Mamas, Don’t Let Your Girls Grow Up to Be Ballerinas

by Marinka on December 4, 2010

I live near a ballet school in New York City. I see the young girls walking to it, hair bunned, necks corded, calves muscling. They are thin, of course, but they look healthy. Except when I see them gathered a few blocks away, smoking. How is it that these my body is my temple goddesses had not heard the whispers that cigarettes may not be as healthy as we’d once thought? And how thin is too thin? Is ballet killing our children? Or at least wounding them?

This morning I read an interesting article in The New York Times by Alastair Macaulay, Judging the Bodies in Ballet. I hadn’t read his earlier review of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet, but he quotes himself as saying that Sugar Plum Jenifer Ringer “looked as if she’d eaten one sugarplum too many.” He also had some choice words for her male partner, suggesting heavily that he had overcome his aversion to food.

Readers wrote in, calling his comments “heartbreaking,” “hurtful,” and “incompetent.” Macaulay notes that all the objections seem to be centered around his criticism of Jenifer Ringer’s appearance. No one objected to his more devastating criticism that they danced without depth or complexity. No one cared that he criticized her male counterpart. Nor was there any objection when he had earlier described Mark Morris as “obese.” He concludes that fat “is not so much a feminist issue as a sexist one.” I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive.

And this is what I need help with. Because it bothers me tremendously that so much of women’s self-worth is currently tied to weight, to a number, and yet, it seems ridiculous to say that excess weight cannot come into play in reviewing a professional ballerina’s performance. She can still be a skilled dancer, but if she looks heavier than one would expect, why not say it?  Is her weight off limits because she is a woman? That seems absolutely ridiculous.

Unless you’re a mother rearing a daughter in 2010 America. And then you sort of wish that women who weigh a little more than the family cat before using the litter box wouldn’t have to endure comments about their weight.

As Macaulay writes, “When a dancer has surplus weight, there can be no more ruthless way to demonstrate it than to dance in a tutu with shoulders bare.”

And this is exactly why I am so relieved that my daughter did not pursue ballet. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that she had no interest in it beyond the age of four.  Nor talent.)

Because I have a feeling that Macaulay’s words will resonate with the ballerinas that I see huddled outside the ballet school.  They knew, even before Macaulay spoke, that their bodies are constantly being scanned for fat.  Will they now intensify their self-scanning efforts?

Macaulay is doing his job.  He writes about ballet and I, not having seen the performance,  defer to his expertise.  (I would have deferred to it even if I had seen it.)  He warns, “If you want to  make your appearance irrelevant to criticsm, do not choose ballet as a career.  The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest obervation and the most intense discussion.  I am severe- but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.”

He’s right.  Don’t let your daughters grow up to be ballerinas.

One year ago ...

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December 4, 2010 at 10:06 am

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

hokgardner
Twitter:
December 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

I am reading this as I’m cramming my daughter into leotard and tights for ballet class. Sigh. As a former anorexic, I worry so much about my daughters and their body image.

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Andrea in Vermont December 4, 2010 at 11:46 am

“They are thin, of course, but they look healthy….Is ballet killing our children? Or at least wounding them?”

Marinka, I think the absence of your usual sharp wit is telling. The answer, of course, is Yes. *Some* dancers are killed by ballet and many are wounded – anorexia, bulimia, depression and suicide… Smoking? Well, if one cannot subsist upon food, can one subsist upon smoke? Nicotine and caffeine are the legal stimulants many of us use to get through the day… The internal damage (no menstrual cycles, distorted body image, emotional scarring, organ damage, etc.) can far outweigh the external damage (torn ligaments, broken bones) a ballet dancer might suffer.

Others succeed, and many “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and emerge with strength and resolve to go on. “Severe” is the word Mr. McCauley uses – I’m not sure that is harsh enough.

*And* ballet is beautiful, and wondrous, and awe-inspiring, and calls like a siren to many of our children, daughters and sons. There is such joy in the early years, and joy later in reaching for perfection, those moments of oneness with your body, the music, your partners, the audience.

Dance is a deeply spiritual and cultural force that exists in endless forms among communities around the globe. As a feminist (who was never a dancer, but who loves dance, and loves a former ballerina), I fervently hope that our love for ballet as an art form will expand to include more sugar plums for our fairies.

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Peajaye
Twitter:
December 4, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Perhaps Mr. Macaulay should follow his own advice and show some restraint in the consumption of polysyllabic adjectives and adverbs; they make his paragraphs wobble.

Oh wait, but then his writing would be even more exposed as the irrelevant tripe it is.

Although Mr. Macaulay attempts to defend his sexist and catty remarks by providing the most obvious historic and sociological contextual evidence, it doesn’t change the fact that his remarks were in fact sexist and catty.

The latest statistics I’ve seen indicate that women are three times as likely than men to suffer from an eating disorder. But you don’t need a PhD to know that women are bombarded disproportionately with body attacks in our culture; you just need to open your eyes and ears.

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Mwa (Lost in Translation) December 4, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I can’t even buy my children thin dollies or these ridiculous Pop Star things where girls are drawn with legs up to their armpits. And yet if my daughter wants to dance, I will let her. And fret. You are right, and it is a problem.

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Awesome dude December 4, 2010 at 3:59 pm

In my very recent memory you yourself were refused admission to the most prestigious ballet school in Leningrad. The foreseeing examiner told us that you are going to be too tall to dance with delicate Russian man.

And since there were no less prestigious school around you remained as you are and nobody develops double hernia lifting you.

Most likely this post is just a delayed reaction to rejection. A lot of words and some of them foreign.

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Awesome dude December 4, 2010 at 4:03 pm

Then going back to the square one, Mr. Macaulay is just doing his work.

And you do not have to be a ballet critic to know that a lot of people are irregularly fat. One ride in the NY subway system will easily confirm that

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the mama bird diaries
Twitter:
December 4, 2010 at 7:19 pm

My daughter’s ballet instructor sounded EXACTLY like Minnie Mouse. I was so happy when she stopped taking that class.

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kiki
Twitter:
December 4, 2010 at 9:05 pm

stellar post, marinka. i danced ballet on and off as a young girl, then full-time in high school. i loved it. and it was a fun class, no pressure whatsoever to have the perfect body. now, if i had wanted to pursue it professionally, they would’ve never let me in the door. my height and weight would’ve kept me out. i’ve been itching to take adult ballet classes just to stay in shape (i still have my old slippers, skirts and leg warmers), but i’m having a hard time finding a school that doesn’t require participation in recitals. me on stage in a tutu? not happening. take care.

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Ann's Rants
Twitter:
December 4, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I’ve been thinking about this because for some reason I am kind of DYING to see Black Swan.

And I’m reading all about Natalie Portman’s rigorous training and diet and fearing how girls will read about it thinking “Wow she only weighed 85 pounds to begin with and if SHE needed to go GI Jane-bootcamp-crazy and loose weight to be a dancer, so must I!”

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Lish December 4, 2010 at 10:36 pm

Damn. I thought this was going to be a review of The Black Swan. Marinka – please please please see it and report back. The trailer scared the pants off me (or did I lose weight?) and I can’t bring myself to watch it.

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Steph December 4, 2010 at 11:10 pm

oh, yes, the weight issue. our older daughter just began en pointe. so far she seems to be not worried about her weight. but we soooo still worry.

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Elisa @ Globetrotting in Heels
Twitter:
December 5, 2010 at 2:10 am

I think it’s awful that he criticized both dancer’s weight and body, not just the girl’s. And I think it’s awful there there are professions where people judge you for your body as much as you performance. Sad.

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Braja December 6, 2010 at 12:47 am

No it’s not: it’s flippin’ ballet! Like he says, if you don’t want your body scrutinized in such a way, don’t choose ballet. Please don’t tell me that ballet dancers can look any way they like: if she was considered heavy for a ballet dancer, he wasn’t the only one noticing. All this political correctness is wearing me out….

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The Kid December 5, 2010 at 3:12 am

I hate to say it, but it seems to be a casualty of the job. a pediatric doctor is more susceptable to colds and chicken pox, a garbage man needs to wash his hands more and a dancer has to be prepared for comments to be made about their weight. It’s part of their job description, to be beautiful and magical, to transport the audience away from watching a young girl in a silly dress being lifted by a kid who probably got beaten up for liking ballet- to a realm of fairies and swans and fantasy.

People are judged for their weight/appearance in all jobs. Older looking doctors instill more confidence in their patients, dieticians and personal trainers must be healthy and thin, acountants should wear brown sweater vests and glasses, movie stars must be glamorous and when they are not, the magic breaks and the confidence fades.

And saying ‘in 2010’ doesn’t work anymore. It’s December, 2010 is gone and it has failed us yet again. It is no longer bright, shiny, magical and full of hope that all the problems will be solved and everyone will live happily and in harmony. “Unless you’re a mother rearing a daughter in 2010 America” doesn’t make any sense to me, because in every age and century and year mothers have been freaking out over problems their daughters will encounter (being seen with a boy, getting pregnant out of wedlock, getting married on schoolies) and so 2010 has nothing to do with it. Weight issues were just as big in 2009 as they are now and they will be in the future. I would think instead of saying how as a mother in 2010 you are worried about how the world see’s women and their weight and how ballet promotes a negative self image, the idea should be how in 2011,I personally hope women can start to learn strategies to cope with negative self image and the world thrusting an ideal onto them (until the world begins to change), and that ballet dancers can be well informed and councilled and helped so that young girls can do something that is beautiful and magical and beloved.

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Marinka December 5, 2010 at 10:01 am

I used “2010 America” because that’s where we are at this moment in time. Each era has its own challenges, and they are often cumulative, but it certainly doesn’t mean that a girl’s struggle with issues surrounding weight is not on the list.

Yes, I do hope that women can have a better self-image, all women. But that’s not going to happen until the world stops shoving ridiculous ideals down our collective throats.

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Braja December 6, 2010 at 12:49 am

Yeah, sorry, but 2010 *does* have a lot to do with it. Sure, mothers have faced problems all through the ages, but in this day and age, it’s their daughters’ weight issues that weigh heavily (ha!!) on their hearts and minds.

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Miss Britt
Twitter:
December 5, 2010 at 11:01 am

Hmmmm… it’s an interesting discussion because ballet is a visual art of bodies in motion. The way a body looks is going to affect, for better or worse, the visual art, yes?

I’m suddenly really glad my daughter resisted my attempts to put her in ballet.

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Finn December 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm

The saddest part if this for me is that both “fat” dancers probably had bodies the rest of us would die for.

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Braja December 6, 2010 at 12:51 am

Tou-bloody-che….

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MommyTime
Twitter:
December 5, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I read an article in which Mila Kunis was interviewed about her recent performance in “The Black Swan.” She weighed 95 pounds for the movie. She was quoted as saying that when she looked in the mirror, she was horrified at how much she just looked like a bag of bones, but on film, she said, it looked wonderful. I have no doubt she is right about how gorgeous this film is. But it is terrifying to think that at 115 (the weight to which she skyrocketed as soon as filming was over), she may have been perceived as “too heavy” for a ballerina of her height (5’3″). Seriously. I would imagine that the “too heavy” dancers of the NYC Ballet are hardly overweight by actual health standards, just by the pre-pubescent body standards of the ballet world — which is why it is both cruel on an individual level and detrimental to ballerinas everywhere that Macaulay was allowed to publish such an awful critique.

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Marinka December 5, 2010 at 8:11 pm

I think Macauley would happily admit that Jenifer Ringer is far from being overweight in the world outside of ballet. And yet, ballerinas have different standards than the rest of us.

I think it would be more efficient if Kunis did a Holocaust film right after Black Swan. You know, to take advantage of the weight loss.

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b.a. seagull
Twitter:
December 5, 2010 at 8:24 pm

My husband and I sat through our four year old’s ballet recital. He wept. The woman sitting next to him whispered how touching it was to see a father so moved by his child’s performance. He answered, truthfully, that he was crying for all the money we had pissed away on lessons.

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The Lady AshEfield December 5, 2010 at 9:34 pm

off point (no pun intended)- but i mentioned this to you months back– The Hard Nut- at BAM. fatty fat fats dancing about- and it is lovely– and i might add- Ladrinka would certainly enjoy the humour.

signed-
The Lady AshEfield

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/arts/dance/03hardnut.html

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alexandra
Twitter:
December 5, 2010 at 11:49 pm

I am fearful for what the dancer, Jennifer, is going to think and do , when she read this, about being overweight for her role.

I don’t think she possibly could be. She is probably just “average,” which is no longer normal, in America.

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Braja December 6, 2010 at 12:52 am

Look at me, commenting bloody EVERYWHERE!!! I can do a commentary on every comment. I must control myself. But you started it with this wizz-bang comment system. It made me come back to you. No, I’m lying—-I was just off blog for a long time, and you of course are one of the first people I visited but don’t go getting all puffed up (no weight reference in that) or I’ll become bored.

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Braja December 6, 2010 at 12:54 am

Marinka, what’s the comment system you’re using? Tell me, I WANT.

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Erin Margolin
Twitter:
December 6, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I am about to enroll my 5 yr old twins in ballet, but if they are anything like me, it won’t last/stick. They’ve been asking forever, and I don’t feel like I can deprive them of at least a few classed to try it out. They lack grace, like their mother. I am well aware of what professional ballerinas face and this is a thoughtful (and wrenching) post…..

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The Flying Chalupa
Twitter:
December 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Oooh, I love the tackling of a meaty issue! Pun intended.

As someone who grew up with a mother who taught ballet, and who took ballet for, I don’t know, 15 -20 years, yeah, the body image thing takes its tole. Once my boobs, hips and butt came into play – and my great love of food – I stopped. You don’t look good dancing. And you don’t feel good dancing.

Yes, as a dancer, you put yourself out there for physical critique. But let’s think back to the days of Anna Pavlova and the rounder bodied, but beautiful dancers. It was George Balanchine that was strictly responsible for the image of the extremely thin dancer – and it’s now embedded in the viewer’s pysche. I admire companies like Alvin Ailey who strive for a lean, but more muscular, healthy approach.

But in general, you’re right Marinka. Professional dancing is a quickest way to crush a girl.

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Lady Jennie December 7, 2010 at 3:55 pm

My 6 yr old takes ballet and I love it. But she might just as well end up being a soccer player as she’s very athletic. I’m not fixated on ballet or anything (as a nightmare stage mom).

However, I do think that ballerinas need to be thin and not thump around on stage. I would hope it could be achieved through a healthy attitude. (By the way, I had 2 friends in Dance Theatre of Harlem and 1 in Alvin Ailey and 2 more in the NYC ballet school, and all of them had a healthy body image so I know it can be done.

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