Toxic Ballet Culture Hurts Everyone Who Loves Ballet

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Uncomfortable conversations are usually the most important ones, so let's talk about body image in ballet and why ballet culture needs to change...


When I started ballet as a teen, I read as many books and websites about ballet as I could find.


I read, again and again, that to be a dancer, you had to be thin.


Not just Hollywood thin, but ballet thin, which is a whole other level of thinness, apparently.


Angular. Bony.


"Waiflike" and "emaciated" are terms commonly used to describe ballet body standards.


I've been curvy since early adolescence, so reading about these standards was discouraging, but not because I wanted to go pro.


I mean, I kind of wanted to go pro (because I'm a dreamer), but the real reason the extreme standard of thinness hurt me was because I realized that no matter how I progressed and improved, the message from the ballet world was loud and clear:


  • People like you are not ideal.
  • People like you do not belong.
  • People like you can do ballet for fun and exercise, but that's it.
  • We don't really want you.

Ouch.


If you follow @wonderofballet on Instagram, you may have noticed that I repeat a few concepts over and over:


  • If you want to do ballet, ballet is for YOU
  • All bodies are ballet bodies
  • Ballet dancing looks GOOD on everyone
  • Everyone is capable of dancing WELL and achieving big ballet goals

In saying these things, over and over again, I'm working through a lot of baggage I'm still carrying from messages that I (and countless others who love ballet) have received for many years.


I have heard people say things like: "Well, professionals have to be thin. That's part of the job. But recreational dancers don't have to worry about that."


Well, maybe we don't "have" to worry about it, but many of us do. And even if we aren't consumed with worry about it, we are most certainly affected by ballet culture.


We internalize the message that we are not welcome in ballet, that our bodies are not respected, not considered worthy or beautiful, and that no matter how hard we work or how precise our technique becomes, according to the ballet "greats" of the world, we will never truly belong.


Toxic ballet culture hurts EVERYONE.


If artistic management in a top five company considers a woman who is a size two too large for a tutu, how do you think that makes the women in the audience who are a size 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, and so on feel?


We are affected, believe me.


This is not just a professional ballet problem.


This is an everyone-who-loves ballet problem.


Young dancers and recreational dancers look to the professional ballet world for hope and inspiration. We try to emulate what we see: I wonder if I can make my port de bras as soft as hers? I wonder what exercises I can do to make my extension high like hers? Dear God, I wish I had an ounce of his ballon!


Unfair, unrealistic, outdated body standards leak out of the professional world and affect all of us.


And what is the point, exactly, of the "ballet body aesthetic," anyway? What is the goal, and why? Who is it serving?


It seems, if anything, like a means to control dancers, to shame them and put them in their place.


Are these standards even about a "look," or is it about preserving some absurd hierarchy and perpetuating the unhealthy idea that dancers should be willing to live and die for ballet, to sacrifice their bodies on an altar to their art? And are they sacrificing themselves to the art? Or to the artistic management?


Here's what I know for sure: everyone is losing. Everyone is hurting. The ballet world would be a better place if all bodies were respected and if appearance was not a driving factor in being cast or hired. How wonderful and novel would it be if the only criteria for getting a job or role was your ability: your skill, strength, athleticism, technique, expression?


Like most people who love art, I am seeking connection and truth and the feeling of being less alone when I go to the ballet. I'd love to see dancers on the professional stage who look a little bit like me. They don't all have to look like me. I believe in diversity, of course.


But just one or two dancers who look like me — just a little bit like me?


That would mean the whole world.


I would cry tears of joy watching a woman with a body like mine dance for a major company.


It would mean EVERYTHING.


All that to say: the ballet world needs to change.


Toxic ballet culture, and the cult of thinness that exists within it, hurts everyone who loves ballet.


All of us.


Change is necessary.

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