ballet, heath & nutrition, mental health

Changing the Perception of the Ballet Body

I have been told “to diet” and “to watch what I eat” because, as a ballet student who used to weigh only a mere 105 lbs, to have a physique considerably less than ideal is not good enough to receive professional company contracts from top-tier ballet companies around the globe. The ballet world’s obsession with body image continues to negatively impact ballerinas and male dancers of all ages. Although school and company directors continue to preach, “It’s not just about weight; it’s about extension, proportion, height, [and] all the genetic stuff,” (Paul Vasterling, Artistic Director of Nashville Ballet), when it comes down to casting a performance or auditioning incoming dancers, weight plays a huge role. “Choreographers, certainly, come in and say, ‘I will not cast that dancer because he or she is too big.’ In auditions especially, we all become critics. I have to pare down a group of 350 pretty quickly, and the first thing I determine is which bodies are right for us,” (Dorothy Gunter Pugh, Artistic Director of Ballet Memphis). The expectations surrounding ballerina’s bodies are well-defined; skinny is favorable, overweight is not-acceptable, but where the line becomes ambiguous is determining how skinny is too skinny. Negative body image mentality is an epidemic in the world of ballet and is leading to severe physical and mental self-harm. This issue must be stopped immediately.

To define a classic ballet body, one must imagine a dancer with very specific proportions. A small head, long neck, short torso, slender arms and legs, and beautifully arched feet. This “look” is said to have the ability to create perfect, balletic lines and expressive movements on stage. The average height of an American ballerina is about 5 foot 2 inches to 5 foot 8 inches. In correspondence to height, weight would ideally range from 85 to 130 lbs. Just by analyzing those numbers, ballerina’s body mass indexes are expected to be considerably less than the average women’s BMI. Dancers fully understand these requirements, so much so some become consumed with the thoughts that in order to succeed as a ballerina, one must meet these impractical demands, no matter the physical and mental constraints. Dancer thin is not like thin on the streets; about 15% below the ideal weight for height which is basically an anorexic weight.

Personally, as an 18 year old woman, who is 5 foot 7 inches tall and currently weighs 113 lbs, my BMI is recorded at 17.7 which is considered to be underweight when compared to the normal weight range of 18.5 to 24.9. Even the tallest (5 foot 8 inches) and biggest (130 lbs) dancer would barely meet the mark of a normal weight at 19.8. Because these requirements are so strict, creating an influx of underweight ballerinas, eating disorders are often linked to the ballet field.

There are four main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). These are serious mental and physical diseases that can have life-threatening consequences and unfortunately, ballet dancers are at a high risk of developing them. Stated in an article entitled Eating Disorders Among Ballet Dancers, “Unlike with other sports or professions, ballet places a large emphasis on physical appearance. Ballet dancers are required to wear skin-tight clothes and dance in front of large mirrors for hours at a time. This atmosphere causes a dancer to be acutely aware of what [his or] her body looks like”. In actuality, eating disorders are not about food or weight at all – at least not at their core; they are about control. It is unfortunate that eating disorders are much more complicated than food intake and body image for they are often brought upon by something deeper like depression, loneliness, the feeling of being out of control, insecurity, and the pressure to be perfect.

Just how perfection in ballet technique does not exist, perfection in the ballet body does not exist either. Despite this fact, dancers still consistently strive for the technique and the body. Perfection is perhaps the key term that ballet is centered around. It is the nature of ballet i.e. perfect balletic lines, perfect angles of the body, perfect movement quality and so on and so forth. Perfection is expected of ballet dancers more so than of any other profession because dancers are supposed to be able to do what no one else can; they are sublime, airy, and spiritual like ghosts. Also, because ballet is meant to entertain audiences, the performance must meet specific standards. The audience’s demands are not easily met, and critics will tear apart a dancer if his or her body inhibits their ability to perform well. Because of this semblance, dancers generally feel out of control for they know no matter how hard they work, perfection will never be fully obtained. So, one way to feel in control and, as an added bonus, as some say, a way to benefit their career, is to control their food intake and become thin.

Self-critique, which can play along with the “pressure to be perfect” aura, is one attribute that dancers carry around with them day in and day out, whether it be in the studio, on stage, or at home. Repetition of negative messages from instructors and directors can transform into repetitive messages from one’s own voice, causing blurred perspectives, not only of the physical body, but of the mental and spiritual as well. “It is very easy for dancers to justify an eating disorder because it is so normalized within the profession…It has been very difficult to treat dancers in particular because they almost inevitably have to choose between their career and their health,” (Baker). In the case of Heidi Guenther, a 5 foot 4 inch, 22 year-old ballerina with the Boston Ballet, her tragic situation could have been prevented if she was not pressured to continue to meet the impractical standards of being an extremely thin girl.

On June 30, 1997, Heidi was on a two-day vacation with her family in Disneyland. While at a gas station with her 14-year old brother, Quinton, and her mother, Patti Harrington, she had suddenly collapsed. After countless attempts of CPR by Harrington, the paramedics finally arrived and rushed her to the emergency room. She died in the hospital that night. Forensic pathologists concluded that Heidi had “died as a result of a fatal ventricular arrhythmia [loss of life-sustaining heart rhythm] of unknown cause. Heidi’s apparent disordered eating habits may have contributed to her death… [Her] emotional and dietary factors cannot be completely ruled out…” (Baker).

Because her death was so sudden and at such a young age, controversy spread across the nation like wild fire. “In three days, The Boston Globe [ran] a front-page story headlined, ‘A Dancer’s Death Raised Questions: Boston Ballet had told woman to lose weight.’… Fearing the potential professional consequences if she didn’t slim down, Heidi, then weighing around 115 lbs, dropped 10 lbs,” (Baker). By the time of her death, she had weighed a lifeless 93 lbs. Her fatality provoked meticulous investigation inside the world of ballet, specifically at the Boston Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet School, Heidi’s place of training. Despite the controversy over what really caused her death, her mother continues to believe that her daughter died due to the obsessive use of laxatives and skipping of meals to lose weight. The Heidi Guenther story, still to this day, is very well-known among pre-professional and professional ballet dancers.

Eating disorders in the world of ballet are secretive; no one likes to talk about them which is why Heidi went untreated for so many years. Thin is the desired look, but is it possible to achieve “the look” and remain healthy in all aspects of life? Is it worth it? According to the Guenther family: no, the death of an innocent girl is not worth all of the sacrifices ballet dancers have to make.

The next set questions that must be asked are: What drives dancers to believe that the only solution for success is to become rail thin? Who is to blame, if anyone? And what are the warning signs of eating disorders among ballet dancers? Each dancer’s situation varies, and not all dancers deal with the feelings of inadequacy resulting in a harmful eating disorder or another psychological disorder, but when a dancer is in danger of harming themselves, action must be taken immediately.

On the other side of the spectrum, some believe that by no means are school and company directors purposefully shaming young dancer’s bodies, forcing them to lose weight and to have an awful mentality about their body image which causes the beginning stages of anorexia nervosa and related disorders to develop. These directors are simply doing their job; trying to remodel their own performing company to make it the best in the nation and, in return, raise more money. It is unfortunate that this can cause so much pain for dancers who are more vulnerable and easily affected by harsh words and criticism. “If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career,” (Macaulay). Alastair Macaulay is correct in making that statement because, by nature, ballet is first and foremost about appearance, but even if it is nature’s way, that does not mean one must radiate such negativity to dancers, forcing them to choose between their career and their health. My argument is not to change the ballet body, but to change the way we perceive it.

Over the past three months, I have been in and out of New York City auditioning for summer ballet programs, professional ballet companies, and college dance departments. I had recently auditioned for a company in the South. Standing in a room with 25 other girls and 2 boys, I felt confident for this was a smaller audition than most. I enjoy small-sized classes; they are easier to gain the director’s attention. I realized right away that the company director had been watching me at the barre. I was executing each movement correctly, trying to show my clean technique and passion for dance. As we moved into the center, I stood in the front line, first group. Every combination came naturally to me and I was really enjoying the class. At the end of the 2 hour audition, the director announced that he would like to speak to a few students about traineeships and potential spots in the second company. As he called out numbers, I could only think of mine. “Number 6. Please call number 6.” He only called five numbers. The five girls chosen all had the same physique; arched feet, extreme leg flexibility, dainty, and very thin. Unfortunately, I was not one of those girls.

As a free-lance dancer searching for a job, I understand to not take it personally when I am not chosen for a company position. It is not me, I simply do not fit the image the director was looking for, but this outcome did not only happen at this particular audition. I found that each company is looking for the same body type. Now, these dancers that are being chosen at the end of these auditions are not necessarily the best dancers in the class, but because they have the correct body type, directors feel that they can be easily molded and groomed into the dancers directors want for the future. This outcome struck me and after getting many rejections, I honestly began to think, “Would I have a better chance of getting picked up by a professional company if I was thinner?” And that thought is the most dangerous. Linda Hamilton, a licensed clinical psychologist who formally danced with the New York City Ballet (NYCB), stated, “If your career is on the line, if the roles are on the line, whether or not you reach that ideal, you will do practically anything,” (Dying to be Thin). I know that am not the only dancer coming out of company auditions empty handed wondering “what can I do to receive a company contract? What do those girls and boys have that I don’t? Besides the technique and passion, could it be a better body?” Definitely a possibility.

While the negative body image mentality is not yet a dying trend in the world of ballet, dancers are more aware than ever of eating disorders and other health problems. Stated in the NOVA documentary Dying to be Thin, “Eating disorders are too prevalent to ignore today. Dancers at the New York City Ballet attend a seminar on health issues.” Almost every major ballet company has a nutritionist and NYCB provides dancers with annual bone density scans in order to determine the amount of bone loss, if any, has occurred which can lead to injury.

There are many precautions taken today with helping struggling dancers, more than there have ever been before, but in order to achieve successful results in reducing the amount of dancers dealing with anorexia nervosa and other related disorders, the ballet world’s perception of the body must be changed. Directors must practice what they preach and focus on other factors that play a more important role in determining what makes a great dancer. Perfection in all aspects of ballet, despite it being a common goal, is not possible to achieve. Changing the perception of the ballet body, on the other hand, is a possible goal which must be made common to the entire world of ballet. Skinny is favorable, and too skinny should not be.

Baker, Ken. “Heidi Guenther’s short, tragic life – and death.” SFGate 4. Apr. 1999. Web. 11 Jan. 2015.

DiPalma, Lynette. “The Ideal Weight for a Ballerina.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 15 Mar. 2011. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

Kargman, Bess. “First Position.” 2012. 4 May 2012. Documentary

Keleman, Stanley. “Your Body Speaks Its Mind.” 1981. 28 January 2015. Print

Macaulay, Alastair. “Judging The Bodies In Ballet.” The New York Times. 3 December 2010. 2 February 2015. Website.

NOVA. “Dying to Be Thin.” 2000. 2 February 2015. Documentary.

Sacker, M. Ira, Zimmer, A. Marc. “Dying to Be Thin.” 1987. 28 January 2015. Print.

Shoker, Sandish. “Ballet and Eating Disorders: Unspoken Competitiveness’ Adds Pressure to Be Thin.” BBC News. 27 June 2013. 2 February 2015. Website.

Truiet, Trudi Strain. “Eating Disorders.” 2003. 28 January 2015. Print.

Vasterling, Paul, and Dorothy Gunter Pugh. “Too Fat? Too Thin? Too Tall? Too Short?” Pointe Magazine 1 Apr. 2011. Print.

*This is an informative research paper I wrote during my senior year of high school. All schools, companies, and colleges have been kept anonymous. 


7 thoughts on “Changing the Perception of the Ballet Body”

  1. You made this a very interesting article. I never realized what you would have to face in the world of dance. Thanks for writing such an honest article. MomMom

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You had me until the very last line. I would like to see us move towards a dance world where good technique is favored over any particular body type. There are dancers out there who have far from the ideal body type doing AMAZING things with their bodies. Kathryn Morgan, formerly of NYCB, was sidelined by a thyroid condition which brought on weight gain which she is still trying to bring under control. Her YouTube channel is incredible. She is still a world class dancer – just in a larger body.

    Liked by 1 person

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