Ballet Saved by Fattening Up Ballerinas

I am definitely not a fan of the headline of this Huffington Post article, “How Fattening Up Will Save Ballet,” but the content is worth a read. It’s by author Deirdre Kelly, whose new book bears the equally controversial title: “Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection.”

Oy. Talk about stirring things up.

Big Takeaway

The basic takeaway of the article is that ballerinas are being “allowed” to be at healthier weights than they used to be, and that this will “save” ballet. She points out that medical experts have long stated the dangers of ballet’s required extreme thinness (true). She also notes that companies today place more emphasis on injury prevention and dancer health than they did in the past (also true). However, that emphasis does not rule out their desire for thin dancers, as displayed onstage.

Kelly writes, “Ballerinas today are again embracing the breasts and hips which first made them objects of desire way back in the day. They are turning their backs on the radical cosmetic surgeries and punitive dieting that stripped them of their identities as full-fledged women in the modern era.”

But is it True?

While I admire Kelly’s desire to highlight the female dancers today who break the hyper-thin mold of the classical ballerina, I am not sure I see the broad changes in the field that she sees. Thinness is still a requirement and a pressure that young students and professionals alike experience with shocking regularity.

And I’m not so sure our companies present such a wide variety of body types that aspiring dancers feel there is room for their diversity. When companies make that rare exception, dancers often get singled out for not fitting the mold. (Recall: NYCB principal Jenifer Ringer criticized in the New York Times just two years ago… see here.)

And Her Point?

Kelly goes on to say that she wrote the book to restore dignity to the ballerina- dignity that was lost in the years when dancers had to submit to extreme thinness. “[Ballet] is where the ballerina is in control of her body in determining her own destiny.”

I both agree and disagree with this statement and will share my personal thoughts later. First, what do you think?

  1. Deb
    Deb says:

    I am not as close to it as you, obviously, but last night I saw an ABT performance and one of the soloists had a short hair cut – not a bob, but short and close to her head. I thought that was very unusual but maybe it’s showing that the image is starting to be less rigid?

  2. Elizabeth Sullivan
    Elizabeth Sullivan says:

    Yes, I saw that too- you’re right, it is unusual, and yes, I think that some ballet companies are starting to relax their requirements around hair. That’s been happening for a while now. And the results show that short hair doesn’t make a women less of a ballerina. I think the same consideration should be given to weight and body types. I’m going to write more on this in another post soon. Thanks Deb!

  3. Rea M.C.
    Rea M.C. says:

    I definitely agree with you Elizabeth! Being that aspiring dancer, I can say that there is definitely still pressure to have a certain look. The difficulty is that everyones perception of beauty is different, which can make achieving the ‘ideal’ body type, very difficult and can lead to dangerous behaviours around food. As much as all of us would like to believe that Kelly is right, and I guess now we are starting to see some changes amongst people’s mentalities and some companies, most of the large ballet institution that have been around for a while, and which many look up to as their dream company or school, are unyielding. In 2003, Anastasia Volochkova, then principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, was fired for being “too tall and heavy for male dancers to lift”. She was only 5’6 and weighed 110 pounds. This is by no means ‘fat’. There is also a competition between ballet students, always that girl or boy who the individual may think is skinnier, which ties into your previous article, and no doubt has an affect on how we view our bodies and the outcome of our dancing.

  4. The Dancer's Toolkit Blog
    The Dancer's Toolkit Blog says:

    Thanks for commenting, Rea. It’s true that the bigger companies have stuck largely to the “classical look” which doesn’t leave much room for different body types. AND, as you noted, even at the school level, there is so much competition between students about body size as it trickles down from the profession. It’s a tricky situation. What’s crazy is that no dancers I have worked with have even been clinically overweight, so the whole discussion is far outside of what would be considered “healthy” for the average person. When that brings with it neuroses for perfectly healthy people, I think the dance world needs to re-evaluate its priorities and desired outcomes. What are we really aiming for in these bodies? Is is strength, agility, grace, and beauty? Those are available to us at healthier weights than are currently on display.