Ballerinas and Information Asymmetry

We’ve written quite a bit about various information asymmetries — i.e., when one party in a transaction has a lot more information than another — and how the Internet is very good at correcting that asymmetry. Among the examples we used were the cost of term-life insurance, the price of coffins, and real-estate listings.

The Wall Street Journal recently published an interesting piece about how the Internet is attacking another sort of information asymmetry: ballet instruction. From the article, by Emily Steel:

Web videos are shaking loose the rigid hierarchy of the ballet world. Aspiring ballerinas are recording videos of themselves dancing and posting the results for people to look at and critique on the Internet. Young hopefuls put video cameras on their kitchen or bathroom floor, then do simple exercises in pointe shoes. The videos, which generally aren’t more than a minute long, attract viewer chat pointing out mistakes and offering tips. “I just wanted to see what I looked like en pointe. I’m blown away by how many comments there are, and how many people looked at it,” says 18-year-old Nicole DeHelian, who recently quit taking dancing lessons at New Horizons Dance Alliance in East Greenville, Pa.

I don’t know much about ballet, but it’s hard for me to believe that the availability of online critiques will seriously damage a craft as hand-made as ballet.

But maybe I am wrong. Maybe if online ballet critiquing had been around in the early 1940’s, my mother wouldn’t have converted from Judaism to Catholicism. She was a serious young ballerina in New York, studying intensively with a teacher who wound up also becoming her spiritual guide, and inspiring her conversion.

I tried to take advantage of some online video instruction recently. I really wanted to learn how to do a flip turn in a swimming pool, and found some terrific videos on YouTube. I studied them carefully and then went straight to the pool to try to replicate, and failed miserably. I guess I need to get a real swimming instructor to show me how — or maybe an out-of-work ballet teacher.


If you're trying to do a flip turn, the key is to really commit. Start by practicing without the wall, just lie atop the surface of the water and practice getting your head and shoulders down and flipping your legs and hips over (if you want to race, this would be as fast as you can). That's the motion you need to replicate when approaching a wall. Then you just need to practice the timing.


In fact all taxes, fines, and fees are called leaks by economists. They drain productivity form the economic system. They are an overall loss for everyone. They should be minimized, or eliminated.

If all or even most economists did indeed call all taxes, fines and fees that - then they would simply be wrong.

For a specific example, a public road system is not an overall loss for everyone. Quite the contrary - it enables businesses to ship and sell, and consumers to shop and work. Other examples of this principle include police departments, fire departments, and the military.

Everyone would be better off with the money left in the consumer economy and not removed to the coffers of government.

No, this is not true. For the above reasons listed: roads, fire departments, police departments, a military - and those are only a few examples.

Having private enterprise handle these services does not work. We know this because we've tried it. To use roads again, as an example: a bunch of privately funded roads are inefficient and wasteful. Having a few private interests control transportation, on the other hand, results in exploitation - the "robber barons" phrase comes from when we tried this with trains.

If you're talking specifically about the huge amount of money state and municipal governments make from fines - I think it would be more honest if they raised this money from taxes instead. But governments does provide some services better than private enterprise - and to do that, it needs money.


Michael Webster

I wonder if education/training is going to become more like a winner take all tournament - the internet certainly removes any geographical barrier.

Mark L.

One important difference between learning to speak Korean and ballet. The physical sense involved.

The internet allows you to hear a Korean speaker say the word clearly enough to repeat and learn the Korean.

Learning Ballet requires using your kinesthetic sense. Films do not adequately capture all the nuances in the performance. This is why dances are taught in person and not by film.

It is the same reason why (today) you cannot learn to be a great pitcher by the internet. The mechanics are too complex to break down into a 2-d film.


lightweight who hardly ever flies, who drives like an idiot ,willing to teach anyone how to do a flip turn and swim six different strokes in person if they pays for the gas and hotel. Lessons free.

Eric Wolfram

Ballet is a word of mouth tradition. It can't be learned from a book or from a video. It is subjective because each body presents it's own unique challenges. This is why the art is always passed on from a teacher directly to a pupil. The use of technology may supplement that relationship but it shall never replace it.


Yeah, as someone who takes a lot of ballet classes, this is a bit absurd. As anyone who's taken a class knows, the teacher often comes over and corrects your position or balance, sometimes with a hand, sometimes with a stick(if you're not lucky). You can also hurt yourself if you do pointe wrong.


This is what I love best about the Internet. I've been an incorrigible Internet addict since the age of 12 (I'm 21 now) and what ensnared me was not the semi-legal downloads or the chatrooms or games but the idea that there was so much information so freely available. In my last year of high school, duly inspired by Mark Twain ("Never let school interfere with your education") I threw away my textbooks and spent more time online than awake.
I like to joke that the Internet gave birth to me and in a sense it's true. The Internet exposed me to people and cultures and places so different from my own. It opened up my mind in ways I couldn't have imagined. If it wasn't for the Internet I wouldn't know Julio Cortazar from Yukio Mishima, wouldn't be speaking any foreign languages and wouldn't know *what* Chişinău was, much less point it out on a map.

At the same time it's true that with the Internet, one always runs the risk of inaccurate and half baked information by self professed experts (I believe someone wrote a book discussing this. I forget the name but I read about it in a magazine under the heading, "Attack of the Amateurs").

I don't think the Internet is a replacement for schools but it helps get information to people who cannot get to it. It is almost democratic the way it can draw information out from its elitist prison and give it freely to the rabble. That said, it has often happened that something I read on the Internet piqued my interest and I ended up looking for an offline source to learn more.

Incidentally, I had an Economics exam last week for which I read this blog instead of studying "constructively". I don't know how I'll fare but I never had so much fun answering an exam before :P

In your book you compare nylon stockings to crack cocaine but for me, it's a lot more like the Internet, albeit less destructive (although I'm sure there are a lot of people who might think the Internet is only marginally less dangerous than crack, my concerned parents and friends included).



this won't necessarily detract from reality teaching- if I post a pirouette, and get 18,000 critiques, I may run to the real teacher faster than without the internet

Josh Millard

I think the key thing to consider when looking at the bloom of amateur instruction/example/audition video is not some notion that traditional private instruction (in ballet, or swimming, or musical performance, or or or...) will be doomed or supplanted but that it will be supplemented.

That we can now so much more so than fifteen (and again thirty, and further again fifty, etc) years ago actually get quick access to media of someone performing act x is the fundamental story. A beginning guitarist can find loads of examples of guitar being played, often with explicit instructions; a ballet student can get feedback on her technique; a journalist curious about flip-turns can at least see video of it on demand.

That's huge. It doesn't mean hands-on expert instruction is or likely ever will be obsolete, especially at high levels of skill, but the barrier to entry for fundamentals, for basic introductory instruction (or autodidactism), has been reduced tremendously.


M. Dale

And the above comment is on-topic because there is an urban plight of ballerinas dancing on roads? I know I almost hit one on the Interstate yesterday.

Marc-Antoine Lacroix

This is an interesting article. I'm an economist who's particularily interested in the impact of Internet on markets. Does anybody know of a website/forum where economists discuss this topic?


If you are paying me to teach you ballet, and the cost to you is low enough for you to continue for an extended period and high enough for me to live a comfortable life, then every one of my students are going to be told that the are almost the greatest dancers ever and with just a few more years of lessons they might just become the best ever. So the incentive for the student is get a second, or third or 10,000th opinion off of the net and find out if the teacher is teaching the studfent, or using them just to pay their bills.


You're in denial, Dubner ;-)
As a teacher yourself the threat of learning via the net is scary...

I'm learning to play the piano and speak Korean over the internets and it's going wonderfully.


If you take a quick look at the exercise phenomenon called CrossFit, it will give you a great example of how the online availability of instruction actually leads to more paid instruction. is the website. It gives a workout of the day and many video links on each exercise, diet, etc. Despite the fact that it is all free it has led to this being the fastest growing exercise craze in the country with over 400 affiliates.

Rather than online eliminating instruction it opens the door for more paid instruction by introducing more people to the program.


Check out the article in the upcoming July/August issue of the Atlantic called "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Very interesting read.

David Chanley

June 9, 08

When a mathematician solved the black plague in England, by discovering only the clients of certain water deliverers got the disease, what you all do, "data analysis", was called statistical analysis. Statistics have been misused and misunderstood by most. Many people now call statistics just another form of lying. It is good to hear someone saying again that numbers don't lie. Calling statistical analysis, economics, keeps the same truths from being perceived as lies.

You all seem to think that all governments manage other people's money as well as, or better than, they would manage their own money. In fact all taxes, fines, and fees are called leaks by economists. They drain productivity form the economic system. They are an overall loss for everyone. They should be minimized, or eliminated. Your solutions that involve the government seem to say the biggest leak from the economy would be a boom, and not the bust that it really is. In Freakonomics, the revised edition that included new material, you talk about people who cut in line. I agree with you about personalities. But I saw your presentation in a different light. You described roads that were badly designed. Two lanes of traffic want to go one way, but only one of the lanes actually goes that way. A better road design would have both lanes go the way the people wanted to go. That would speed up everyone's commute, and remove all the problems including people cutting in line. Some people probably were surprised to discover the lane they were in didn't go the way it should go.

Congratulations for discovering a problem that needs to be fixed. I disagree with your ideas about "fixing" the problem. Once bad road design has been identified the bad road design should be made better. Citizens should not be penalized, with fines, or longer commuting times, because of the bad road design of a government.

Bad road design should be fixed and not cause more leaks to the economic system. Everyone would be better off with the money left in the consumer economy and not removed to the coffers of government. Everyone would be better off if the bad road designs were improved. The more money taken in fines reduces the consumer economy and is detrimental to everyone. These leaks should be stopped, not enhanced while allowing the true problem to persist.

How many roads were designed badly on purpose so more money could be leaked into the corrupt coffers of some government? We all have heard of speed traps where a corrupt government has put a too slow, for the road conditions, speed limit on a road and then poaches the road for people not going too fast for the road conditions, but traveling over the speed limit. What you suggest is corrupt governments poaching their own bad road design in order to take more form their citizens. This extra leak form the economy is bad for everyone and does not solve the problem.

Solve the problem! Don't just treat the symptoms!



Dancers may learn and get helpful criticism from the Internet, but do they make the contacts that would be necessary to actually get a job dancing? When you discuss information asymmetry, you have to take into consideration that not only is information asymmetric, but opportunity is as well. I'm totally guessing, but I'd say that a survey of ballerinas who actually make a living dancing would show that they came from a small number of studios who are connected to a small number of impresarios. The Internet won't get you into that cabal.


There are two steps to knowledge. Collecting data and information, and perceiving or analyzing it correctly. Information is useless if you don't know how to understand and implement it. That's why you couldn't do a flip turn.

In ANY field, mentoring, apprenticeship, training, practice and experience will NEVER be replaced by information and instruction, no matter how readily available. Period.


As other commenters have noted, YouTube will not put ballet instructors out of work, it will instead help people get additional instruction and make the most of the formal instruction they do get. People can also extend their own private "practice" sessions by practicing at home by video-conference along with others ... who may also be in the same class, or some other.

Misterb (#8) also points out the very real "networking" advantage of learning ballet from an instructor in a regular setting. There is value in having direct contact with teachers and other students, which perhaps might not be available, or be as valuable, as Internet contacts. Classes will expose people to others in "the ballet world" in a personal way that the Internet -- even with social-networking tools -- may not emulate well.

One other thing that YouTube might do, is give potential ballet students a better sense of what is involved, before they pay for and attempt ballet lessons. That is, it's one thing to watch a ballet being performed on-stage and think, "Gee, I'd like to do that!" or (more likely) "Wouldn't be nice if my kid could do that?", then sign up for classes. Instructional videos, even amateur ones, taken close-up and at "practice speed" could give folks a better idea of what ballet really is, how some of the maneuvers are done, etc. Sure, it might discourage some, but it also might help better prepare others.