Ballet dancers are obsessed with having the ideal ballet body. But what does that even mean? And what if there were a way that focus on artistry and technique were always just as important as focus on “perfecting” our ballet body image?
Most dancers owe much of this obsession to their self-inflicted struggle to be “perfect” but there is also the external pressure from both societal expectations and authoritarian demands to consider.
In general, despite efforts and campaigns to promote a vision that there is no such thing as a perfect body, we are still inundated by propaganda that suggests otherwise. By offering products that propose to make us look younger, be slimmer, smell better, companies are subtly (or not-so-subtly) reminding us that we fall short of their ideals.
Now multiply this feeling of inadequacy by whatever random number you choose, and you can sense for a second what it’s like to be in a ballet dancer’s shoes. As glamorous as this may seem under most circumstances, in reference to corporal matters this is a dark place to be.
Many students and professionals suffer from negative ballet body image
I am a 5′-5″ female who hovers around the 115 lbs mark. As a typical pedestrian, I am underweight. If I had this stature while a professional ballet dancer, I would have been considered the opposite. So imagine the psychological distress when I was waltzing around the studio at 108 lbs when my artistic director informed me that I would look better if I could just lose a pound or two.
There were several emotions that I experienced within a minute span of time; I was simultaneously shocked, angry, hurt, defensive, confused…but unfortunately, the overwhelming sentiment was insecurity. Insecure that I would lose my job if I didn’t comply and insecure about what I really looked like.
The former was a fleeting struggle resolved by simply doing what he asked for. The latter has been a lifetime one: I have been retired from the stage for over fifteen years and am still fighting ghosts from that experience.
My parents may disagree with me, but I consider the defiant part of my nature to be a blessing at times. In this case, it saved me from spiraling down the abyss that many dancers sadly enter.
I don’t think it would be completely honest to say that I’ve never had an eating disorder because I am cognizant that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies (especially prominent during my performing career) led to momentary battles where food was the enemy and my mind the strategic commander.
But I can say that I have never been anorexic or bulimic, and for that I am grateful. Yet there are too many dancers – young, old, student, professional – who react to the exacting aesthetic demands of being a ballet dancer by falling into this darkness.
I share all this not to suggest that ballet dancers ignore the fact that their bodies are their tools and that they must be fine-tuned in order to execute at their best. What I am broaching is that the corporal regimen be on equal playing grounds with artistic development and technical proficiency.
And this needs to start with the way leadership communicates with our youth; teachers and directors need to educate themselves on how to be sensitive to this issue of students wanting to have what they perceive as the ideal ballet body – and yes, this is a big issue – and learn how to have effective conversations rather than demeaning requests when the need arises to speak to a student. It is also important to be aware that both male and females struggle with this – it’s not just a “girl thing”.
As we all know, some words can leave an everlasting trace that clouds our perception forever.
Featured Photo for Pursuit of the Perfect Ballet Body from Unsplash
Cherilyn's lifelong passion for ballet has opened the door to the next chapter of her journey. Her strong foundation includes training at the School of American Ballet, being a featured dancer with Hartford Ballet and Carolina Ballet, and being co-director/owner of City Ballet Raleigh. She was granted the Affiliate Teacher Award after successfully completing the ABT National Training Curriculum®. A professional career in the industry along with extensive global travel provide her with a unique set of experiences to draw upon as a journalist and audience member. Cherilyn is excited to be sharing her insight about ballet around the world.