The Ballet Body Test
Looking for a simple and straightforward test to answer the question, ‘what is a ballet body’?
Well here it is:
Do you have a body?
Do you do ballet?
If you answered ‘yes’ to both these questions, congratulations - you have a ballet body!
I’m certainly not the first one to make this point, or the first one to encourage a simpler, more inclusive and equitable definition of what a ballet body is, but after reading the recent New York Times article, ‘What Is a Ballet Body?’, I was reminded that the conversation around ballet bodies still has a long way to go.
Many dancers, educators and industry professionals have shared their thoughts and reactions to the article. Some feel the article was a step towards a more inclusive dance industry, highlighting the voices of professional dancers who are speaking out about the need for ballet to loosen its harsh and damaging grip on requiring dancers to look a certain way. Others (myself included) feel the article left much to be desired; it missed key points, key voices, and key data.
Everything is an opportunity for learning and growing, so with this in mind, here are things future conversations on the topic of ballet bodies need to include:
- Professional opinions. Eating disorder professionals, nutritionists, and dance scientists who have specialized training, knowledge and experience about bodies and dancers should always be consulted when talking about the mental, physical, and emotional health of dancers.
- Equitable points of view. Dancers of all colors, races, backgrounds and abilities have been marginalized in the dance industry for too long. We know this, and it’s time to do better. The dance industry needs to include, and represent more voices than that of the traditional majority (thin, white bodies).
- Sensitivity. Mentioning a dancer’s weight, size, or measurements only perpetuates the cycle of comparison and toxic perfectionism that runs rampant in ballet. These things have no bearing on if a dancer is healthy or successful, and will only serve to encourage body dysmorphia, disordered eating, and body image dissatisfaction among dancers. Dancers are humans, not horses to be weighed and betted on before a race. Be kind and place more value on the people than on the performance, costumes and choreography.
- Critical thinking. Body hierarchy is a real thing in ballet. While the ‘ideal body’ has changed throughout dance history, for many decades now, ballet bodies who were thin and white were placed at the top of the hierarchy, while other bodies were given less opportunity, ignored, or at the worst, abused. When discussing, and thinking about historical traditionalism and current dance practices, it is crucial to ask ‘who benefits from this?’ Thinking critically is the first step towards recognizing the problems we face, and coming up with actionable solutions. This is the only way we can hope to right the wrongs of the past.
In addition to these points, and perhaps most important of all, is stopping the practice of making women’s bodies ‘newsworthy’. Professional dancer or not, our print and broadcasted news often boasts attention grabbing headlines that put women’s bodies at the center of objectification.
Cases in point: Kate Middleton, Oprah, Paris Hilton, Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears… just to name a few.
Women’s bodies aren’t news. Topics like climate change, foreign relations and poverty are. Dialogue that encourages commenting, criticizing and judging a woman’s body has no place in the news. It’s toxic and harmful. As long as we continue to allow and engage with this practice, women, their families, loved ones, careers, and contributions will suffer.
I hope the next time each of us is prompted to engage in a conversation about ballet bodies, or women’s bodies, we remember the Ballet Body Test I mentioned above. I hope we will consider these points so we can move towards a kinder, more equitable future in dance and beyond.