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.
Having been in the world of classical ballet and rhythmic gymnastics for a long time, I can really relate to what you wrote here. Until I was about seventeen, I had indeed the so-called perfect body for this world, but then something called delayed puberty hit. Delayed precisely because of the terrible regimens we were put through, and in a year or so I went from being flat as a reed to a C-D cup. Suddenly, I could no longer wear just the strappy dance suit but needed,gasp,a BRA. And the comments, on my… As a result of many things around that time, by the time I was nineteen I was no longer in the world of competitive gymnastics or ballet but had changed my direction to other forms of dance with more freedom for deviation from the ‘perfect body’ idea. It is still with me today, however, and I believe will always be, unfortunately, even if today, at forty, I happily dance away in my latin classes, my F-G boobs secured in a sports bra that is more highly constructed than my car is. 🙂
I’m so glad to hear from someone who has actual experience with this. I love the carefree way that small-busted dancers can wear those “strappy dance suits”. Watching Drew Jacoby last Saturday night, I realized she couldn’t be that large-chested because of how low the back of her dress went (she was wearing huge ruffles over the bust, so it was hard to tell that way).
Also, I didn’t write about it, but I’m glad you brought up the options for “other forms of dance with more freedom for deviation from the â€˜perfect bodyâ€™ idea”. Realizing this makes me feel some consolation for the dancers who are forced out of classical ballet. It’s sort of like a pilot who realizes he can’t fly because he doesn’t have 20/20 vision, or anyone else in fields with inflexible physical standards. There are other ways to participate.
Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of the different types of dances in this festival that highlights the different body types for me even more. The expectations established by watching classical ballet influences my evaluation of the other performers.
I find the body requirements of ballet pretty depressing. I took classes very briefly as a child, but my sister did ballet for years, as did my mom, and my aunt was a professional. Although I know they all got a lot of enjoyment out of it, I always worried that my sister criticized herself unreasonably when she was immersed in that world (even though her body is basically perfect). My mom said during one ballet class, the instructor came around with a clipboard telling each girl how much weight she needed to lose. I think things are a little more politically correct these days but the movie “Black Swan” has plenty of subtle references to this disordered mindset.
I completely agree with your point that it’s best to accept your own body for what it is, even if it’s not something idealized by a certain culture. But I think it’s sad and potentially dangerous that little girls so often start on a path where they will hit puberty and suddenly find that their body type shuts them out from pursuing something they’ve worked at for years. I think in those cases it can be a lot harder to accept and love your body. I don’t really know of any solution but I’m glad you wrote a post about this.
I think of this, too, Annie. When I was little, I wanted to be a model with straight hair, but I ended up 5’3″ w/ curly hair. I didn’t have to pour my heart and soul into developing any physical skills to pursue these dreams. I just lived a normal life until I knew for sure that these options were closed to me. But I can only imagine how devastating it would be to give up hours of every day enduring so many physical challenges, only to be told it could never be enough.
I love watching contemporary dance especially. I always love the dance and feel I should do more of that in my free time. However, I’ve never wished to be one of them. I think you will need to be totally obsessed with dance to sustain the rigorous training and the many rejections you will get at auditions. Not too mention all the delicious chocolate that you will have to pass on….
I forgot about the chocolate!!
I was watching a video of an interview with Sophie Flack (in the media section of http://www.sophieflack.com), and it struck me that any perfectionist and ambitious woman has a life that isn’t that different from a professional dancer’s. She sacrifices everything for a goal (career or otherwise) and suddenly discovers that balance is missing. I see this a lot in NYC, and I bet you see it in Singapore, too.
Wonderful article Darlene. The rigors of ballet dancing are much tougher and more disciplined than many other sports and athletics. Add on top of that a layer of necessarily aesthetics and you really do end up with a tiny percentage of women who are accepted into the exclusive inner sanctum. I have always massively respected these women for their discipline, beauty and creativity. xx
One of the things I enjoy while watching “So you think you can dance” and similar shows is that there is a huge versitality between the girls there. There is a lot of girls doing modern with so much muscles in their bodies and without being all that tall and lean as I feel ballet espect them to be. And, to see that the girls are allowed to do what their bodies do best… It’s more of a celebration of music, movement, dance and expression rather than identical bodies lined up. I’m still fascinated by ballet but there is few things that makes a bigger impression than modern dance done really well.
Now I’ve got to watch that show. Thanks for mentioning this, Helena!
I never got into the world of ballet (too tall and, frankly, my parents were too poor when I was the right age to start) but I started dancing as an adult, sticking to the more democratic, vernacular forms of dance — belly dance, Latin dance, social swing, West African, hip hop, Zumba. I learned that anyone can have a dancer’s body (the key elements being a strong core, amazing posture, and the capacity for and strength to execute movement that is both fluid and controlled). Now I am part of a thriving fusion belly dance subculture that is growing all over the US, I teach classes, I get to show other people that they can, in fact, dance. None of this was available as a model when I was a kid in a small town, though. Movement for girls was ballet or gymnastics and either you were built for it or you weren’t. That’s kind of sad, really.
Wow, Cynthia! This makes me want to start dancing now, you give so much hope. I love how you used the word “democratic” and say that anyone can have a dancer’s body. Who could go wrong with “a strong core, amazing posture, and the capacity for and strength to execute movement that is both fluid and controlled”?
I grew up in dance and gymnastics, and I have seen quite a change in the last 30 years. When I was young, dancers were expected to have muscular legs. I saw world-class performances from tall ballerinas with large, strong thighs. Ballet has unfortunately followed the general social trend of idolizing unrealistic thinnness.
Cynthia has it right: a dancer’s body is a strong body, not a small one. 🙂
I present to you this Russian ballerina: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kyn8pmhEwg1qb9ajqo1_400.jpg
Thank you all, it is very encouraging to read about all these experiences and opinions. I used to dance when I was a kid and then like many others developed “too much” and became pretty curvy, which people thought was very sexy but for me it was a disaster. Now, in my mid forties, I ended up caring much less and I decided to go back to classical dance. And to my big surprise it is going very well and my body is back to what it was in just a few months. I live in Tokyo where ballet is flourishing and people come to dance for themselves and not others. This is true for both amateur and professional dancers, but to my big surprise, in spite of my age, I might end up performing next year, something I have never dreamt of anymore. I think the world is changing and more and more people are willing to accept your view Darlene. Many people, many sizes, many shapers just make it better.