Jump to content
This Site Uses Cookies. If You Want to Disable Cookies, Please See Your Browser Documentation. ×

"Behind the Curtain:The Body, Control, and Ballet"


Recommended Posts

By pure chance I stumbled upon this article online written by Paula T. Kelso. it describes the world of ballet basically as a hateful, vicious, abusive atmosphere, with no benefits. I have to admit I was shocked when I read it. Some of what she says can be true, but I think the article is quite biased and mentions NONE of the benefits of dancing! But I wanted to hear what others though about it: is it offensive or accurate to you?

Behind the Curtain: The Body, Control, and Ballet

Link to post

Kelso's article, published in a scholarly journal, has substantial citations, many of them from Suzanne Gordon's 1983 book, Off balance: The real world of ballet and Benn and Walters' 2001 study, "Between Scylla and Charybdis. Nutritional education versus body culture and the ballet aesthetic: the effects on the lives of female dancers. Research in Dance Education."

Link to post

Do I detect the flavor of sour grapes, with a high note of anti-male bigotry (so 80s PC) and the bouquet of old data? The entire essay is vitiated by one sentence: "I doubt much has changed."

In clearly ordering her biases, Kelso sets up a foregone conclusion for an upcoming article.

Link to post

So much of thiat comes from 1983, from Gordon's book.

It's certainly changed in the schools -- the one I'm most familiar with has regular consultations with nutritionists, and the girls who're looking anorexic get a very complicated kind of attention, designed to ease hte pressures they feel.

but kids who want to dance often get obsessive and don't believe their teachers could mean that -- anorexia is about control, food is secondary.

Gelsey could not believe that Balanchine wanted her to dance with more ease, "more like Fred astaire.' you wonder what else she could not believe. Could she REALLY believe he wanted an overbite? It WAS fashionable at the time -- not only Suzanne, but every fashion model was showing plump lips and 2 front teeth, from Jean Shrimpton to Twiggy, so she was certainly only cottoning onto a fashion-plate of the time --

The problem with ballet is you have to be beautiful. It's like the movies -- you DON'T get to play Juliet if you're not pretty. Not even in Peoria. Occasionally someone like Barbara Streisand breaks a taboo -- her nose DID things in Funny Girl, and -- but that was almost counter-cultural.

The Balanchine body, by the way, is also the Merce Cunningham body. and it's the Florenz Ziegfeld body -- Balanchine was always trying to get Suzanne to GAIN a few pounds. (Though he did, I admit, like them skinny.)

Link to post

that earlier thread is really worth reading.

i'm expecially intrigued by this:

"I once wrote a piece on this, in the early 1980s, comparing the long, lean Dallas Cowboys to shorter, stockier, Washington Redskins, postulating that coaches made body type choices in much the same way choreographers and balletmasters do."

by Alexandra the Wise, of course

I'd REALLY LIKE to read that paper.

how subtly subversive of her to pick football, instead of basketball, whrere hte height requirememnts are so obvious there's almost no discussing them.


And it''s also true, ballet attracts teen-agers who want to sacrifice themselves to justify their existence, to deserve their place in the world. If their parents, or insecurities it's hard to find any cause for, drive them to this, nevertheless, it's the case there ARE such people, and ballet gives them an objectively almost impossible standard to reach for, and it can't be helped.

Link to post

This article is dated, published in 2003, and given the pace of scholarly review was likely submitted at least a year prior. In this light, the secondary sources seem current enough.

The article itself is the handiwork of a graduate student and smacks of it. But who can blame Ms. Kelso when the only way one gains working papers for the university is through publication in similar journals of suspect value? In this quest, the wise graduate student knows the more contraversial the essay the greater the chance of publication. If there are issues here which deserve a delicate hand and discerning intellect --- and by all means there are --- then perhaps we should look elsewhere.

Link to post

And citing the Keefer case as supportive evidence is risky. All one had to do was look at the poor thing try to dance, and the reason for the non-acceptance at San Francisco became obvious. She had been badly trained besides all the physical shortcomings. I remember watching the news footage and saying, "Oh, oh,...oh dear. No wonder." Fouettés by nine-year-olds are rarely pretty, but these were particularly awful. If anything, the case did point out the well-intentioned but sloppily-written anti-discrimination law in San Francisco under which the case was brought. But I guess you can't use the fig leaf "You're too short and bulky" when what you need to say is, "You're badly-trained, and unmaking your bad habits will take longer than you've got as a student to fix." (Especially when her mom was her teacher!)

Link to post

The sociology essay posted by Leigh raises many interesting points. The idea of ballet as a sub-culture with its own jargon -- and the tendency of ballet training from childhood to isolate the dancers from the rest of the world -- should not be dismissed.

I was quite interested by the following point, which raises asthetic questions about the role of the dancer in the art of ballet. I realize that the author seems to be arguing one side of the case, and I wonder what others on Ballet Talk -- especially those more familiar than I am with the atmosphere and process of creation in a ballet studio -- think of the following:

QUOTE: "Ballet is known as a performing art. Art implies a creative process through which the artist can express her innermost thoughts and feelings to an audience. Many dancers dance because they learn to express themselves through movement. However, all of ballet looks the same with cookie-cut out dancers expressing themselves in the same ways to the same music. There is no individual creativity to be explored here, only the creativity of the director is seen. The director’s feelings are then described to the dancer and the dancer’s job is to express that feeling to the audience. Creativity tends to be squashed in the classroom by focusing only on technique, which trains bodies to be a vehicle for someone else’s creativity. Gelsey Kirkland (1986), a world-renowned ballerina, says in her autobiography that Balanchine had a “monopoly on taste and creative control” at New York City Ballet (p. 49). She also says that the dancers relied on him for “ideas and psychological motivation” (cited by Benn & Walters, 2001, p. 148). Michelle Benash, another dancer, says that “you have to lose your personality; your movement, your style are dictated to you” (Gordon, 1983, p. 112). A former New York City Ballet dancer puts it this way: Balanchine believed “that women should provide the inspiration that triggers men’s creativity” (Gordon, 1983, p. 173) Dancers, then, merely become puppets for someone else’s creativity and emotion." CLOSE QUOTE

Link to post

And several of Balanchine's ballerinas said that dancing his ballets made them feel more like themselves than anything else.

If you're in an orchestra playing a symphony, you're probably going to have to suborn your interpretation to the conductor's unless you're the soloist. Same thing in ballet. Some choreographers are more collaborative, some less. There's even something to be learned by being the instrument rather than the interpreter; it isn't all a process of squashing individuality. Kelso has a small point that she's blown out of proportion.

Regarding the idea of ballet as a subculture, one dancer's haven and refuge is another sociologist's isolation from society. There is another way to look at it.

Link to post
Kelso has a small point that she's blown out of proportion.

It certainly seems so, on reading the articles. I also like your analogy with playing in an orchestra. Some suppression of individuality is inevitable, but it's not "about" suppression, which is what the writer suggests.

There also seems to be a misunderstanding of what "having a thesis" involves in scholarship. This reminds me of a way of thinking/analysing/communicating become all too prevalent in our culture, especially visible in the work of political think tanks and cable news discussions. And that is: presenting only the arguments and evidence (of greatly varying reliabiity and quality) that support your thesis, while completely ignoring -- or (worse !!! ) not even being aware of -- evidence that does not.

Thanks for adding some balance to the pot, leigh and others.

Link to post

I found rather a lot of inaccuracies in that article, especially where she writes that education is discouraged (one glance at BT4D shows you that there are lots of reputable college dance programs out there, and more dancers than ever before are going from those into companies) and also her statement that "It is not uncommon for a dancer to walk into what she thinks will be her daily ballet class and find a scale set up in the center of the dance studio instead (Gordon 1983)." Completely false, at least in this day and age. Perhaps she oughtn't to have used sources that were published two decades previously?

Link to post

Perhaps she shouldn't have based her whole thesis on the writings of two individuals who suffered in the environment and had residual issues. It's not for everyone (what is?).

In ballet, dancers perceive promotions, sought-after roles, and praise from management as rewards. They see insults, being ignored, and failure to be selected for coveted roles as punishments. Management wants dancers to maintain a certain aesthetic. When dancers comply with this requirement, they continue their employment and may be rewarded with roles in an upcoming production. Compliant dancers are also not as likely to be verbally abused by management, since directors require that dancers silently obey demands.

. . . which of course is unheard of in other work places! :wink: Of course, in any situation, talent usually plays a part.

No one ever claimed that ballet isn't an exceptionally demanding career. But if it's all Kelso claims, how do we explain the intense competition for entry?

Link to post

For the sour grapes theory, see:

I can attest to experiencing all of the aspects of ballet, in my pre-professional training and in my professional dancing, that Gordon showed.  I also know from fellow dancers in the Midwest, New York, North Carolina, and San Francisco that their experiences are and have been very similar to what Gordon portrays in her book.

As a dancer, I never heard of her. Perhaps that's the problem. Too many people like me.

Link to post

History is written by the victors. The number of participants in pre-professional training far exceeds the number of positions in ballet companies; can we dismiss experience of those who do not make it out of hand?

Merrill Ashley wrote in Dancing for Balanchine that when she was in a cast, she was interviewed about her injury, and she said that Balanchine disapproved because he thought that injuries shouldn't be publicized. There is a vested interest in any industry that relies on illusion, glamour, and beauty, not to mention fundraising, to keep the uglier aspects of it out of the public eye.

Can we deny that in the process of training dancers and athletes, there are casualties galore, from eating disorders -- a topic on which Linda (Homek) Hamilton wrote her PhD thesis -- to chronic and crippling injuries, even with nutritional programs, more oversight, and better training? That many of the dancers who've been in pre-professional programs since the age of 13 and who do not make it into companies are undereducated and unprepared for the work force in relation to their peers? (The non-professional-track, high-school-aged students at the PNB school regularly attend college, and they have a great ballet experience as well.) Or that the art form we love so much comes at the expense of the long-term physical health of the participants, regardless of the rewards to them? Do we think that issues of race in ballet have been eliminated?

I find it interesting that nationally sponsored companies often have/had very simple ways of deciding how to reject applicants to their elite dance academies: in Russia, the administrators and teachers would look at the parents, to identify potential weight and height issues at the beginning. There was a short article in the now-defunct Ballet News which noted that one of the Scandinavian companies -- I think it was Royal Ballet of Sweden -- compared turn-in to turn-out of potential students. If turn-in exceeded turn-out, the child was not accepted, to avoid long-term problems later on.

Link to post
There also seems to be a misunderstanding of what "having a thesis" involves in scholarship.  This reminds me of a way of thinking/analysing/communicating become all too prevalent in our culture, especially visible in the work of political think tanks and cable news discussions.  And that is:  presenting only the arguments and evidence (of greatly varying reliabiity and quality) that support your thesis, while completely ignoring -- or (worse !!! ) not even being aware of -- evidence that does not.


Thank you for summing up what I was thinking as I read a few paragraphs of that article. And I had to giggle when reading your response as it seems a perfect example of the Colbert word of the year, And that is "truthiness".:wink:

Link to post

I couldn't put it better than Helene did. I also thought this quote from Leigh (it's on the older thread) is worth repeating.

It's simpler to be dismissive of opinions like the one in the paper (she took work to find her cites, and it takes work to refute them) but I think in the long run the ballet community is better off coming up with responses, including in some cases, "We're working on that."
Link to post

Unintentionally this Kelso paper is quite hilarious, in the way it is expressive of the very tightly controlled world of graduate school. I grew up in my early teens in a ballet school (my mom's). Later I spent a number of years at a US campus, and most of my acquaintance were either graduate students or asistent professors.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I can assure you the mental aneroxia at that campus exceeded the physical control problems in the ballet world by factor yowza. I cannot recall a single person between ages 21 and 35 ever laughing in all those years on campus. Never ever. They were too scared to step out of line.

Poor Ms Kelso's paper is not very good. Of course the subject is pretty stale, and she doesn't further it one bit as far as I can tell. The exclusive way she relies on Gordon 1983 would be fine for a sophomore. It is however really problematic for a graduate student, and the paper should have been returned to Ms Kelso.

Gordon's vintage is not the problem; the problem is there are whole paragraphs that are supported exclusively by this one source. You can't do that. Kelso's clearly read the Gordon book first and has built her case around it. Obviously Southern Ill Edwardsville is not Yale or Princeton, but there are standards.

To return to my original comparison, if universities are ballet companies, too, I doubt Ms Kelso would even make it to the corps if this is her level.

And if it's about corps dancers being unable to express their personality and talent - they're required to express to choreographer's feelings - I cannot help but quote my mother saying "you're supposed to express yourself by executing the steps perfectly in line. That's something to be proud of." I know quite a bunch of corps dancers who are perfectly happy to do what they're doing, and doing it well. Contrary to what Kelso is saying not every dancer in the company wants to be Aurora or the Swan Queen. Also, for those who want to dance but find ballet's aesthetic too confining there are about a gazillion other dance options - ballet is really a tiny niche today.

And lastly, I don't know where Kelso gets this idea that American dancers are skinnier than European dancers (not from personal observation, perhaps). However what I saw from US companies other than NYCB, ABT and SFB, I was often struck by the "healthiness" of the girls jumping about. These days, if you want skinny you go to St Petersburg, Russia.

Link to post

The poor dancers not only get injured, they aren't even allowed tattoos and piercings? (Yes, and members of classical music orchestras suffer repetitive stress injuries and can't go electric!) Managers set standards for employee behavior! Failure to meet standards can get you fired! If you speak in jargon the outside world won't understand you! Gracious. For grad work, this paper is depressingly pedestrian and paint-by-numbers PC, a grab bag of "problems" in which serious physical health issues are listed side by side with tastes, traditions, and economic and social realities that don't fall in line with the contemporary notion that any inequality is by definition inegalitarian. Many of these issues fall under the heading that ballet is elitist, but the author seems incapable of examining them with actual critical thought.

It's ironic that as Kelso laments restrictions on personal freedom peculiar to ballet, she denies the dancers the freedom they actually have, the freedom to quit ballet and do something else with their lives. It's as, in her reading, we live in premodern, prefeminist times in which Western women have very limited life and career options, and the "harassment" of male artistic directors -- the insistence on standards, as in any profession -- is another example of what they unfairly suffer.

And if, as Kelso apparently means to suggest, the preference for thin bodies in ballet is actually prejudicial and not just potentially harmful, and the aesthetic preference for white -- or at least lighter -- skin and body shape stemming from ballet's origins in overwhelmingly white societies is racist, she needs to argue that case, not simply note it as if no other conclusion is possible. One definition of freedom might include the option of simply enjoying what one likes aesthetically without needing to apologize for it. Is it prejudicial to only fall in love with people of your own race or body size?

I also have to wonder, when she writes things like "ballet is supposed to showcase what the human body is capable of physically accomplishing" -- supposed to? --, if she's ever really developed a taste for the art.

Link to post

A recent article in the newspaper of one of our premier prep schools shows several sides of this story.

In it, a senior looks back on 5 years of earlier training at National Ballet School of Canada. It's remarkably asture and quite balanced in its view of this problem.


"At NBS, the teachers technically weren't allowed to make comments about our bodies. I didn't notice a problem when I first went to the school in grade 6, but as I got older, I definitely started noticing the pressure that surrounded us. I'd hear about 11th and 12th graders that would be called into meetings ... to talk about meeting with a nutritionist to set up diets to lose a certain amount of weight."

"I don't want to feed this stereotype that all dancers starve themseleves and have eating disorders, though," [she] said. ... "It's sad and it's horrible, but it'd just be ignorant to try to deny the fact that body types are a huge part of the dance world. And it's be even more ignorant to say that this sort of weight-consciousness is more prevalent for dance students than it is for 'normal teenagers.' A lot of girls here at (X) are just as weight-conscious as my friends back at NBS. If anything, I'd say my friends at NBC have the upper hand. From my experience, generally speaking, NBS students have the advantage of nutritional classes, hours of daily dancing, and biweekly cardiovascular workouts that help them to lose weight in healthier ways."

(Source: The Exonian, 2/24/06. Edited to remove references to individual persons.)

Link to post

Ok I think there has to be a balance, as in anything else.

In the U.S. balletomanes tend to idolize all things Balanchine, oftentimes forgetting that Balanchine was a flawed human being with an old-world mentality and background that perhaps made him a poor fit for the American life. He loved the United States, he loved the long, leggy, tall American dancers. But he also undeniably had ideas of a ballerina's life and priorities that today seem Draconian. He was in Diaghilev's Ballet Russes -- like Diaghilev (and Ninette di Valois), he had a fanatical devotion to ballet, that in today's light seems perhaps frightening or at the very least extreme. He in particular discouraged ballerinas from marrying and having children; this thank god has changed in the United States, and in other ballet companies it never seems to have been that much of a problem (the POB, Mariinsky et al always had their share of working mothers).

Ballet is a demanding, competitive discipline, and I don't think we should have "blinders" that issues like anorexia, low self-esteem, cruel teachers, crippling injuries, and racism don't exist. They obviously do. On the other hand, is ballet so bad compared to, say, Hollywood? Where starlets today (still) starve themselves, undergo drastic plastic surgery, basically prostitute themselves, for the chance of a "big break." Is it so bad compared to gymnastics, where physical abuse, anorexia, stunted growth, social isolation, et al are all big, documented problems? Is it so bad compared to many professional sports, where athletes pump themselves full of dangerous steroids, and are often cruelly cast aside whenever their knees or arms or whatever else gives out? Is it bad compared to the life of a miner, where day in and day out men are forced to enter dangerous caves full of substances that will give them lung disease?

Perhaps the point of my rambler is: do problems exist in the ballet world? I have no doubts that they do. They exist in all competitive, demanding professions. Are things improving? I think they are.

Link to post

Yes, canbelto, there does need to be a balance.

And yes, the world of ballet seems to be more humane in the last 25 years or so.

Balanchine was very much a man of his time and place. Less enlightened than some, but probably not most. It would be unfair to expect him to be lightyears ahead, though, wouldn't it? And I think most of his admirers actually can separate the art from the man. And for whatever it's worth, more than most men of his time, he worked closely with large numbers of women.

Pregnancy usually takes more than a year out of a dancer's career. Of course, Balanchine was frustrated when Millie, Allegra, Diana, Patty and others took maternity leave! Imagine Van Gogh not having yellow for a year!

My father, who was born in New York twelve years after Balanchine's birth, graduated from an Ivy League university and is politically left-of-center, took it almost as a personal affront when, while he was on the Board of a hospital, the hospital's director of development took three months' maternity leave. This was, if I recall, about 25 years ago. How dare she! What about her responsibility to her employer?

In the mid 1960's, a male high school teacher stood in front of my class and without a hint of embarrassment or apology announced that the school avoided hiring young women as teachers, because they just got married. And if they didn't leave then, they left a year later when they got pregnant.

So please don't blame Mr. B -- and especially please don't blame people who love his ballets -- for the ills and injustices of the whole society.

Link to post


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...