If we were together in a second grade classroom right now, and the teacher asked us, “Who wants to be a ballerina?”, I would be the obnoxious little girl in the front row, hand extended to the ceiling, calling out, “Me! Me! Pick me!”
Back then, it was all about the fluffy pink tulle. Today, it would be all about the dancers’ bodies.
I’ve attended three Fall for Dance performances since last Friday and will see two more this weekend. This explains why I have dancers on my mind. Seeing so many female dancers in such a short amount of time has allowed me to compare their bodies with each other and with the women in the audience.
It began during the Mark Morris Group’s performance of All Fours last Friday night when Mr. Campbell leaned over and whispered, “Isn’t she a little large for a dancer?” He was talking about Rita Donahue’s body. That’s her on the far right, in an August performance of Festival Dance.
Large? What was he talking about? Then I remembered a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Sophie Flack, a corps dancer with the New York City Ballet until 2009. She’s just published a young-adult novel about a 19-year-old dancer named Hannah who at one point in the story is frustrated by an instructor’s demand that she lose weight from her breasts or be dropped from a production. The interviewer writes, “With a slight smile, Ms. Flack recalled her own humiliating conversations on the topic and said Hannah might have handled them better. ‘There aren’t a lot of older dancers who had breasts, so it was difficult for me to find someone to look up to,’ she said.”
I hope you noticed Sophie’s wording: she said “dancers who had breasts”, not “dancers who had large breasts.” Since Rita Donahue has visible breasts, I guess she is large for a dancer.
The next evening, I started noticing dancers’ heights. It annoyed me when movements didn’t match perfectly because one dancer was shorter than the woman behind her. At the other extreme, it annoyed me that a solo performer, Drew Jacoby, looked like a giant, and it wasn’t an issue of my preference for visual unity because she had the stage to herself. Later I learned that she is well known for her 5’11” height. (In my defense, the choreography and costume detracted from a grace I’ve since discovered that she possesses, thanks to mesmerizing YouTube videos. Even the New York Times critic called the dance “ridiculous”, although he also said that my favorite dance of the evening looked like an ad for cotton, an assertion that I call ridiculous.)
Toward the end of the same evening, my criticism fell on a dancer with extra-muscular thighs. Her body didn’t blend in with the rest of her company.
Uncomfortably, I realized that I am party to the standard-setting that pressures ballerinas to starve themselves or to undergo breast reductions. Nothing can be too large. Everything must conform. In classical ballet, a woman’s body is objectified in the purest sense of the word. If she doesn’t have the required features, or if she can’t get them, she’s out. Skill (unless extreme), intelligence and personality can’t compensate.
At least dancers who develop into a D cup have the option of a breast reduction Women who tower over their fellow dancers or who have a gymnast’s thighs don’t have the option of being cut down to size.
On her blog yesterday, Claire explained that she uses the term “real women” not to express that one shape is more real or beautiful than another, but to indicate that “[t]he number of super thin images [in the media] is disproportionate to the variety of female shapes in reality.” If this is true of the media, it is even more true of the world of dance. As an example, consider the Australian Ballet dancers in the costumes they wore this past Tuesday evening.
To wear a costume like this, a ballerina’s body cannot deviate even the tiniest bit from the physical ideal of a dancer. She cannot depend upon her clothing to camouflage anything. Since the performance is live, she can’t rely on photoshopping or airbrushing either.
I would like to say that such perfection was boring, that it needed sequins and tulle to spice things up, but by the end of the performance I wasn’t paying attention to anything but the movements. There was nothing to distract me from the dancers’ grace and athleticism. Would I have been distracted by large breasts on one of the dancers? Definitely.
The ideal dancer body and the things it can express are beautiful. If I could live in such a body without doing any of the work to create or maintain it, I would elbow my way to the front of the line to get one.
Thankfully, the elbowing isn’t necessary. I’ve known for decades now that I can never have such a body. It has taken a good part of those decades for me to reach this point, but during tomorrow night’s performance, I will admire the dancers on stage while accepting my own extremely visible breasts in the audience.
Nothing in the world would make me trade places with a teenage ballerina whose success depends upon whether she can lose weight from her breasts. It would be hell on earth to be the best dancer in the class living with the anxiety that I may not be able to advance because of the shape of my hips or thighs.
If you’re one of the 99.99999% who will never be a principal ballerina for the New York City Ballet or in the pages of Vogue, I hope you’ve accepted it for a long time now. I hope you’re loving the diversity that you represent and are reveling in the lack of pressure to conform to a specific physical ideal. After all, you are the only one of seven billion people on this earth who looks like you and has your unique combination of skills, intelligence and personality. And if you ever do want to camouflage your breasts, you can do it with clothing.