It frightens me that I can walk into a competitive ballet studio, take a two-second glance at the aspiring young dancers in front of me and predict, with alarming accuracy, who will achieve their dreams and who will not. I may not know them or have seen them dance a single step, but their destiny is writ large in their DNA – in the length of their thighs, the shape of their feet and even the size of their breasts. It’s not right, but it is the reality.
Every year, thousands of would-be ballet dancers are turned away from elite schools around the globe simply because they have the ‘wrong’ body type. The ‘right’ ballet body type, on the other hand, is increasingly at odds with the average physique, where desired traits include high arches, a flexible torso, small head, small bust, slim hips, small ankles, long arms and legs. As a ballet student in my teens, I was always aware that anatomy was destiny, particularly for females. In fact, it was one of the reasons I quit studying ballet seriously at the age of fourteen. As a solid, round-faced young girl standing at 5 feet 2 inches, I knew I had little chance of making it beyond the bottom ranks of a ballet company, even assuming I made it past the entry requirements of a selective dance institution.
Margot Fonteyn wouldn’t meet today’s ‘standards.’ Her thighs are too big. Mikhail Baryshnikov may well not have had his legendary career had he stayed in the USSR, where he was considered too short. It’s enough to make you wonder, how many Baryshnikovs and Fonteyns are rejected by elite schools each year?
Now, I have been a part of the ballet world since I donned my first leotard at the age of six, but this practice of selecting individuals on the basis of specific physical traits for aesthetic reasons, whilst excluding numerous talented others, has always seemed inherently unethical to me. In an age in which discrimination based on age, gender or race is considered intolerable in most professions, why is this allowed to continue?
Let’s get one thing clear. All dancers who do make it in this unforgiving profession are completely deserving of their success. I am proud to know many dancers who are studying at, or have recently graduated from such prestigious institutions as the Australian Ballet School, all of whom are exceptionally talented, dedicated individuals. It must also be said that not all full-time vocational schools are equally strict about physical requirements. But the myth of the ‘ideal physique’ remains strong enough to disqualify many otherwise talented individuals from a ballet career, and compel others to maintain unnaturally low weights.
For every talented dancer I know who has ‘made it,’ I know scores more who graduated with honours, but could not find work after graduation because they were too short or too muscular or too tall. It is upsetting to see amazing dancers spend hours every day for years refining their technique, entering competitions, and in some cases forgoing an upper secondary education, only to fall at the last, arbitrary hurdle.
The counter-argument says that aesthetics can’t be ignored because ballet is a visual art form – fair enough. But why does that mean that everyone has to be uniformly thin and androgynous? Why can’t there be a greater range of fit, strong, healthy physiques represented on stage? You’d have to be pretty fit simply to dance a three-hour long production of Swan Lake, so I would think. Thinness, and willowy legs and arms do not have to be the defining characteristics of a great ballet dancer. If you don’t believe me, then just take a look at history.
Look up any picture of the great ballerinas of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and you will amazed at their comparatively stocky figures. Whilst directors are quick to cast the most fragile and delicate in the company as their Giselle in the ballet of the same name – as a young girl who dies and rises again as an ethereal nymph – they often forget that buxom ladies with rounded arms and strong legs and feet were the original stars of the role, ladies who captured the Romantic spirit by flirting with the dual image of the woman as a sexual creature and an elusive, fragile other. They forget that the role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty too was created for a strong woman with resilient toes and a generous physique that hinted at Princess Aurora’s impending maturity. The current trend in ballet for long, thin bodies is a relatively recent development, encouraged by the personal tastes of influential choreographer George Balanchine, who wanted fast-moving, streamlined dancers to tackle his neo-classical works. The ‘Balanchine ideal’ was never meant to be extended to the entire ballet community.
I don’t go to the ballet to watch thoroughbred athletes perform feats of agility; I go because I want to see art. A thin physique does not, necessarily, a good artist make. Teachers and directors need to see dancers as more than just a sea of bodies from which they can pluck their ideal instrument.
To point the finger at the ballet community without considering audience expectations would be irresponsible. I have often asked myself if we as spectators fuel the problem. Are we so used to seeing unusually slender dancers moving in front of us that the sight of an average, healthy body seems distasteful? I believe the answer is yes and no.
A significant number of ballet-goers have at one time or another done a class, studied dance as a child, or are dancers themselves. If you have ever been to a ballet class as a young student, you’ll likely agree that it’s not hard to pick up the message that a good dancer is a thin dancer, and that bulky thighs or curvy hips or a well-endowed bosom are to be feared because they are ‘ungraceful.’ That some of these dance veterans might project their experiences onto the dancers they see at the ballet is only to be expected.
However, the majority of ballet’s audiences are casual viewers who may also be theatre and music lovers, or first-time goers. Most of these people only expect to see healthy dancers, and pay far less attention to matters of shape or technique versus physical form than the ballet world recognises. Let’s not forget that countless would-be spectators have likely been put off by ballet’s austere image and reputation for breeding eating disorders and damaged feet.
If I sound angry, it’s because I love ballet and I hate to see it’s potential as an art form hindered by such outdated and harmful practices. Ballet brings meaning and joy to the lives of many, including mine. But I cannot close my eyes to the fact that numerous people have had their lives damaged by the flawed reasoning that still exists in the ballet community. This reasoning affects not only professionals, but also former amateurs and students whose ideas of what a healthy body should look like have been seriously distorted, and who continue to struggle to maintain their self-esteem even in adulthood.
Even people who are well into their forties and beyond continue to link their worth and happiness to their dress size. They refuse to meet up with friends they haven’t seen in years because they are ashamed of how they now look, and thus feel inadequate compared to others they see as possessing the ‘ideal body.” To be told that you are unacceptable because of your physical appearance or that you need to ‘compensate’ for your physical shortcomings relative to others is devastating on so many levels and completely untrue – the words ‘talent’ or ‘potential’ are not synonymous with skinny or undeveloped, nor is the word ‘healthy’ synonymous with ‘fat.’
So where to go from here? An ethical conundrum presents itself whenever I tackle this question.
Physically-selective ballet schools exist because of demand from ballet companies, which want dancers that fit their aesthetic. If these schools were to widen their doors tomorrow, this would not change the fact that companies employ certain kinds of dancers over others. Given the educational, financial and emotional sacrifices that aspiring dancers have to endure, would it not be most humane to select dancers with the best chance of employment in the current market, even if that means only thin students make the cut, even if it perpetuates the very problem it attempts to solve?
Personally, I can’t accept this solution. It is the responsibility of directors and choreographers to safeguard both their discipline and the dancers who make their work possible. If this involves actively employing dancers against type, then so be it. Creating a more inclusive environment will not only save dreams, but also – dare I say – ballet itself. In the face of changing values, tastes and increased consumer choice, ballet needs to deal with its ‘stuffy’ image. Valuing artistic excellence and health over thinness and technical competence in performers will only bring more dynamic artists to the attention of the public, and create the kind of energy that is too often lacking on stage.
Ballet is art, and dance is life. Anything that contradicts these two tenets should have no place in the dance world. Let’s keep it healthy and fun, and accessible to everyone, regardless of their size and shape.