“You’re a good dancer, but you could lose some weight.”
The words that I have spent a good third of my life trying to avoid came at me full force after an adult ballet class I took a few days ago when I was out of town visiting my grandmother.
Hot-faced, I agreed with the teacher, knowing full well that at 5’2” and 122 pounds, I am practically morbidly obese in the dance world. I would have rather her told me that my turns weren’t sharp enough, my leg wasn’t high enough, my feet weren’t pointed enough—any criticism but that.
When I told my friend about the comment she was shocked that a stranger would tell me something like that to my face and asked, “Well, would they rather have a bad and skinny dancer?”
In the ballet world, companies expect girls who are technically brilliant and have about 3 % body fat. Horror stories about eating disorders run rampant, fueled by Black Swan* and other media portrayals of anorexia and bulimia in ballerinas. Some of it is overblown, but some of it’s sad but true—dancers are constantly fighting their bodies and it’s often not acceptable for these high performing athletes to look like, well, athletes.
A New York Times dance critic called out New York City Ballet principal Jennifer Ringer for looking like she had eaten “one sugarplum too many;” an especially biting “review” because Ringer had recently opened up about her years-long struggle with eating disorders.
Misty Copeland, the first African American soloist in American Ballet Theatre in decades, says she’s been told to lose weight and struggles with being considered a “curvy” dancer.
I’ve known too many girls who are gorgeous dancers, wonderful people and, even though they don’t look like they have an ounce of fat on their bodies, are pressured by their directors to lose weight, lose weight, lose weight. No matter that these girls have almost perfect technique, are proportional, and look like women, not preteen boys.
I read an article about dancers’ bodies where someone argued that requiring such slenderness from dancers is a power play. Asking dancers to look like little girls keeps them acting like little girls—powerless.
The aesthetic is changing though. Contemporary choreography is more athletic—it asks for strong women who can perform full, powerful movements; not waifs floating through a fantasy world.
Take a look at what audiences are actually watching. Professional ballet companies are struggling—the digital age doesn’t have the patience (or the cashflow) for three hours of The Sleeping Beauty, but over 10 million viewers tuned in for the first season of Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance.
The dancers I can’t help but watch perform feats of intense physicality with the ease and stamina that only comes from well-developed and properly utilized muscles. They haven’t starved their souls into submission either—their personality and style shine because they have the strength to project themselves and fill up the space.**
I’m not sure if anyone reads this besides my mom, but if dear blogosphere, if you’re out there, thoughts?
*BLACK SWAN IS FICTION PEOPLE.
**Like Drew Jacoby of Jacoby and Pronk, all of the members of the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Pilobulus, Misty Copeland, and others.