Ballet is Woman: Sexism, Bodies, and Dance

CW: This article mentions sexual assault and the culture surrounding eating disorders.

 

A few weeks ago, my Instagram feed exploded. Friends, classmates, and teachers from my ballet studio were incensed over remarks made by anchorwoman Lara Spencer on Good Morning America. Upon reading about six-year-old Prince George of England taking ballet classes at school, she laughed and joked, “Prince William said Prince George absolutely loves ballet. I have news for you, Prince William: we’ll see how long that lasts.” The dance community was quick to jump to the defense of the prince, calling Lara Spencer a “bully” and creating the hashtag #BoysDanceToo.

Yes, young boys who dance ballet often face bullying from peers outside the dance community. Sexism and homophobia have been keeping stereotypes about male dancers alive for decades. It’s an issue that people will claim no one talks about, but discussion on the topic is surprisingly easy to find: see the wildly successful movie-turned-Broadway-musical Billy Elliot, the upcoming documentary Danseur, and countless articles in dance magazines.

Even though it appears to be a female-dominated field, sexism is an alarming issue in ballet. 

Most American professional ballet companies consist of nearly equal numbers of male and female dancers. But growing up as a ballet dancer, there were often only two or three boys in my classes of about thirty students. They received far more individual attention from teachers than did most of the girls. Because boys were such a rarity, they were guaranteed roles in every show they auditioned for, scholarships to prestigious summer programs, and endless amounts of praise. Additionally, leadership roles in ballet are overwhelmingly held by men. The Dance Data Project reports that less than one-third of artistic directors of ballet companies are women and that they make 68 cents to their male colleagues’ dollar. Artistic directors decide which ballets will be performed, which choreographers will be commissioned, and which dancers will be hired. And the Dance Data Project also reports that in the 2019-2020 season, only 17% of ballets performed by top American companies will be choreographed by women. 

So, girls outnumber boys by far in ballet schools, but most leadership roles are held by men, and almost half of professional dancers are men. I believe that this power imbalance is a major contributor to the culture of sexual harassment, abuse, and disordered eating within ballet companies.

George Balanchine, arguably the most influential choreographer in modern ballet, famously said, “Ballet is woman.”

As far as Balanchine is concerned, woman is rarely the active creator; she is often the passive muse. Ballet may be woman, but it was created by men and, even now, is generally run by men. Ultimately, women’s bodies are so common in the ballet world that they are taken for granted. A six-year-old girl can be turned away from a prestigious ballet academy for being too heavy. If an artistic director doesn’t like a woman’s legs or feet, she can be easily replaced by someone with “better” ones. It’s no secret that ballet companies tend to foster unhealthy body image, particularly in women, and one could argue that it’s impossible not to be overly critical of your body when it is also your instrument. But within classical ballet communities, there is still very little talk of hiring dancers with a variety of body types and very little eating disorder awareness or prevention.

Throughout my childhood and into my teen years, I was excluded from countless performances that my thinner, shorter friends starred in. It’s okay, I rationalized, it's nothing personal. I just wouldn’t fit into the costume. I tried to remind myself every day that I was normal and healthy and active, but it was hard to do so when I looked around me and saw thirty girls that were much thinner than I was. Many of my friends have aspired to be professional ballerinas from a young age, and some of them probably will be, but I knew around middle school that it wouldn’t be an option for me. I’ll never fully understand what it’s like to be a man in ballet, but I do understand feeling like the elephant in the room.

So, back to Prince George. I agree that it was unnecessary of Lara Spencer to make that remark on national television, but in the end, it was relatively harmless. She never said that Prince George shouldn’t dance because he is a boy; she simply implied that he might not enjoy ballet when he gets older, a reasonable implication considering the fact that he is six-years-old. Watching the discourse play out on social media, I couldn’t help but think that the dance community would not show the same support if a female dancer with a bigger body type was insulted publicly. Would my ballet teachers have stood up for me if a director had told me I was too fat to get a job? I don’t know. Young boys who dance have a variety of inspirational male role models to look up to, but many young girls will have a hard time spotting anyone with their body type in a professional ballet company. Insults based on a dancer’s weight and requests that a dancer lose weight are commonplace; in fact, many dancers accept this harassment as being a part of the ballet experience. But it doesn’t have to be.

Alexandra Waterbury, a dancer who sued the New York City Ballet last year for creating a “frat-like” culture that permitted sexual harassment, told the New York Times that "every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction, because no one will protect her, like no one protected me." As sad as it is to say, I understand Waterbury’s concern. It seems nearly impossible for a female ballet dancer to make it through intensive training without some sort of emotional trauma. But one of the most important lessons I learned from my fourteen years of ballet training is that female dancers aren’t princesses, or fairies, or swans. They aren’t little girls playing dress-up. They are strong, passionate, athlete-artist hybrids with immense amounts of grit. They deserve to feel more comfortable in their own bodies, to be treated as leaders, to choreograph their own works, and to run their own companies. Women are so much more than their bodies, and so is ballet.

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