I have noticed a few trends in the behavior of some of ballet’s role models, and I want to address the matters of body image and healthy competition among ballet students.
When I danced in Los Angeles Ballet, I also taught in the school. I had a busy schedule of rehearsing, performing, and teaching weekly classes. I developed close relationships with my students, aged 8 through 11. Some would come to see me perform with their parents. One evening, a mother caught a moment with me backstage. She said that she was worried about her daughter’s weight, and wondered if I had any advice on how she could be more “healthy.” It was all I could do to not explode while I calmly explained that her daughter was 10 years old, working well in class, and guaranteed to have fewer weight problems later in life if she ate a well-balanced diet with as few restrictions as possible.
Any professional dancer can starve for a few weeks and lose a noticeable amount of weight; she might even be positively rewarded for it. I have seen it a million times, and am sorry to admit that I’ve also tried it out. It’s hard not to, when you’re pulled aside in class and told that you’re “really improving,” and you know it’s because you lost ten pounds. Or if you see a dancer receive a dream role after a drastic weight change. The question is, how long can it last? Are the diet restrictions put in place to feed the body with high-quality fuel, or are they merely denying the body of essential energy? Dancers who lose weight too quickly usually fall into the second category.
In every case, dancers who experimented with weight-loss-oriented dieting before puberty have the most trouble managing their weight as professionals. I know some women with bone damage, and others who can’t have children. Most of them are also not dancing anymore, because the pressure to be perfect wore away the love of performing onstage. I think that’s the saddest part of it all.
I read a recent blog post from a ballet teacher on how parents can manage their own expectations for their children. It forced a critical eye into how students should approach moving up a level in class, or not getting the role they wanted in a performance. Although I agree that the professional ballet industry is one of the most competitive and high-pressure of all, I was disturbed by the underlying expectation in the teacher’s writing itself. Sure, our students should strive to be the best they can be; this comes from dedicated and critical work, as well as positive reinforcement on good progress. But dancers should learn to deal with disappointment with grace and perseverance, not cultivate a cut-throat competition among each other. Advising young dancers to rate themselves compared to their peers is a recipe for disaster, in my opinion. Professional dancers work endless hours to produce a collective result. They also spend most of their free time together and share close friendships. Dancers who work for promotion alone, without an appreciation of the group as a whole, ruin the experience for everyone. Also, what about the majority of students who will never become professionals? A ballet education cultivates the pursuit of excellence, attention to detail, and dedicated work ethic that will help a person through any path they choose, even if not classical ballet. No child is lesser because she isn’t as talented as a classmate-- I wish that could go without saying.
This article reminded me of what it was like to be a ballet student. From about the age of eight, I knew that I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I admired Wendy Whelan at the New York City Ballet with a fanatical and unconditional love (which she always merited). I scoured every ballet-related book and video repeatedly, and worked persistently in class. I wasn’t always the best, but I worked really hard and really loved what I was doing. I also learned pretty early on that if I wanted a professional career, I would have be willing to do just about anything to get there.
The internet is the newest medium for eager students to learn about life as a professional dancer. There are Youtube channels where dancers share technique tips, answer viewers’ questions, and offer advice on anything, including health and nutrition. As a young student, I would have died for something so in-depth! I have since become aware of the dangers of this form of communication. Questions and answers are exchanged with no opportunity for direct contact, and a huge risk of being misinterpreted. Furthermore, a young dancer receiving diet information from anyone other than her doctor or nutritionist is endangering her health and wellbeing. Although I admire the freedom with which Youtube allows dancers to be candid about the business, I urge all role models to acknowledge the incredible responsibility they have to protect their admirers from danger.
In order for this profession to be worth the near-constant criticism, dancers must indisputably love the art form. This love can be developed from the repeated exposure to beautiful performances by inspiring artists. As professionals we must continue to love it. Maybe not every moment of every day; we’re not robots. But the majority of the time, we have to be able to spread our love for ballet however we can. Thankfully, our generation produces so many incredible dancers. I am constantly astounded by dancers like Misty Copeland, Sara Mearns, and Sarah Hay; women whose hard work, artistry, and charisma are evident every moment on and offstage; women whose beautifully athletic bodies prove that being an artist has nothing to do with whether a body is a few pounds lighter. These are dancers who worked incredibly hard to be where they are, and who give every bit of themselves to the audience each time they perform. Most importantly, these women are also articulate and generous personalities, whose insight and experience propel the industry in a more relevant, and thankfully healthier, direction.