For many years, ballet dancers had to fit a very specific stereotype, particularly while famous choreographer George Balanchine was working with the New York City Ballet. In fact, one of my most used ballet resources, Classical Ballet Technique by Gretchen Ward Warren, describes the ideal female dancer as having the following physical characteristics on page 66:
- A height of 5’2″ to 5’8″ tall
- A weight of 85 to 115 pounds
- A small head
- A long neck
- Shoulders that are wider than the hips
- A small bust
- A straight back with a torso that is proportional to the rest of the body
- Long arms and hands
- Narrow hips
- Small posterior
- Long, straight legs with slight hyperextension
- Slim thighs
- Thin ankles and long, well arched feet
Now, I love this particular book as it breaks down so many of the basic and common movements of ballet with great descriptions and pictures every step of the way. However, every time I flip past this page it makes me angry.
The first two descriptions together do not generally make a healthy dancer. Using a BMI (body mass index) calculator, the one of the only ways to be in both the “ideal ballet dancer” category and to be firmly in a normal, healthy BMI range, a ballerina would have to be 5’2″ and 115! And that doesn’t even take into consideration how rare having all of the above qualities are in women. Women are biologically created to have larger busts, wider hips, and generally have curves which are completely absent from this “ideal”.
Unfortunately, the “ideal ballet body” was hailed for decades and many professional companies and pre-professional training schools have/had contractual clauses forcing their dancers to meet these standards. Eating disorders became extremely prevalent among female ballet dancers as they were pressured to conform or loose their jobs.
When I was growing up, the ideal was still very popular. As I reached puberty, the norm of stick straight dancers was ingrained in almost every aspect of the ballet world- right down to many leotards and costumes not being created with a woman’s curves in mind. While I was in high school, at barely a C cup, I was told multiple times that I had entirely too much bust and would never be able to become a professional ballerina! I was young and on the skinny side of healthy at 5’6″ and around 110 pounds, barely in the healthy BMI range, yet I was considered to have too many curves to get into a professional ballet company.
Between being told that my skinny self was still too big to be a ballerina, witnessing friends who struggled with eating disorders, and then studying the prevalence of unhealthy dancers, I began to develop a passion to destroy the “ideal ballet body” norm for many reasons including:
- It encourages negative behaviors and body images. Many dancers develop poor eating habits and a negative feeling towards food, which robs them of not only their health but of the fuel needed to dance 8 or more hours a day.
- It limits the number of people that have access to the wonders of the professional ballet world. Many talented dancers are either turned away, or like myself, discouraged from auditioning, from ballet schools and companies.
- It goes against ballet’s roots and history. In the Romantic era of ballet, when it moved from the French royalty to stage, the dance form evolved as a way to celebrate the female body. How does one celebrate the female body when the “ideal” body type fights the biological norms?
While the ballet world has fortunately begun to be more accepting of more body types, it still has a long way to go. With any luck, the ballet world can continue its spirit of inclusion and become more like the contemporary dance community. And with my future studio, I hope to create dancers that are healthy and know that any body can do ballet.