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Body image and the ballet aesthetic

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I'm deliberately putting this on Aesthetic Issues in the hopes that we don't dawdle over the rehashes of the Guenther and Keefer cases that are contained in this article, but I wondered if anyone had read the article on Links by Lewis Segal in the L.A. Times that (once again) questions the "right" of classical ballet to demand a particular body type, or proportions (and, by implication, other physical requirements, such as turnout). He compares them to Chinese foot binding, calls them racist, and advises that they be gone in the 21st century.

Here's the link:

The Shape of Things to Come

The premium that classical ballet places on ultra-thinness is an outdated concept and is no longer worth its considerable risks.



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Well, it was a little over the top, but I guess nowadays you can blame white males for anything. But I think the emaciated look isn't limited to ballet--look at the heroine chic models. Personally, I really dislike the superthin look, and much prefer the 1950's shape of ballet dancer. And it seems his article is implying that you don't have to the superthin anymore, since he says Darcey Bussell is so famous. I wonder if the Soviet style ballets with all their heavy lifting contributed to the pensil thin look, since that would make them so much easier to cart around and save the men's backs.

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My feelings parallel those of Lewis Segal. Having seen pictures of Duncan, I can't imagine her having different feelings about this. I haven't seen any of the movies mentioned nor have I any direct knowledge about Balanchine's preferences for how his dancers should have looked, but indirect evidence of its holdover to ballet of today seems obvious in many of today's NYCB dancers (in particular). It continues to strike me as odd that female dancers should be considered (by whom, by the way?) more aesthetically beautiful if super-thin. I quess there must be "taste" involved in being able to see this "line" that is apparently very important to experienced afficionados. I agree, it does seem important for outstretched movements and poses commonly taken by corps members in unison. I think "line" must be more related to overall body type (build) rather than being related to how thin that body is however.

What Segal seems to be talking about is a "thinness" requirement in today's (classical) ballet world that comes from the ballet-master's standards rather than demands of the audience. Or is it the critical reviews that drive this more? Do these in charge of saying "thou shalt be thin" take audience response to classical ballet performances into account? How are they informed of any preferences audiences have?

mid-to-late 20th century whim of the white ballet establishment

Though apparently mostly white, I don't think this establishment is primarily male by the way; perhaps most ballet-masters are male, but are most critics and reviewers male? Also, in my opinion, the super-thin look certainly doesn't seem very common in South American companies which are dancing classical repertoire. Well, someone is sure to point out that there are none listed in the "establishment's" top 10.....

I have experienced watching some of the most artistically perfect dancers, yet felt there was something less than aesthetically pleasing about their performance because of the distraction of their thin-ness seen in the features of the face and the protruding bones of Balanchine's aesthetic. It's the total package that leaves a lasting impression on me I guess.

I hope Segal is correct in his predictions for the future.

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Certainly an interesting article. Kirkland, however, doesn't seem to be the most stable person in any job. I think we all know that her experience isn't typical. Gordon's book was published quite some time ago, and things have changed a great deal since then. Though to be perfectly honest, female dancers place a great deal of pressure on themselves to be thin, comparing themselves to others. And since when are Sylvie Guillem and Darcey Bussell "Valkyries"??? Neither one has an ounce of fat on her, and they don't even seem all that tall, in person. And about the Keefer issue: would Segal prefer that music schools accept singers who have, to be diplomatic, less than ideal voices merely on principle? So why should it be the same for dancers?

From what I've read recently, dancers are actually getting healthier and less stress is being placed on thinness at any cost. Ballet is hardly a "cruel subjugation of women to a crippling, inhuman illusion" from my pov, although I would be interested to hear directly what some female dancers think.

(By the way, Cargill, it can actually be more difficult to lift an 80-pound girl with no muscle who can't jump than someone who's heavier but stronger because the lighter girl is usually "dead weight". Most of it is how the weight is used, and timing.)



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Paul, nearly all company directors are male (of the major American companies, at least. Women are allowed in at the barely-bigger-than-civic level.) Something a bit more controversial is the orientation and preferences of choreographers and artistic directors. I've been told in interviews by female dancers that they think the fact that most choreographers working today are gay men have something to do with this -- this is not offered as a complaint by them, but an observation: "I can understand why a gay man would want women without breasts or hips, to have boyish bodies." (And of course, there are many gay men who like womanly women -- see Mark Morris's female dancers -- and straight men who prefer boyish gamins.) Demographically, dance critics at the moment are about half and half. The ones with full-time jobs, Kisselgoff excepted, tend to be male. The freelancers and those who write for magazines tend to be women or younger men [please not the "tend to be;" of course, there are exceptions smile.gif ].

On Kirkland, I agree with CD (in fact, I'd agree with his whole post, although I also think Paul W raised some interesting points). Kirkland wrote many things in that autobiography that are not considered facts -- the one most often cited is that Balanchine tried to force drugs on her in the guise of vitamins. The "I want to see bones" thing is, if it happened, not something that happened every day and, as has been pointed out every time this is raised, Balanchine had many "big" women. Neither Farrell nor von Aroldingen, two of his favorites, is, in any way, one of the chicken bone ballerinas. (I also wondered how in the world Guillem got in the Amazonian category. Good grief. I think it's the many women who do not have Guillem's bone structure and body fat ratio naturally, but try to starve themselves down to it in imitation of her, that are one of the problems today -- and I don't mean to imply that that is Guillem's fault.

Cygne, I have heard with my own ears two Danish men, both well over 5 foot 9, complain about one of the Danish women who weighed maybe 125 (about 5 foot 4) and who refused to dance with her unless the direction made her lose weight because she was "too fat to be hoisted around." Last time I saw her, she'd lost the weight all right, barely had the strength to move, had whiter-than-ivory skin stretched over a skeletal face. Nothing that can be blamed on Balanchine, gay choreographers, male (or female) critics, or men in general smile.gif

[This message has been edited by alexandra (edited April 03, 2001).]

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I'm afraid that, being from SF Bay Area[Keefer-land], I've lost all patience for the kind of reverse snobbery that Segal's article smacks of. I especially detest the hypocrisy of those who slam ballet for being sizeist, sexist, racist, elitist, old-fashioned, and lacking in sophistication, while blissfully ignoring those same trends in wider reaching fields such as fashion, sports, and Hollywood. I'm afraid that this is because ballet is an easier target.

As to the article itself, I found it to be woefully uninformed, poorly researched, and appallingly biased. There seems to be a great deal of ignorance on Segal's part--as well as other "dance experts"--of the aesthetic differnces between ballet and modern dance. This is illustrated in the way he uses Mark Morris' dancers as examples of amply sized "ballet" dancers, even though Mark Morris' company is, as I understand it, a modern dance company and not a ballet company. The need for some degree of thinness in ballet has already been discussed extensively here.

At the same time, however, I still do not like, and I never have liked, super-thin dancers of the Lacarra variety. I find it quite disconcerting when I can count a dancer's vertebrae and, as Balanchine has been quoted," see bones." I like muscle, I like meat, I even like when I can see a little cleavage poking out of a bodice. Ballerinas often portray very "feminine" characters; I want a feminine figure to go with it.

Also, I must second [or third?] all opinions on Kirkland as an expert. While I have nothing but the utmost respect for her dancing and her career, I am afraid that she is projecting onto Balanchine her own insecurities. frown.gif

[This message has been edited by BalletNut (edited April 03, 2001).]

[This message has been edited by BalletNut (edited April 03, 2001).]

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Although I think those super ballet thin bodies are very unattractive, and I think that anorexia is way to common in a young dancer's ballet world (Having seen friends and other dancers going through the disease), that article in the LA TImes made me mad. THin by whose standards? This may abe just a term pinned on healthy ballerinas by an overly obese society whose main occupation is eating and then trying to exercise it all off. Lots of dancers are very HEALTHY, and they take care of their bodies instead of overindulging.

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And Segal is really quite off the wall in only blaming white male directors for the pressure to be thin, since, in the 19th century,when men had a lot more power, dancers were a lot heftier. Tastes change, but I don't think it is mature to blame someone "out there" who is foisting images on us helpless little folk. (After all, remember the Edsel!) The super thin look as I recall became popular in the 60's with people like Twiggy, and ballet was to some extent I suspect following that trend rather than purely setting it. I also remember Alexandra pointing out that the current vogue for leotard ballets probably has something to do with the emphasis on emaciated body shapes, since leotards show everything a tutu hides. And if Guillem is an Amazon to Segal, heaven help the rest of the world!

I agree about Lacarra, though I haven't seen her a lot. I thought her white swan pas de deux was completely unwomanly, all attenuated shapes and mannerisms, and her thinness bothered me very much.

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I resent Segal's phrases that allow ballet to be represented by Mark Morris's dance group and other such entities. Furthermore, I have not seen many schools or artistic directors that will allow exceptional talent to escape if it is a little overweight. There is so much more to ballet than just weight- movement quality, for one, can put on pounds or take them off- it is part of the illusion. And while the Keefer case involves a child that may be top young to determine truely exceptional talent, she can always come back next year, or go someplace else. No one is denying her the chance to train and even attempt a professional career- San Francisco Ballet, I am sure, is not the only ballet school of merit on the west coast. I don't think it is time for ANYTHING to change- ballet is loved because it is what it is, and there are so many different people with different tastes out there that I believe there is a place for everyone. Furthermore, ballet training has mostly produced highly disciplined individuals- especially those that choose other careers. Many of these people go on to suceed in many different areas- teachers, scientists, lawyers, doctors, physical therapists, etc. This is a lot more than I can say for professioal sports leagues, where you hear more about this team member or that one who was arrested for assault, battery, drunk driving, drug use or even murder. (If I offend, I am sorry, but I least I am not being offensive in a nationally read newspaper.)

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I had a good friend who was just starting a professional dance career in the early 80's -- she studied at SAB and at the North Carolina school for the performing arts (name? it's a top place -- Bissell was there for example.) She left ballet in part because of the craziness she experienced around body image etc. At SAB there was constant invocation of Mr. B's name to enforce certain types of image on the girls. When she was eleven she was told, for example, "Mr. Balanchine likes girls who wear make-up." Did Balanchine say this? For that matter, does it seem so bad? (it's just make-up...) I honestly think it's hard to judge, but the cumulative effect she observed was not positive. She knew several people -- I can only be anecdotal, not statistical -- who had serious, health threatening, issues with food and self-image. And she herself found things pretty destructive and left ballet although she did have professional opportunities. Obviously, someone else might have handled the situation differently; ballet isn't responsible for every individual's personal problems and decisions. But if, as CygneDanois suggests, things are a different now -- with less emphasis on thinness -- that's a good thing, and the occasional spotlight on some of the more extreme cases seems to me, also, to be a good thing IF it means that ballet schools and teachers are a little more careful about what can go wrong with their students -- or companies with their dancers. For that reason, Segal's article didn't irritate me as much as it did some others here. And I didn't think he was implying that ballet schools didn't have the right to make ANY physical demands.

Certainly, ballet per se is not at the center of taste/image formation in the U.S. -- but as someone who cares about and loves ballet, I do want attention paid to these issues IN the ballet world. For that reason, too, the fact that Segal or someone else writes an article emphasizing thinness in ballet rather than, say, gymnastics or modelling, seems legitimate to me.

Ballet does/has changed over the decades -- partly in response to its own formal, artistic developments, partly in response to wider social/cultural changes. (I remember my first response to a picture of Pierina Legnani that I saw in a book given to me as a child: "she's fat.") Presumably, Segal means to be a little over the top, because he wants to make a polemical point -- to be part of the debate...I do NOT mean that this is some distinguished or important article (certainly not), but I also think fans, parents, and ballet students may be a little undereducated about just how stressfull, intense, and unhealthy certain aspects of ballet "culture" can be. And I'm not persuaded they have to be, to get great results. Lincoln Kirstein's evocative language of young women dancers as devoted nuns etc. is lovely to read, but hardly practical or realistic...

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All career fields create obsessive behavior. Business has the eighty hour per week, stress-ridden, cardiac risk persons. Sports has the steroid crazed, software development has the glazed eyes and caffiene.

People who want to be the best in a competitive enviroment sometimes cross the edge. Often without understanding what the edge is.

At Fortune 100 companies it is expected to work a minimum of sixty hours and more without regard to health, family or others. Why just pick on dance?

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I remember about 10 years ago I was talking to the mother of a girl who was dancing in the SAB workshop, and she said in SAB under Peter Martins, there was a definite change from worring about fat to worrying about being too thin, that he had been accepting dancers into the company that were all shapes, and that SAB was emphasizing healthy eating. The dancers in the 70's and early 80's were, I think, a lot thinner as a general rule than they are now, a very good thing, in my eyes.

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This is a subject that makes me very angry, so I'm going to try to explain why.

I think the concept that thinness is essential to be good at ballet has been internalized within the system to the point that no matter what sort of dancer is getting hired, women hear from each other, from their parents, from their teachers, and eventually themselves, that one can not dance well unless she has the perfect body.

I don't think this is going to change unless both companies and schools actively cultivate an aesthetic that really does include a wider range of body types, and not just on a level that only the trained observer will notice. My experience has been that the larger dancer is weeded out early on (sometimes before her true body shape has really developed) and discouraged from developing the level of skill needed to dance professionally. I don't think this is healthy for any of us.

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Just a comment, but all those different body shapes is part of the reason why I like DTH. All beautiful bodies, but not one "cookie cutter" dancer.

Also, in dance magazine, I recently read an article about SAB doing something about girl's eating disorders. Like they had hired and in-school nutritionist or something. And that each girl was on a "program." I might have the school or the details wrong, but I thought I read someting like that.

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A dance critic who interviewed Gelsey's partners says they hated to lift her because, even at her sickly thinnest she was from the dead-weight school of partnering. While I agree with those who say ballet is making art with one's body and creating a line is critical, it's DANCING, not posing. What matters is the beauty created by a body in motion and many a flaw, be it square shoulders or thick hips or less than perfecto tootsies, has been overpowered by artistry. How else to explain Fonteyn's last decade? For a more contemporary example: Look at Paloma and Angel's photos in the Romeo and Juliet photo storybook done two years ago. They look liked dancers done in by a taxidermist. Her famous feet look deformed in a still photo. None of the magic of his ethereal jumps conveys. These are poses, not dance photos -- and they look it.

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Hello everyone. I always had the feeling that physical proportions in regard to legibility and clarity of line were determining factors in aesthetic for the ballet performer. There is also the fact that the daily training dancers do keeps them toned to a state of high muscular definition in order to accomplish the athletic and expressive demands of their craft. Ballet dancers are often criticized for being too lean when they are in fact finely tuned athletes with specific physical proportions that indicate length and give exquisite physical control. The function of their craft determines the form of their tool, that is, their body. How people turned this into a need to stay thin rather than a need to stay physically peaked is perhaps something to talk about in another discussion.

When I attended Graduate School in a modern dance department I immediately got the notion that there was an anti-ballet bias that was cultivated and taught to not only the dance students, but also to any university student taking Intro to Dance or Dance Appreciation as a Fine Arts requirement. It was so confounding to hear about tolerance and diversity on the one hand, and then hear cultural vitriol linking ballet to subjugation of women on the other hand. My notion is that the advocates for modern dance were still, after decades of artistic accomplishment, looking for artistic justification and acceptance by cultivating a moral ascendancy over ballet. This concept found convenient support in some feminist theory. The unhappy trend is that higher education is often teaching our best and brightest that ballet is guilty of a broad spectrum of politically incorrect acts that are especially harmful to young women. Whenever I questioned this or pointed out what I found to be factually incorrect in my experience, or if I noted inconsistent or sloppy logic in the arguments concerning ballet, I would be met with resistance, dismissal, and pointed hostility. Questioning the political line was not tolerated. So much for freedom of thought!

Despite what ballet seems to require in physical proportion and expressive athleticism, I agree with Samba that the art, while seated in the body, ultimately transcends the body. I think this is true in modern dance as well. Otherwise our art is merely surface, what we see on the outside, rather a means to reveal the innermost condition of the human spirit.

Rick McCullough

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Originally posted by Allegro:

[QB]Although I think those super ballet thin bodies are very unattractive, and I think that anorexia is way to common in a young dancer's ballet

Anorexia is way too common among young women, generally. Perhaps someone with a tendency towards anorexia is drawn to a world where the body is the focus. But as Mary sweetly called it, "heroine chic"---aka heroin chic--is just as responsible, if not more by far, for the skinny aesthetic. Furthermore, advertising and fashion photography offer "faux" bodies as a norm--altered by plastic surgery (slim as a reed and bosomy) and photo editing. Also: remember, before all those implants and air brushings, in Mr. B's heyday, there was Twiggy. About Mark Morris--his Dido (he used to portray the Queen of Carthage in his "Dido and Aeneas") was one hefty gal. And gorgeous, too. But not a ballerina. null

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Well put, Rick and Nanatchka. Rick, I've observed the same bias against ballet at universities. I've been in classes where we were taught that ballet is not creative; only modern dance is. (This is an article of faith.) Certainly the notion ballet is inherently vicious to women is a popular belief--I remember in a dance history class writing that pointework was the great equalizer in the 1830s, I was nearly stoned (as in they threw metaphoric stones).

When I started teaching, I learned the most amazing things from my dance philosophy students -- again, ballet is not creative. Ballet choreographers just pick steps from a book. However, modern dancers CREATE movements. John Martin, of course, wrote the famous "Isadora Duncan was the first expressive dancer." This has led to a belief that (classical) ballet is not expressive, it is merely an academic exercise.

I think Rick has hit on some of the reasons for this, and I'd add that dance departments are, for the most part, run by modern dancers. Dance history is taught by modern dancers (1st semester, beginning of time to the Ballet Russe; second semester, total omission of ballet and concentration on "real dance.") These are people with MFAs, without any formal coursework in dance history beyond the course they took where they learned the same things. Couple this with the assumption that modernism is not just the current trend in art, or current manifestation of artistic expression, but that it is the ONLY way one can look at art, and anything that came before it is of historical interest only, and this is another aspect of the "why isn't ballet more popular?" question. Students are taught to scorn ballet. The "Agon" wing of the Balanchine museum is alone permissible -- I know several ballet fans who snuck into the art generally through this door.

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What's being described here is what I call "cultural Israelism". The thinking runs like this: Since (x form) has betrayed and corrupted True Art, only (my form) is worthy of being called The Truth, and its followers the Chosen People.

It is indeed ludicrous to have an intellectual community which still subscribes to such a barely-amended Mid-Victorian ideology! :P

[ 04-15-2001: Message edited by: Mel Johnson ]

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About the anti-ballet bias in academia--I think it would be very insulting to modern dancers and choreographers for P.C. apologists to imply that their dance form does not require the same level of talent from its dancers that ballet does. Neither

does this make sense: if modern dance is really "improvised creative movement" then what need do we have for people like Mark Morris, Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, or Martha Graham?

Aside from which, it seems as though way too many "educated" people confuse modern dance with performance art. :eek:

[ 04-15-2001: Message edited by: BalletNut ]

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It's an old saw that standards of beauty, especially for women, are culturally driven. It is probably true that Thin (or let's say Lean, if that's less pejorative) is Better for things like clarity of line, and so forth. I certainly prefer it. However, I don't feel quite confident enough to assert -- we are all creatures of our time, after all, and influenced by cultural assumptions in many ways of which we are only partially aware -- that this is some kind of eternal, inviolable standard. Around the turn of the century, women were a lot curvier; and they were not supposed to be too thin or too tall. (Pavlova was accused of excessive thinness in her time. I don't think she looks too thin today. To take another example from an earlier generation, Sarah Bernhardt, who also doesn't seem especially scrawny to the modern eye, was constantly lampooned by cartoonists for the same reason.) I should imagine that the dancers of that time, who seem so chunky to us today, looked like the epitome of lissome grace back then. A lot depends on what the eye is accustomed to seeing.

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There's a wonderful turn-of-the-last-century Danish review complaining (gently, gentlemanly) about Adeline Genee, a Danish dancer who made her career abroad, but came home to dance. Well, she's a nice dancer all right, but isn't she awfully thin? Not like our "charming, chubby ladies of the ballet."

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The term "anorexic" is used much too freely these days. Anorexia nervosa is an exceedingly rare psychiatric condition whose victims have such a distorted body image that they see themselves as intolerably fat when they are actually skeletal. There is some evidence that an anomaly in the brain predisposes one to the problem. But just being thin or wanting to be thin does not make one "anorexic".

Does anyone recall that around the time that Heidi Guenther passed away, three young men died trying to make the weight for their division on wrestling teams? There was very little coverage. Their deaths were reported as accidents, the result of risks taken to achieve a desired goal. Perhaps because they were males, no one suggested that they were anorexic.

People Magazine recently ran cover stories on female actors who were intolerably thin, and then on women in film and television with "healthy" bodies. There was maybe an eight to ten pound difference between them, tops! This society tends to use issues of weight to undermine the confidence of women, whether they are fat, skinny, or in-between. There is no reason for any woman's weight to be a matter for public discussion. The critics who berate ballet dancers for being too thin are often the same ones who write viciously if a dancer puts on a few pounds.

And speaking of critics, surely it is unethical to critique an art form if you don't have a great love for it at its best. I loathe the sound of boy sopranos, and would never attempt to assess a performance by the Vienna Boys Choir. Obviously Lewis Segal hates ballet, so why is he covering it for the LA Times?

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