The perfect ballerina. This is an idea many young dancers strive to achieve from the moment they first lace up their pink, silk ballet slippers. But what is the perfect ballerina, what is the ideal they are attempting to reach and what are the consequences of dancing to an, ultimately, unattainable goal? These questions have started to catch the attention of parents, friends, doctors and dance teaches as the prevalence rate of eating disorders skyrockets within the ballet community.
When one thinks of the perfect ballerina they probably envision a white, female dancer who is slim, with a long neck, medium ength torsos, long legs accompanied by long arms, a high instep and an average height of 167cm (Nolan). This perfect body is drilled into the minds of young girls from the moment they first step foot into the mirrored studio and combined with other negative environmental aspects of dance it is clear that ballet, along with other forms of dance, are partially accountable for the high rate of disorder eating within the dance community. Eating disorders have the highest morality out of all mental disorders.
In the United States up to 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from disordered eating, including Anorexia Nervosas, Bulimia Nervosas, Binge Eating and Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified (ENDOS). Even more terrifyingly, the mortality rate associated with anorexia is twelve times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females 15-24 years of age (Lask 19). A study conducted by the American Journal of Psychiatry in 2009 concluded that the crude mortality rate for anorexia was 4%, 3. 9% for bulimia and 5. 2% for ENDOS.
If these numbers aren’t worrisome enough, in judged sports-sports that score the participating individual- the prevalence of EDs is 13%, compared to the 3% prevalence ate in refereed sports (Eating Disorder Statistics). These numbers are evidence that dance, a judge sport, is a risk factor within its self. The most startling statistic for the dance community as a whole is that female athletes in aesthetic sport -gymnastic, figure skating, ballet, etc. -are found to be at the highest risk for developing some form of disordered eating (Estanol 3). What about dance contributes to the alarming amount of ED incidences in the dance community?
The highly competitive and driven environment of the art fosters perfectionism, high self-expectations, competitiveness, yperactivity, repetitive exercise routines, compulsiveness, drive, a tendency towards depression, body image distortion and a pre-occupation with dieting and weight at it very core. All of these aspects contribute to an unstable mentality and nature that allows disorder eating to develop On average the incidence of eating disorders in the white middle class population is one in a hundred, but in ballet this number is one in five (Dunning).
This can be attributed to Balanchine’s ideal ballerina, the competitive nature of dance and the self-inflicted goal of perfection on the both the body and mind. The statistics are overwhelming, the environment of the ballet community nurtures disordered thoughts about the body and it is time leading Companies take a stand and create action plans to help their young dancers. The tall, leggy, thin ballerinas many of us imagine today was not always the characteristic great ballet dancers of the past. The famous ballerinas of the 19th and 20th century had comparatively stocky figures in relation to the thin and willowy dancers of today.
Today directors are quick to cast the most fragile and delicate of their dancers as leading roles in ballet uch as Giselle-the famous ballet about a young girl who is resurrected as a graceful nymph-but they often forget that the original stars of this dance were voluminous women with strong arms, legs and core (Edwards). They forget that sleeping beauty was written and choreographed for a muscular female dancer, whose physique hinted at Aurora’s budding physical maturity. These “full-bodied”, female leads of earlier centuries embodied the romantic spirit of their creation by capturing the image of women as both a sexual and fragile creature.
This recent desire for tall, wispy ballerinas is a trend that can be traced back to the ersonal taste of the father of American ballet, George Balanchine. The “Balanchine ideal” was never meant to be incorporated into the ballet community as a whole, but unfortunate its wide spread acceptance and implantation in modern ballet has been linked to the development to negative body image and disordered eating within young dancers (Edwards). Balanchine was one of the 20th century’s most well known choreographers, creating over 400 works of art for ballet.
He is known for creating his dances for ‘specific dancers’ and for certain body types, ” ‘the structure of the American Dancer ictated the lines of his iconic choreography” (Kiem). Balanchine created art for dancers that were young, tall and slender. He favored the definition of the rib cage, hyperextension and strength that was mechanical, yet agile. His obsession with an unrealistic, ideal body type has helped foster an unhealthy environment for ballerinas and can be linked to the development of destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world today.
Taking a step back from the horrible effect of “The Balanchine body” and examining Balanchine’s past provides valuable insight into he desire for an idealistic ballerina. Balanchine got his start in ballet during the turmoil of the Russian Civil War and the birth of the brutal Soviet Union. The Russian ballerinas of his time were bone thin because of the circumstances of the time, not by choice, “the dancers were as hungry, cold, and sick as the audience, yet that managed to delight their audiences” (Kiem).
After analyzing Balanchine’s history, his desire for stick thin, white as snow dancers stems from the tall, willowy and white Russian dancers of his past. Unfortunately, through his America’s first world-class ballet school and his dancers, many f who have continued to teach dance in the country, Balanchine’s unhealthy, ideal physique for dancers has contributed to the rise of eating disorders in the greater dance community. Anatomy is destiny. This is a phrase dancers of all ages have heard over and over again to the point that they repeat it to themselves.
Today a competitive ballet studio may decide if a dancer will make the cut before they even audition. This is because a particular physique is coveted over all others. If a ballerina lacks high arches, a flexible torso, small head, small chest, narrow hips, slender ankles, and elongated arms and legs he may never make it professionally (Ozgen 9). This is the message ballet is sending young, growing girls: in order to make it “big” you need to look the part. Unfortunately, the average 5’8″ ballerina weighing in at 85-130lbs, depending on muscle mass, is not indicative of the average stature of an American female, 5’5″ and 140lbs (Nolan).
This unrealistic standard for ballerinas is a contributing factor to the increase in disordered eating and body image within the ballet community. While “Balanchine’s body” has received most of the blame for the prominence of eating disorders in ballet, there are many ther aspects of ballet that contribute to this rising epidemic. The often unspoken competitive nature of the dance environment also lends a hand to the development of disordered eating and distorted body image within ballerinas.
Like most judged sports, at its very core ballet is about being self-critical and constantly pushing the individual to perfection. Ballerinas are typically more aware of their body than the average individual because, in this art form, one’s instrument is their physique and tuning their instrument can become an obsession. Teachers, companies and studios can feed into this egative environment by positively reinforcing slender dancers. This promotes the idea that achieving a lower weight will hone their instrument, their body, and improves one’s performance.
In most ballets female dancers are required to perform difficult jumps and lift-being held by their male counter part-and the less they weigh the higher they can jump and the longer they can be held. The physics behind this idea is accurate, but if a ballerina is too thin and lacks muscle mass she will not be able to perform the strenuous step regardless. Even the fundamentals of performance can trigger unhealthy body image. Another fundamental pillar of ballet, or any dance or sport for that matter that can influence disorder eating and body image in individuals is control.
The act of self-discipline and structure that is intrinsic in the nature of ballet can be detrimental to the health of its dancers. Many females who suffer from eating disorders find comfort and reinforcement in the control they feel from continuing their disordered behavior. Mastering a skill or skipping a meal are both achievable goals for dancer. Some studies have shown that many ballet dancers report that being thinner than other ballerinas can be an advantage when uditioning for a part.
The sense of control of one’s body and competition can fuel the drive to succeed and is a leading contributor of eating disorders, not just in dance. A perfect example how the ideals of ballet can contribute to disorder eating and body image is the story of Emily (The name has been changed to protect the individual). Emily has been a dancer since she was two years of age, it didn’t what type, jazz, tap, lyrical, modern hip hop, ect. she loved them all. However, in seventh grade, when she was twelve years old, her relationship to dance began to change.
She developed a distorted view of erfection, which contributed to an eating disorder that eventually hospitalized her in 8th grade. She has been battling the anorexia and ENDOS ever since and is no longer medically cleared to dance. When asked about the aspects of dance that contributed to her ED, Emily responded that, “Everything about it [contributed to her ED]. [The] mirrors, costumes, fitting sizes and leotards. They all focus one hundred percent on the way your body looks.
The skinnier you [are] the more you can achieve. It is clear from this quote that the environment of dance helped foster an unrealistic drive for perfection. Emily also stated that all of her dance teacher, at least once, alluded to needing a “ballerina’s body” in order to succeed. As early as twelve years of age the competitive nature of ballet was drilled into her and her fellow dancers’ heads. She went on to say that, “basically all of that put a ton of pressure on not only how I looked, but that how I looked determined how good I was as a person or as a dancer.
It’s a constant comparison to each other. The competition is unreal. Everyone was trying to be the best and in order to be the best you had to look it. These power quotes only scratch the surface of how dance affects the mind of the participants and creates a nurturing environment for EDs to grow. Emily also eluded to the impact her teachers and mentors had on her awareness of her body; “In the dance community there’s a huge component of not only comparing, but favoring.
And once you feel [that] you aren’t good enough you look in the mirror, in your leotard, and then look at the favorites, [the] better dancers and see the difference. I never felt good enough and I thought [that] if I lost weight I would be better. A few year removed from the depths of her eating disorder, Emily was able to see that her action actually hindered her dance rather than enhanced it, “My eyes distorted I didn’t think I lost weight when everyone else was making comments. I lost all my muscle and bone and I couldn’t do anything.
I was weak I was shaky and dizzy. I fainted in class one of many times and had to get hospitalized right after, I haven’t been able to return to dance since. ” Since then Emily has been in and out of treatment, but she does believe recover is possible. She is saddened that the thing she loved the most, dance, helped ultivate her distorted body image, but also believes that it would have fostered itself regardless. Emily is just one instance of how the atmosphere and environment around dance can negatively impact those who love it the most.
Her experience is an example of how the culture surrounding highly competitive sports such as ballet needs to change in order for individuals to participate in the art with a healthy mindset and perform their best. As the prevalence of eating disorders within the ballet community continues to rise rapidly, many companies and studios have begun to implement policies that to reduce these risks. But is this enough? Many doctors, family members, teachers and friends believe that ballet needs to change at a structural level.
Rather than just providing resources for those currently suffering from EDs, the art at its very core needs to become more diverse and less exclusive. The ideals of “Balanchine’s body” need to be dissolved throughout the dance community and Companies need to open their eyes to wider varieties of bodies, talents and ethnicities that are in the studios today. As America becomes more and more diverse in race and body type, the era of the tall, wispy, white prima ballerina must come to an end.
Ballet Companies need to take a page from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This multi-racial dance company does not discriminate on appearance, but rather makes educated decisions based on talent. This needs to be the future of dance because the growing prevalence rate in ballet is unacceptable, and eventually mothers will stop sending their children to ballet classes in fear of the disordered mentality they promote. “Balanchine’s body”, control, performance, perfection, the list goes on an on.
Many people just accept that the very nature of ballet fosters disordered eating. However, the tall, thin prima ballerina of today is a relatively recent development. Companies needed to take a step back from the pressures of modern ballet and remember why this particular art was created in the first place and the type of dancers who starred in the original classics. By doing this, maybe they will remember that was ballet created to tell stories with an emphasis on the sheer strength and composer of the body, not to focus on the body alone.
The relationship between ballet and eating disorders is clearly complex, with many contributing aspects. Due to the startling high prevalence rate of EDs in ballerinas, ballet schools and Companies have a crucial part to play in the prevention of EDs and identifying students with problems. With early intervention, recovery is possible, however, with a fundamental shift in the mindset of ballet studios, schools and Companies, they hope to prevent eating disorders before they develop rather treating them after they have manifested.