Then their fall seasons, then their Nutcrackers. The Nutcracker is to an American ballet company what the fall football season is to a state school: an essential source of revenue that funds the rest of the year’s operations.4 At some ballet companies, Nutcracker takings account for close to 50 percent of the year’s ticket sales.5

As was the case for so many parts of American life, the pandemic exposed the fragility and dysfunction of a system that had been working well enough for enough privileged people that its failings could be papered over and explained away. And as is the case for so many parts of American life, ballet is never going back to how it was before the flood.

Nor should it: as I learned in my reporting, what was normal for some had already been a crisis for too many others. In the words of Sean Aaron Carmon, a Black contemporary dancer and choreographer who performed with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before joining the touring cast of Disney’s The Lion King, “Your normal was our oppression.”

Take, for example, the racial segregation of the American ballet world, where dancers of color and especially Black dancers have had to struggle for generations to get access to elite ballet training and achieve even a token presence in the nation’s most prestigious predominately white ballet institutions. There are still American ballet companies—high-profile ones in large and racially diverse cities, with big budgets and large feeder schools—that have just one or two Black dancers in their ranks.

It took two simultaneous crises—a global pandemic and a global mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter movement—for a large number of American ballet companies to finally make meaningful public commitments to racial justice. In the spring of 2020, under pressure from dancers of color and amid a national reckoning with police brutality against Black people that prompted parallel outrage about employment discrimination in a range of fields, many American ballet companies and schools participated in well-publicized social media actions pronouncing their intention to become more diverse and inclusive.

Schools and companies pledged to do better at recruiting, hiring, and retaining dancers and faculty members of color, especially Black artists and teachers. Companies promised to commission and perform more works by choreographers of color and to remove offensive depictions of racial and ethnic minorities from their existing productions (for example, the “Chinese” tea segment of The Nutcracker, which is often performed in yellowface). White dancers committed to speaking out about racial injustices in their field. And in the months that followed, there were some signs of progress: dance schools and companies around the country introduced new rules permitting dancers of color to wear tights and shoes that matched their skin tone, and two of the nation’s most prestigious companies commissioned several new ballets by choreographers of color. What began in the summer of 2020 has the potential to prompt a genuine reckoning with the art form’s overwhelming and closely guarded whiteness.

Such a reckoning isn’t just long overdue; it’s essential, and those of us who care about the future of ballet should welcome it. If ballet survives, it will be because of the individuals and institutions who are demanding that it do better, who have long loved ballet and are now insisting that it, finally, love them back.

I caught my first glimpse of the future of ballet before the pandemic, in the spring of 2018. It came to me in the dark, as so many moments of revelation do, at the very end of a performance of Giselle, one of the most beloved ballets in the classical canon, with a title role that women in ballet dream of dancing.

The story of Giselle is classic fairy tale fare—the old kind of fairy tale, unsweetened and un-Disneyfied. A peasant girl, Giselle, falls for Albrecht, a duke in disguise. She doesn’t know that Albrecht, who appears to be a peasant, is in fact engaged to a noblewoman. When Albrecht’s deception is revealed by the jealous gamekeeper who also loves Giselle, she goes mad and dies of despair. In death, she joins the Wilis, forest spirits—all women, all victims of masculine betrayal—who trap men in the woods and force them to dance to their deaths. But when the Wilis descend on a grieving Albrecht, Giselle—in an act of love and forgiveness—saves his life. The two are reunited for a brief moment before she returns to her woodland grave and he returns to his castle on the hill.

Like many beloved story ballets, Giselle is a tragedy, a tale of love, betrayal, and forgiveness. And as in many beloved story ballets, the heroine dies (or stays dead) at the end. That’s the way the story has been told since the ballet was first staged in Paris in 1841, with choreography by two men and a libretto by two men, based on source material by two other men.

In almost three decades of watching ballet, I had only ever seen this version, the men’s version, of the story—until the evening at the Joyce Theater in New York City when I saw Dada Masilo’s version of Giselle.

Masilo, a Black South African choreographer, took the familiar music of Adolphe Adam and the choreography of Jules Perrot and Marius Petipa and remixed them, adding South African rhythms and steps to create something recognizable but radical. Masilo made other changes, too. For example, in the first act, she highlighted the sexualized shame that Giselle feels when she discovers that her lover has lied about his identity. In traditional productions, Giselle pulls down her hair in the famous “mad scene,” her change in appearance indicating to the audience that she, too, is coming undone. In Masilo’s production, Giselle is stripped of some of her clothing, left vulnerable, humiliated, and exposed by Albrecht’s deception.

And in the second act of Masilo’s Giselle, when Giselle is given the chance to save Albrecht from the deadly revenge of her ghost sisters, she does something I’d never seen her do before: she lets him die. He begs her for forgiveness, but she does not grant it. Instead, she lets the man who betrayed her die, and in the final moments of the music, she steps over his dead body and walks off the stage into a bright light.

This “cold-blooded” interpretation of Giselle, wrote the Undefeated’s Soraya Nadia McDonald in a beaming review, allowed the character to feel something I hadn’t seen in any other production: “untapped feminine rage.”6

McDonald compared the ballet’s final scene to the iconic moment in the movie Waiting to Exhale when Angela Bassett’s Bernadine, her face eloquent with rage and her nails impeccable, sets her cheating husband’s car alight. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” McDonald wrote, “but Masilo’s Giselle doesn’t need her love for Albrecht to serve as her guiding light. Choosing herself will suffice.”

When the curtain came down at the Joyce that night, I sat in my seat, mouth open, for quite a while. I was not just moved; I was flabbergasted. It had never occurred to me that Giselle had always had this option, that she could choose something else for herself and for the man who wronged her. That she could do something different with the strange power death had brought her.

In all those years of watching this ballet, I had never asked, Why does Giselle forgive the man who got her killed? What if she didn’t? What if he didn’t deserve her clemency? I did not think it was a coincidence that the first production to ask these questions, the first version of Giselle to truly reckon with the damage Albrecht’s lies do to Giselle’s spirit, was also the first version I’d ever seen that was choreographed by a woman of color.

Masilo’s production was an intoxicating taste of what this old art form might look like in the hands of the people it has long excluded.

I had had glimpses of this kind of revelation before, mostly by observing other people who were experiencing it. A year earlier, in the spring of 2017, I’d gone to Lincoln Center with the HuffPost Video team to interview audience members at a weekday matinee performance of American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake, starring Misty Copeland. Copeland had been promoted to principal dancer two years before, the first—and to date the only—Black woman to dance at that rank in the company’s eighty-one-year history (its closest domestic rival, New York City Ballet, which performs across Lincoln Center’s plaza, has never had a Black woman principal in its seventy-two-year history).

That day, we interviewed six-year-old girls and sixty-something-year-old women, many of whom had come to the ballet for the very first time specifically to see Misty. One had come as part of a group of Black women who had chartered a bus from Delaware. One teenage dance student said she hadn’t realized Black girls could do ballet until she learned about Copeland. And a trio of Black women said that before Copeland had been promoted to dancing principal roles at ABT, they had traveled the country to see her perform as a guest artist with other companies that would put her in principal roles.

I stood outside the Metropolitan Opera House that baking June day, watching a huge and racially diverse audience line up for a sold-out performance. They were buzzing with excitement, and so was I. It felt like we were standing at the culmination of a long struggle and the beginning of a thrilling new era.

While writing this book, I experienced that spark of hope over and over again, the sense that ballet can be saved from its own narrow, exclusive, and self-defeating understanding of who gets to dance and how, of who belongs in this art form and how they deserve to be treated. Of whose ballet dreams matter.

As I was writing this book, there were two questions I was asked over and over again. First, was I ever a professional ballet dancer? I was not.

I started ballet lessons almost as soon as I could walk, and my parents’ photo albums are full of proof of how much I loved dancing. There are photos of me in ballet class in a cold and dusty church hall in Sydney, Australia, photos of me backstage in a recital costume and garish early-90s makeup, photos of me under the Christmas tree in a bathing suit and ballet slippers, because what is a bathing suit if not a leotard you can swim in?

Was I the most talented or skilled dancer on that recital stage? Grainy VHS evidence suggests I wasn’t. But I was the most committed dancer, the most delighted to be out there, the most extra. I just loved to dance.

I took ballet lessons on and off throughout my childhood, taking some time away for a detour into gymnastics, which reshaped my body in a way that I was told was incompatible with serious ballet training. Once I quit gymnastics and hit puberty, it became clear that in addition to lacking the rigorous training and exceptional talent a girl needs to make it as a ballet dancer, I really didn’t have the body for it—or rather, I had too much body for it.

But even as I moved into other styles of dance, like lyrical jazz and Broadway-style jazz, I never stopped trying to be good at ballet, and I never stopped loving it. I joined a mixed-style dance company in college, and after graduation I moved to New York City to begin a career in journalism. Eventually, at HuffPost, where I had originally been hired to cover breaking news, I carved out a mini beat for myself: the ballet beat.

My knowledge of the lives of professional ballet dancers comes not from experience but from five years of reporting. From this vantage point, as a white journalist, there are surely some intimate details I have missed, especially of the experiences of dancers of color, but there are certainly some large patterns that I have been able to identify.

The other question I was asked as I wrote this book was, Is Turning Pointe a history of ballet? It is not. There are already dozens of rigorously researched, beautifully written histories of ballet. I depended on many of them in order to write this book, and I’m quite sure historians are at work on even more of them as I write this sentence.

I am not a historian. I am a sociologist and media researcher by training, and a journalist and writer by trade. And so this book is not about ballet’s history. Instead, it is about ballet’s present and, most crucially, its future.

This book is also not a scandalized exposé, a revelation that a world defined by beauty and refinement has a secret, seedy underbelly. Because ballet’s secret, seedy underbelly isn’t a secret at all; it’s fodder for a steady supply of movies and television shows. Ballet’s unusual blend of glamour and repression makes it easy to fathom a twisted dark truth behind the upright glittering beauty we see onstage.

I almost wish I had written that kind of book: people love a good scandal. But instead, I wrote a book about an art form that I love, and the ways in which that art form is broken, and how that brokenness endangers its survival.

It’s true that some of that brokenness involves scandals, the kind of bleed-and-lead stories that make the papers. More often, though, it involves the kind of systemic and cultural exclusion—by race, by class, by gender—that shapes the rest of American life.

In fact, even the bleeding-and-leading stories, stories about sexual harassment, gruesome injury, and suicide, can be traced to those systemic problems and to the ballet world’s skewed power dynamics. Those power dynamics leave certain groups of people extraordinarily vulnerable to exploitation, and that exploitation can result in physical injury, mental illness, and obvious violations of bodily autonomy, workers’ rights, and basic human dignity.

And although I am not a historian, I believe that imagining ballet’s just and equitable future requires a full reckoning with its unjust and inequitable past. To give just one example, that means being honest about the Great Men who made great contributions to the art form, and how their shortcomings also contributed to ballet’s current brokenness.

It means talking about George Balanchine’s revolutionary choreography and his reactionary gender politics. It means quoting his inspirational aphorisms about art—“First comes the sweat, then comes the beauty”—without forgetting the appalling things he said to his dancers—“Now, Allegra, no more babies. Enough is enough. Babies are for Puerto Ricans.”7

It means admiring Jerome Robbins’s work—his groundbreaking The Cage and his gorgeous Dances at a Gatheringand acknowledging that he treated the dancers who performed those ballets with abusive cruelty.8

And it means noticing the ways in which the history of ballet, and thus our current understanding of the art form, have been shaped by the failure to be honest, the failure to recognize abuse as abuse, and the entrenched tendency to privilege excellent work over the experience of workers. That these workers are also artists is no excuse, even though it has long been used as one. For decades, the men—and they are almost all men—who have wielded power in ballet have been described in terms that accept the abuse of dancers as the cost of great dancing.

Historians have long written about “fiery” and “choleric” teachers, about “tyrannical” but “visionary” choreographers who worked their dancers “to the point of fainting”—before swiftly moving on to praise those men for their contributions to the art form. Consider historian Carol Lee’s description of Charles-Louis Didelot, a Swedish- and French-trained Frenchman who taught in Russia in the early 1800s:

Accounts of Didelot’s tempestuous classroom demeanor were legendary in their time and rank high among the most colorful stories to come down from thirteen generations of dancers.… A dynamo of energy and impatience, for up to five hours he would cajole, demand, slap, and rage at his youthful charges. He spared neither his foot nor his stick to elicit the proper execution of exercises and steps of the danse d’ecole. The more gifted the dancer, the harsher the blows. The students feared him and dreaded his classes. At the same time Didelot’s ferocious artistic integrity inspired his pupils and they worshipped their terrifying teacher.9

Or consider dance journalist Joseph Mazo’s 1974 account of New York City Ballet under cofounders Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein: “Lincoln knows perfectly well why dancers become injured; he knows the stresses that weary and erode them, but a dancer who gets hurt is ‘an idiot’—because the resulting injury prevents him from performing [Balanchine’s] ballets. Still, there is an undertone to the calling of names, ‘idiot… fool… bitch… cow… stupid,’ the sound of a mother badmouthing children she loves, wishing them stronger, safer, more secure and more obedient.”10

Just as it is not somehow anti-ballet to take full account of the art form’s brokenness, it is not disrespectful to these men to be honest about their shortcomings. Rather, it is disrespectful to ballet, to the dancers who suffered at the hands of these men, and to the next generation of ballet dancers to ignore those shortcomings or to make excuses for them.

If ballet is going to survive in the twenty-first century, if it is going to chart a path into a more socially just future, this reckoning is due, too. In fact, it is long overdue.

The reporting for this book included approximately one hundred interviews with members of the dance world—dancers and former dancers, teachers, choreographers, artistic directors, health care providers, students, parents—most conducted in late 2019 and early 2020. Not all of these people are quoted in the pages that follow, but many are. All but a few interviews were recorded and transcribed, in which cases I have removed verbal tics and filler words (“um,” “uh,” “like,” “you know”) unless they seemed essential to the tone of the quote. A handful of interviews were reconstructed from notes I took during the conversation. Some people are quoted anonymously or using a pseudonym so they could speak freely about institutions they once or still belonged to. When I interviewed people under eighteen, it was with a parent’s or guardian’s permission, and I have used pseudonyms for minors unless a parent gave me permission to use the minor’s real name.

Ballet is a global phenomenon. It began in France and Italy, but now you can learn or watch ballet everywhere from Sydney, Australia, where I grew up, to the suburbs of Iowa City, where I now live. With very few exceptions, this book is about the United States, mostly for practical reasons: that is where I live, and a book that reported on the experiences of ballet dancers in other countries would have required a travel budget and language proficiencies that I did not possess.

In choosing whom to interview for this book, I prioritized racial and geographical diversity, with mixed success; my sources were scattered all over the country, but because New York is the center of gravity in American ballet, many of the people I interviewed were based there, even if they’d begun their dance training elsewhere. Similarly, about 35 percent of my sources were people of color, with a concentration among dancers; this reflected a block in the pipeline that carries artists from dancing to positions of greater artistic and administrative power, like choreographing and running ballet companies.

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  • “Groundbreaking…. Shining a frequently unflattering but hopeful light on the future of the art.”—Ms. Magazine
  • “In this captivating debut, journalist Angyal mounts a thorough examination of classical ballet’s fraught history of racial, sexual, and class bias and the reckoning from within that’s pushing to change it… Timely and thought-provoking, this book is a must for ballet lovers and anyone interested in the cultural conversation.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Incisive and unsparing…. an important read for ballet lovers and an essential part of any conversation moving forward.”—Boston Globe
  • “Angyal’s reporting is thorough and compelling, and some of the stories she relates are heartbreaking…. Required reading for anyone who loves ballet and cares about its future.”—Library Journal
  • “A vigorously reported critique of common policies and practices in the ballet world.”—Kirkus Reviews
  • “Angyal, a journalist and former dancer, raises the curtain and goes backstage to reveal why this beloved cultural tradition is imperiled.”—Booklist
  • Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself is a painstaking, and often painful, assessment of the troubling racialized, gendered, and classed lessons of classical ballet. Angyal’s sharp analysis invites us to wonder how ballet might expand if it did not require broken toes, torn ligaments, starving dancers, or pink tights. This is the book for all of us who loved ballet but found it did not love us back.”
     —Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University and cohost of System Check
  • “This is the book I desperately needed as a teenage ballerina, when I mistakenly thought there was something wrong with me rather than ballet’s culture. Having read it, I want to buy copies for every aspiring dancer, as well as the gatekeepers who most need to read it. Angyal reports with urgency and precision about what draws young dancers to ballet, and how it needs to change to keep them there. Turning Pointe is a long-overdue reckoning for an art form that excludes and injures its dancers as much as it dazzles them.”—Ellen O’Connell Whittet, author of What You Become in Flight
  • “The best art is not an escape for the audience, but a journey. It uses beauty incisively, and that is what Chloe Angyal’s writing does. In her essential observations about her beloved ballet, she reminds us of the necessity of thinking critically, especially about that which we love the most.”—Jamil Smith, journalist and contributor to Believe Me
  • “There’s no question: Turning Pointe is a groundbreaking book that stands to shift the nature of ballet as we know it. The depth of reporting is astounding, inspiring, and necessary: Chloe Angyal doesn’t just explore ballet, she examines it, holding up magnifying glasses and mirrors to the inequities and systemic issues that have persisted for too long, the innovation unfolding in studios and on stages, and the shattering of rigid tradition that today’s ballet can’t let stand. With Angyal’s obvious passion for the art form and thoughtful, immersive conversations with sources from across the ballet world at the heart of this book, Turning Pointe is a must-read for any current or former dancer, dance parent, or individual who is interested in a vibrant, inclusive future of a classical art form. Turning Pointe reads like a reckoning—one that can truly change ballet for the better.”—Rainesford Stauffer, author of An Ordinary Age
  • "Angyal’s Turning Pointe is a vital industry manifesto for a new era in ballet."—New York Journal of Books
  • "If you want an immaculately researched and piercing look at ballet and its costs, look no further. Truly, I inhaled it. Heavy stuff, but told with so much skill and energy."—Brandon Taylor, author of Real Life
  • Turning Pointe isn’t always an easy read, but it’s an important one. And it’s one whose message is, ultimately, of hope.”—Seattle Times

On Sale
May 4, 2021
Page Count
304 pages
Bold Type Books

Chloe Angyal

About the Author

Chloe Angyal is a journalist from Sydney, Australia. She is a senior editor at VICE News and her writing about politics and culture has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and elsewhere. She lives in the Iowa City area.

Learn more about this author