Ballet Dancers and Body Image

Many ballet dancers around the world are rehearsing for The Nutcracker, a famous Tchaikovsky ballet that companies perform around Christmas time. These dancers spend hundreds of hours in rehearsals perfecting their movements for the

The corps de ballet, Odette and Siegfried in the ballet Swan Lake.
The corps de ballet, Odette and Siegfried in the ballet Swan Lake.

special performance. For some of these dancers, one concern lingers in their mind: not being thin enough.

A lot of ballet dancers struggle with their body image. The unspoken rule is that a good ballerina is supposed to be thin, in order to be picked up by a professional company. Several ballet dancers overwork their bodies and starve themselves to look thinner. This habit is dangerous physically and emotionally. It needs to be addressed.

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Suzanne Farrell

Ballet is a strenuous activity on the human body. Dancers constantly incorporate agilities, stretches and sometimes weight-lifting along with ballet movements in a class. Men dancers lift women dancers and a smaller weight for the woman is desired. Women who dance en pointe (on the tips of their toes) desire to have a small weight to reduce stress on the ankles. If dancers are not eating, they do not supply their bodies with the nutrients they need, and it becomes harder for them to perform. It is more important for a dancer to be healthy, than have a low weight because being underweight can be completely dangerous for them. Underweight dancers risk having heart problems, seizures or death.

In the United States, George Balanchine, the founder of the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, thought Suzanne Farrell had the perfect body for a ballerina. Farrell is thin, short, has thin hips and small breasts. Gelsey Kirkland, another one of Balanchine’s dancers said the New York City Ballet Company constantly engaged in imitating Farrell. Kirkland said Balanchine told her to “eat nothing.” She said while he physically inspected her, he said he “must see the bones,” referring to her rib cage. Because of Balanchine, many professional ballet companies in the United States hire dancers with Farrell’s body type. Some dancers in areas of Europe and Latin America suffer from negative body image; however, it is more common in the United States because of Balanchine’s remarks. His comments caused several body image problems for young dancers that continue today.

Several dancers want to be professional ballerinas, and feel they must be thin. This creates competition in class, and students begin comparing themselves to others. When I was a ballet dancer, several girls in my class wanted to be thinner and would talk about going on special diets to lose weight. The teachers at my school wanted us to be healthy, but sometimes parents (especially the stay-at-home mothers) would comment on the girls’ appearances because they were “too fat,” “had curves” or “looked weird.” To this day, I am disgusted with their comments. A lot of dancers struggle with their body images, and degrading comments do not help.

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Students preparing for ballet class.

Ballet dancers usually take their classes in a room full of mirrors while wearing skin-tight tights and leotards. Dancers wear their hair in a bun. My ballet school required us to wear black leotards, pink tights and pink ballet slippers with our hair in a bun except during the first week of the month. During the first week, we could wear colored leotards, tights and slippers and style our hair in an up-do.  We always used mirrors when dancing because mirrors allowed us to see and correct our leaps, turns, posture and alignment.

Several individuals critique this method of practice because the mirrors and leotards constantly show the dancers’ bodies. Many people say practicing in front of the mirror creates poor body image for dancers, and this causes stress and negative emotions for the dancer. One study from the US National Library of Medicine showed 13 dancers in a class with mirrors and 14 without in another class. The students in the class without mirrors rated their adagio (the slow movements in ballet) sequence higher than those in the class with mirrors. The study concluded that using the mirror may negatively influence dance technique.

Sally A. Radell, a professor of dance at Emory University, offers a few ideas about mirror usage in ballet class. She says that teachers should not become overly dependent on the mirror and should cover it with a curtain when they do not need it. Radell says teachers should educate themselves on the power of the mirror in the classroom and to explain to students why they utilize the mirror at class.

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A pas de deux.

Because body image and eating disorders have caused extreme health risks to dancers, ballet companies are speaking up about body image and eating disorders. They educate their dancers about eating healthy. A report issues by Dance/USA says dance staff should agree that too thin is not encouraged and will not be tolerated. Several dieticians at ballet companies are showing dancers how to follow a healthy diet, and want them to store food at their rehearsal space. Dancers need to be eating foods with protein, calcium and fiber in addition to drinking lots of water. A dancer’s schedule is hectic so eating small meals throughout the day boosts their energy levels.

I like that ballet companies are teaching their dancers that being healthy is more important than their weight number. I really hope to see more dancers happy with their bodies, and I am glad more professional companies are talking openly about this issue rather than brushing under the rug like in previous times.

Ballet dancers cover a small group of society that suffers from negative body image. Our society needs to change its opinion on body image for women and men. Feminists, critics and others can make changes by commenting on peoples’ outfits and hair styles instead of weight. They can say a ballet dancer performed an amazing pirouette sequence, or a powerful grand jeté instead of saying they are not “thin enough.”

Dancers and others also need to maintain positive thoughts about their bodies. Unfortunately, some people still call dancers fat; tell them they should lose weight, or other hurtful comments. Dancers should not listen to these individual, and I highly encourage people making degrading comments to think about how hurtful they are and to keep their opinions to themselves.

I hope this message reaches dancers across the Pacific Northwest. You all are beautiful.  Merde to those performing in the Nutcracker this December!

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