There Are No Ideal Ballet Bodies, Only Ideal Dancers

The famous ballet choreographer and visionary George Balanchine once said, “The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.” As most little girls do, I wanted to be a ballerina when I grew up. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was enthralled with ballet because I saw women on the stage who captivated audiences day after day and who were free, and I wanted to feel that. Looking back, I wonder if I admired those prima ballerinas so much because they had "ideal," skinny body types and if my young mind associated success, independence, and ultimate womanhood with a “perfect” body. However, my mother had reservations about my aspirations to become a professional ballet dancer because I think she saw the independent fire that burns in the heart of every feminist in me before I saw it in myself. She also saw the professional ballet world in stark reality while I could only see my dream. Although I have had a taste of the glory, escape, and weightless freedom that I saw portrayed on the stage when I was a little girl, I can’t ignore how ballet contributes to society’s war against the independence, beauty, and naïve type of wild that is a young woman. If ballet is really the all-encompassing embodiment of femininity, then why does it continue to degrade the women who are integral to the art form’s survival? Is the “right” vessel more important than the message and higher meaning that is conveyed through ballet?

When I came to the University of Utah Ballet Program in the fall of 2015, I noticed that my peers were all shapes and sizes. I was impressed that the U was open to admitting talent no matter the size. But I began to notice my own experience and the experiences of others overshadowed by an overwhelming, industry-wide pressure to have the highly desirable ballet body. My history with body dissatisfaction and eating disorders is a long, sullied, and serious one, and I still struggle to accept my body as it is today. Even though my BMI is 17, which is technically underweight for my height, I still feel self- conscious. Within the studio, I realize I am not alone; it is just plain wrong, not to mention unhealthy, for my fellow dancers and I to feel poorly about our bodies every single day. As I started speaking to some of them about their experiences, I couldn’t help but feel saddened for not only each of us as individuals, but also for our art form.

Tia Sandman is a twenty-year-old sophomore in the University of Utah Ballet Program. At five foot eleven inches and a healthy BMI of nineteen, Tia captivates a room with her incredible lines and an effervescent personality that shines through her dancing, but according to Tia, the sentiment that “being tall and curvy isn’t the ideal that everyone is looking for” has definitely limited her opportunities as a dancer. While Tia thinks that the University of Utah and other collegiate institutions have made considerable strides in admitting a diversity of body types, she is skeptical that this acceptance can spread to both pre-professional and professional ballet opportunities based on her experience.

“I was talked to twice about my size in my pre-professional ballet program.” Tia says. “The first year, when I was seventeen, they told me that I needed to get into my adult body and to trim down my legs by getting more muscle tone. I was only seventeen; I wasn’t an adult yet so how was I supposed to find my adult body? I was talking with my friend in the hallway about nutrition during my second year in the program, and one of the teachers overheard our conversation. She recommended that I go on a 50 carbohydrates a day diet while it was directly specified that my friend, who was standing right next to me, didn’t need to go on a diet. ” When asked why she went through with a diet that was so clearly unhealthy for a person who exercises moderately let alone a dancer, Tia replied, “I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t trying so I did the diet for two weeks. I felt like I was going to pass out all the time.”

As a five foot two inches tall dancer with a healthy BMI of twenty three, Sydney Joy, a nineteen-year-old sophomore in the Ballet Program, couldn’t be a more different dancer from Tia, yet they have experienced some of the same challenges when it comes to body dissatisfaction.

“At my hometown ballet studio back in high school, the teachers had a generalized talk with all of the students about fitting into ballet costumes for Nutcracker. There were only two costumes for my part as the Chinese Tea soloist in Act Two, and they didn’t stretch at all because the tutu portion was made out of paper so I needed to fit into one of them. It looked good on, but the process of putting it on made me feel so fat. My teacher back home was a soloist with the National Ballet of Canada. As a high level professional, she encouraged all of us to loose weight. A lot of girls just ended up not eating.”

Unfortunately, outside criticism of Sydney’s body was not limited to her pre-college experience.

“The first time I was talked to about my weight and my body was at the end of my first semester at the U. My teachers told me I needed to work on my physicality and becoming more toned. The second time was the middle of my second semester of freshman year, and this talk was more about eating right and fitting in extra workouts like Pilates and swimming. I perceived that as them asking me to lose weight. It is always hard to hear that from people who are teaching and grading you because you don’t know how much that will impact your grade. I know I have bigger boobs and wider hips which is what makes me look bigger, but there is only so much that I can do. I don’t know how effective loosing weight would be.”

Emily Breen is a nineteen-year-old sophomore in the Ballet Program. Standing five foot seven inches and with a healthy BMI of twenty-three, Emily says that she is constantly aware that she is different from the other reflections in the mirror.

“ When I stand in front of a mirror all day, it is hard not to see my legs are bigger than everyone else’s, and my butt hangs out of my leotard more. I have kind of adjusted to it. I realize that this is just my reality.”

Emily says the faculty at the U has talked to her about her body and eating habits as well.

“They told me that in order to reach my full potential and to partner, I needed to make sure I was eating well. It was implied, but never so direct that I needed to loose weight.”

The last dancer I interviewed wishes to remain anonymous, but her insights about her experience bring intellectual value to her already remarkable qualities as a dancer.

“The University of Utah has been wonderful to me about my body and they are very careful when bringing up the subject (if they ever do). However, at my old school, I was told that I was fat, in both subtle and upfront ways, almost everyday by the teachers and some of the students. Something that I recently found out was that I have a hormone deficiency and that makes it extremely difficult to lose weight. The sad thing is that I still have people telling me to just 'go vegan,' work out more, or eat less because I look better skinny, as if I have a choice and that will magically fix everything.”

Now, I want to clarify that despite some of the stories in this article, I think the U is doing a fantastic job at prioritizing artistry over body type. The faculty members that do encourage students to lose weight in a politically correct fashion are doing their jobs to help students join a company after graduation, but as a result, they are conforming to a worn-out yet seemingly ideal ballet aesthetic that most professional ballet companies still prefer. Although they perpetuate the stereotype, the faculty is not the source of the problem. When I asked my interview subjects if they think that the ballet body aesthetic is changing, the consensus was no, but there was also a consensus that the idea of the “perfect” ballet body could be changed by artistic directors worldwide. In order to engage the next generation with ballet and to diversify ballet audiences, artistic staff should hire ballerinas of all shapes and sizes. Audiences will connect with artists that are similar to them, and they will recognize the efforts of artists that are hired because they’re the most passionate about their dancing not necessarily just the “right” body type. I want little girls everywhere to look up to my peers who I interviewed for this article because they truly represent the essence of ballet.  Ballet is a great equalizer in that it doesn’t matter where a dancer came from.  If they can dance dynamically, they should be able to join a company. It’s just that simple.