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What Is a Ballet Body? by Gia Kourlas


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What Is a Ballet Body?

With performances on pause, many dancers are rethinking their relationship to weight.

Like many ballet dancers, Lauren Lovette has had some questions during the pandemic. One keeps rising to the top of her list. What is a ballet body? And a corollary: What does healthy look like? “Am I really working on being a better dancer?” Lovette said. “Or am I just trying to starve and get skinnier, so now I have the line?”

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/arts/dance/what-is-a-ballet-body.html

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1 hour ago, volcanohunter said:

I'm genuinely curious, where has Theresa Ruth Howard seen white female ballet dancers who fit the description of "bad feet, a little bit tight, a little bit turned in"?!!

Margot Fonteyn? Ninette di Valois used to say she had feet that were like sticks of butter. Her turnout was not considered very good either.

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I meant recently, because I agree that ballet today is in the thrall of a cult of the "ballet body." I just can't imagine what leads Howard to believe that white dancers are exempt.

Ballet suffers from a really bad case of not seeing the forest for the trees. Nearly every ballet company I've seen has principal dancers who can't really dance. They may have brilliant technique, beautiful legs, remarkable flexibility and so forth, but they can't dance according to a dictionary definition of the term: to move one's body rhythmically usually to music, preferably harmoniously, in an appropriate style, perhaps even beautifully. It would seem that directors can be so distracted by six o'clocks or drill-bit pirouettes or a unitard-perfect body that they somehow fail to notice that a principal can't move with smoothness or ease. Was a time when what I valued most in a dancer was movement quality and musicality. Now I'm reasonably happy when I see some semblance of coordination.

Dancers can be far too tall, too thin, too flexible. Some are so skinny that they lack strength, their ankles wobble beneath them and all sorts of tension is shifted to their necks and hands. I also can't bear to watch the "spaghetti kids" of today. My worst audience experience of 2020 involved watching a heavily promoted, extremely tall and bendy young woman fall off pointe four times in the space of about 12 seconds while attempting to do a diagonal of hops. I watched one danseur, who is often praised for his "beautiful feet," performing double tours with his toes stretched so hard that they pointed sideways rather than toward the floor. It looked freakish, terrible. And getting a really good look at a ballerina's jutting ribs is extremely off-putting. More than once I've wished she would eat some cheesecake.

Nevertheless, a voice within compels me to speak up for my male dancer friends and their backs. If we want a return of zaftig ballerinas, that's fine, but we have to be prepared to part with overhead lifts in exchange. And costumes should be properly constructed to support their bodies.

P.S. I never took the "little pats of butter" description to be disparaging, simply a reference to the fact that Fonteyn's feet were very flexible. But unlike a lot of today's dancers with flexible feet, she didn't embarrass herself while hopping on pointe.

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Quote

P.S. I never took the "little pats of butter" description to be disparaging, simply a reference to the fact that Fonteyn's feet were very flexible. But unlike a lot of today's dancers with flexible feet, she didn't embarrass herself while hopping on pointe.

I think he was teasing her. As I remember it was Fonteyn who started the meme by saying in her book that she had "bad feet" early on and this got exaggerated and misinterpreted. Her feet weren't bad, they just weren't outstanding, and of course it was a time when shoes were softer and ballerinas weren't expected to be on pointe all the time.

Not to take only that from your long and excellent post.....

 

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Valcanohunter I enjoyed your analysis until the bit about a dancer showing ribs wishing they would eat cheesecake...it would be no different than saying to an overweight person that they should lay off the cheesecake (we've all agreed as a society a comment like that is "fat shaming" and unacceptable, I would point you to the Jennifer Ringer Sugarplum debacle).  Somehow the opposite is acceptable?  I thought it was deplorable how people attacked Wendy Whelan when she shared some behind the scenes photos of her in her dressing room. Her ribs were showing, how offensive!  But why?  Because we assume skinny dancers have eating disorders?  That's for a doctor to decide.  I understand having a preference for body type, as it is a visual art after all.  But do we really need to go as far as to comment on their diet? 

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9 minutes ago, Balletwannabe said:

Valcanohunter I enjoyed your analysis until the bit about a dancer showing ribs wishing they would eat cheesecake...it would be no different than saying to an overweight person that they should lay off the cheesecake (we've all agreed as a society a comment like that is "fat shaming" and unacceptable, I would point you to the Jennifer Ringer Sugarplum debacle).  Somehow the opposite is acceptable?  I thought it was deplorable how people attacked Wendy Whelan when she shared some behind the scenes photos of her in her dressing room. Her ribs were showing, how offensive!  But why?  Because we assume skinny dancers have eating disorders?  That's for a doctor to decide.  I understand having a preference for body type, as it is a visual art after all.  But do we really need to go as far as to comment on their diet? 

Considering how many ballerinas are now mothers I'd say that many ballerinas are thin but healthy. Inability to have kids is one classic symptom of a serious eating disorder.

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4 minutes ago, Balletwannabe said:

Indeed.  

Also the ribs is more a bone structure thing. Most ballerinas are ectomorphic. Basketball players are also usually extremely ectomorphic.

Here is Kevin Durant, ribs visible:

c96f85a778cb2be36af68c2867db903b.jpg

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A small percentage of ballerinas are mothers. That could be  largely due to the average short life span of a ballet career -- the majority of dancers in the corps for less than a decade -- and the younger age of most of them, where they would have children in their post-dance life, if at all.  In general it is older dancers who have children while still dancing, and the fact that they lasted so long could indicate that they were strong and healthy. 

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1 hour ago, Balletwannabe said:

Because we assume skinny dancers have eating disorders?  That's for a doctor to decide.  I understand having a preference for body type, as it is a visual art after all.  But do we really need to go as far as to comment on their diet? 

Of course I wasn't suggesting that dancers should literally eat more cheesecake. But if a dancer appears to be emaciated, it is a distraction for me and reduces my enjoyment of what I'm seeing, often severely, because I suffer inwardly for them. I would be happier if the dancers were costumed differently so that their thinness would be less obvious. And if dancers aren't that thin by nature, I wish they didn't feel compelled to achieve that look.

A lot does have to do with body type and metabolism. I know dancers who are rail thin, but covered in rock-hard muscle, eat more than I could and, yes, have children. (When I read the article I had to wonder, did Kourlas actually ask Whelan whether anyone had suggested to her that she needed to lose weight?!)

As for the photo of Kevin Durant, the ribs aren't showing through his upper chest. In the case of ballet dancers they often do.

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2 hours ago, volcanohunter said:

Of course I wasn't suggesting that dancers should literally eat more cheesecake. But if a dancer appears to be emaciated, it is a distraction for me and reduces my enjoyment of what I'm seeing, often severely, because I suffer inwardly for them. I would be happier if the dancers were costumed differently so that their thinness would be less obvious. And if dancers aren't that thin by nature, I wish they didn't feel compelled to achieve that look.

A lot does have to do with body type and metabolism. I know dancers who are rail thin, but covered in rock-hard muscle, eat more than I could and, yes, have children. (When I read the article I had to wonder, did Kourlas actually ask Whelan whether anyone had suggested to her that she needed to lose weight?!)

As for the photo of Kevin Durant, the ribs aren't showing through his upper chest. In the case of ballet dancers they often do.

For me whether a ballerina "looks" a certain way is less important than if she is healthy. Some ballerinas and athletes have a different, bonier build. For me, the signs of a healthy ballerina are whether they're able to get through extremely demanding ballets, and whether their career is long and not ended by constant injuries. It's not really for me to judge whether a ballerina "needs a cheesecake."

I learned never to judge a ballerina by weight after once I saw a ballerina look extremely thin and tired. Her performance was low energy. I was a bit alarmed as her performance didn't have the sparkle it usually has. A few weeks later the same ballerina announced she'd be taking a break as she was pregnant with twins. What I thought was alarming thinness and lack of strength was probably first trimester fatigue.

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There is no "thin shaming" here. In the article Marika Molnar is quoted as saying dancers with their five extra pounds "all look terrific now, very healthy," and I would probably agree. But I am not pointing fingers or naming names. Surely we can agree that when dancers face questions about weight, it's nearly always for weighing "too much." Dancers would almost never get flak from their bosses (which is what's at issue here, not the impressions of audiences) for being thin. The article states that "Whelan said she was never told to lose weight when she was in the company." I should hope not! Do you suppose anyone in the company ever suggested that she was too thin? I sincerely doubt it.

I am reminded of a classmate, a gorgeous woman and dancer. She was about 5'10", very slender, with very long limbs. She also had an hourglass figure and hated it. So she underwent breast reduction surgery. The rest of us thought she was crazy for doing it, after all, by the standards of modern beauty, she won the genetic lottery. She had all movie starlets and supermodels beat. But she didn't see many dancers who looked like her, so in the interests of furthering her (modern) dance career, she decided most of her breasts had to go.

I think of another friend, one of those rail-thin, ectomorphic, hardbody ballerinas, skinny even by ballet standards. Under her civvies she wears a padded training bra to appear a little more robust in the outside world. Perhaps this also reflects an ambivalent body image, but certainly the response is a lot less drastic.

I honestly think costuming carries a substantial amount of blame. (Another topic that came up in the article.) If some of the costumes weren't so revealing, leaving dancers of all shapes acutely aware of how their bodies look in them, if bodices were made in a more flattering way, because they often look clunky on even the smallest of dancers (I'm looking at you, Marc Happel), if they were constructed to be comfortable and supportive for dancers with larger breasts, I think everyone would be a lot happier.

Edited by volcanohunter
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This article is so important and I wish I had access to this type of knowledge when I was training in ballet.  At that time there was no internet and only reviews in the newspaper and movies such as The Turning Point and Dancers.  My fears surrounding food, body image, etc. were very isolated and I felt alone.  It would have been very helpful to know that other dancers, professional dancers have the same fears and that every body is shaped differently.  In my ballet school, which was a serious school that put out several ABT principal dancers, a couple of girls were told to lose a few pounds, but they told me that I could not return for the next semester until I gained some weight.  That was very responsible on their part.  I just feel grateful that articles like this are more relevant and that prominent dancers are speaking out about body image.  It is a great thing that body sizes and athleticism are even being addressed.   Hopefully some young ballet students can avoid the pitfalls that I went through.

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As an audience member, I do hope that a proper balance is struck between discouraging eating disorders and upholding the aesthetic of ballet. As is, a substantial number of top female dancers at NYCB, including some of the company's biggest stars, don't conform to the rail-thin ballerina archetype, and that's totally fine. But a part of me is a little worried about the future of leotard ballets in particular should "putting on a few pounds" be normalized or even encouraged. Staying thin -- not emaciated or unhealthy, but thin -- is critical to the art form IMO. I wouldn't want to see that standard changed in the name of body positivity or inclusivity. I admire and feel for someone like Kathryn Morgan but to me, she doesn't look like a classical ballerina at this point. 

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1 hour ago, volcanohunter said:

The article states that "Whelan said she was never told to lose weight when she was in the company." I should hope not! Do you suppose anyone in the company ever suggested that she was too thin? I sincerely doubt it.

My thoughts exactly when I saw they'd interviewed the skeletal Whelan of all people. I remember seeing her in a leotard ballet and something seemed to be jutting out of her leotard at rib cage level. I asked a medically trained friend who was with me "what is that" and she said "it's her liver."

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The truth is it's very hard for any dancer to stay in shape and dance a demanding schedule in a big company without being healthy. There are eating disorders like Gelsey Kirkland and Jenifer Ringer but these dancers had to step back from dancing. 

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6 hours ago, ECat said:

This article is so important and I wish I had access to this type of knowledge when I was training in ballet.  At that time there was no internet and only reviews in the newspaper and movies such as The Turning Point and Dancers.  My fears surrounding food, body image, etc. were very isolated and I felt alone.  It would have been very helpful to know that other dancers, professional dancers have the same fears and that every body is shaped differently.

Competing with the Sylph by L. M. Vincent, MD came out in 1979 and received a lot of attention at the time.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0836224051/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_awdb_imm_SV890MQ2WYZS21Y4FHPC

Unfortunately it doesn't seem to  have had lasting impact.

Edited by lmspear
Hit the post button too quickly.
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11 hours ago, JuliaJ said:

I wouldn't want to see that standard changed in the name of body positivity or inclusivity. I admire and feel for someone like Kathryn Morgan but to me, she doesn't look like a classical ballerina at this point. 

She may not fit your notion of a classical ballerina, but without allowance for human differences we would see no improvement in the problems detailed in the article. Maintaining acknowledged problems in the name of "tradition" makes zero sense to me. I care if dancers continue to feel poorly about their bodies - I don't know how many times on social media I've read statements from professional dancers like, "I felt a lot of pressure to be really slim and I was afraid to have big muscles" or "my mind often races with feelings of inadequacy to the point that it stops me in my tracks whether that is at home or in the middle of a combination at a ballet studio". It would be great to see this kind of impediment to art creation removed entirely. But that's just my dream.

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It's obvious that bodies in general have changed over the years,  and not just ballet dancers' bodies.  For example,  when a filmmaker wanted to recreate the look of the TV music show Soul Train,  it was impossible to find extras as thin as the actual dancers of the 60s and 70s,   even in weight conscious LA.   It's fascinating to watch Classic Arts Showcase's short ballet excerpts from years past.  Moira Shearer and Ludmilla Tchernicheva were much tinier than most current dancers,   and it wasn't just their weight,  it's their narrow ribcages and the general look of their skeletal structure.  Women today cross train and aren't afraid to put on muscle.  But European dancers,  especially the French and the Russians,  seem  much thinner than American dancers,  and Americans working in Europe,  like Sarah Lamb,  tend to take on that look.  However Lauren Lovette is the "total package",  an exceptionally pretty young woman,  slim but not gaunt,  with beautiful legs and feet.  It's definitely depressing to find out that she feels insecure about her look!  She could be racking up a fortune in films and commercials.

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As someone who's been watching ballet for over 60 years I miss waists.  Compare the figures of Fonteyn and Shearer to the dancers of today and you'll see what I mean.  I wonder if they wore corsets off stage?  I seem to remember nearly all British women doing so up until the 1960's.

I'm afraid I find most female ballet bodies of today ugly in the extreme.  If, as Volcanohunter points out, they had stamina and musicality I'm sure I could tolerate them, but far too many haven't.

I doubt there is a dancer anywhere in the world to compare with Lynn Seymour.  She had a body that would mean rejection today, but such artistry comes once in a generation.  The thought that there may be gifted dancers out there discarded because they don't conform to the current fad for emaciation troubles me greatly.   

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6 hours ago, pherank said:

She may not fit your notion of a classical ballerina, but without allowance for human differences we would see no improvement in the problems detailed in the article. Maintaining acknowledged problems in the name of "tradition" makes zero sense to me. I care if dancers continue to feel poorly about their bodies - I don't know how many times on social media I've read statements from professional dancers like, "I felt a lot of pressure to be really slim and I was afraid to have big muscles" or "my mind often races with feelings of inadequacy to the point that it stops me in my tracks whether that is at home or in the middle of a combination at a ballet studio". It would be great to see this kind of impediment to art creation removed entirely. But that's just my dream.

Well, JuliaJ is entitled to her view, which is fair enough. Naturally we want people to feel good about themselves but they also have to be able to get out onstage. It's a matter of striking that sometimes difficult balance and companies offering proper support and guidance to their dancers. (I don't like the superthin look but I also don't care for the overmuscled athletic look, myself. )

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4 hours ago, dirac said:

 

Well, JuliaJ is entitled to her view, which is fair enough. Naturally we want people to feel good about themselves but they also have to be able to get out onstage. It's a matter of striking that sometimes difficult balance and companies offering proper support and guidance to their dancers. (I don't like the superthin look but I also don't care for the overmuscled athletic look, myself. )

I would generally agree with this, Dirac, and with others who've expressed similar feelings. One description you didn't mention is 'wholesomeness.' A ballerina that's caught my attention is the Mariinsky's Maria Bulanova. She can be easily seen on internet video clips.
 

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