Surfacing After Silence

Life. After.

ballet. yup. i’m going there.


I knew I’d get flack for my Black Swan post. I’m sticking to my original point that the movie does not encourage eating disorders or even the pursuit of the “little ballerina” body.  The way the ballerina lifestyle is portrayed, it seems like a good movie to show a young daughter to say, “Hey.  You thought you wanted to be a ballerina.  It’s not all pink tutus and ribbons.  It’s mainly pain.  In fact, it’s kind of synonymous with pain.”  Yes, there’s thrill and joy and this strange sense of rising above everything else around you when you’re dancing, but you’ve got to go through the pain.

Yes, ballerinas are prone to eating disorders.  (So are actresses, models, gymnasts, ice skaters, etc).  Yes, ballerinas are thin.  A great many ballerinas–the truly successful ones–do find a way to dance and maintain their body shapes while eating healthily.  I do think more needs to be done in education and prevention of eating disorders in the field of dance.  (All dance, not just ballet.)

If we want ballerinas to gain weight, then we will have to accept an entirely new form of dance.  There will be no more pas de deux lifts that make the audience gasp.

There will be no more dance sequences in which the ballerina is supposed to appear lighter than air and move through space with seemingly no resistance.  Forget the leaps.  Forget the endless turns.  Forget the fancy, quick footwork.

There will be no more pointe shoes.  The ballerina’s entire body weight is supported by her toes when she stands en pointe.  Sure, there’s a shoe around her foot, but if you’ve ever put one of those shoes on, you know it doesn’t really support you all that much.  The more weight on the foot, the greater the risk for snapped tendons, stress fractures, and broken bones.

If we look at ballet historically, the weight of the ballerina has gone down.  The choreography is more demanding, the footwork is loads more difficult than ever before, the lifts are more strenuous, and there is considerably more pointe work.

What we lack in the history of ballet is proper education about how to eat to maintain strength and health while dancing and what to do if and when disordered eating habits occur.  There are cases of ballerinas overcoming eating disorders and going on to dance much more successfully.  The “one sugarplum too many” dancer is just the most recent example, and even though the company’s director and her fans never questioned her weight, one critic’s review has resulted in her having to defend a weight that allows her to dance one of roles that little ballerina students would love to one day dance.  She’s not “sickly thin” but she is slender, and she’s an amazing dancer.  Most successful ballet dancers have had to find a way to maintain that slender build without crossing the line to “too thin” or weighing “too much.”  Being “too thin” means they don’t have the energy or strength to dance.  Weighing “too much” prevents them from completing some of the elements central to ballet.  It is an art form where size is a factor.  It’s the reverse of pro-football.  You wouldn’t through a ballerina into a football game and expect her to make it.  And you would throw a football player on stage and expect him to perform.

One commenter wonders what ballet dancers who recover from an eating disorder and are no longer thin enough to dance should do.  With the implication that they are now not thin enough.  If they find that dancing is not allowing them to be healthy, then they should not dance.  I discovered while I was in college that competing at the national level for Track and Field was hurting me, and went and told my coach I would no longer compete for the team (or at all).  A recovered alcoholic would probably not want to resume his or her job as a bartender right after getting out of rehab.

And in another 100 years, ballet will probably have changed again, requiring a different ideal body shape.  But it is an art form that depends, to some degree, on the body.



December 18, 2010 - Posted by | Body Image, Eating Disorders | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Some people are naturally small and built for dance, but those who aren’t shouldn’t try to change how they are built to dance. And I know lots of dancers at my school who are healthy and not sickly thin and dance very well. I think as a society we can change the whole “thin” associated with being a dancer.

    Comment by chloe | December 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thank you for this post! I am an avid ballet fan and a former dancer, and I deeply dislike the myth that all dancers have eating disorders. It’s certainly a real issue, but so is any discipline in which the physical body is central (see steroid use in baseball players, cortisone abuse in gymnasts, “weight-cutting” extremes in wrestling, overtraining issues in ANY kinesthetic medium). Yes, some dancers have EDs; yes, some dancers naturally have the “ballet body”; and yes, the majority fall somewhere in between and engage in very strict dieting habits to stay in dancing shape. Is dieting–which I’ll note is NOT synonymous with anorexia or bulimia–as a means of staying employable any worse than doctors working 24-hour shifts or attorneys pulling 80-hour work weeks to “make partner”? It comes with the territory, and for all the sacrifices dancers make, the reward is to do what you can’t live without.

    I should mention that I have lived with an ED (both anorexia and bulimia) for 10 years. The disorder was NOT triggered by ballet–however, it was what forced me to quit. Facing stress fractures brought on by osteopenia and overexercise, and at a dangerously low weight (even on ballet standards), I was given an ultimatum by my teachers to get well and gain weight before returning. I was too addicted to the disorder to listen. So no, an eating disorder is not the key to success in classical ballet–and having lived in both worlds, I strongly believe that the majority of successful ballet dancers have learned to balance the aesthetic and the physical demands of dancing. This may mean dieting many would consider extreme, but does NOT equate to an eating disorder.

    By the way: your work on recovery is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your story.

    Comment by Scarlett | December 18, 2010 | Reply

  3. First off– I’ve seen Black Swan and I definitely agree with you. I don’t see how this movie could trigger an eating disorder. Given that a) the movie is not about eating disorders and b) makes a very vivid, uncomfortable point about the price of this quest for the unattainable. Though, given the content, I don’t think I would show it to anyone’s young daughter. Anyway.

    You’re right, ballet (AND gymnastics, ice-skating, wrestling, running, etc) DOES NOT cause eating disorders. If only it were that simple. However, it is unfair to say that in many cases it encourages eating disorders. And many ballerinas DO have eating disorders and that isn’t a coincidence. And I do think it is possible to be a ballerina and to dance WELL at a healthy weight (I’ve seen it done). And I do think that the fact that the accepted thought is that “ballerinas HAVE to be thin to be ballerinas” is a problem.

    Comment by Danielle | December 19, 2010 | Reply

    • First off, I wouldn’t show this film to a young child anyway. It would freak them the f*ck out and give them nightmares of growing wings and bird legs. That wasn’t really my point of that example.

      I think Scarlett has some great input into the world of dance. You’re right, it’s not a coincidence that a lot of dancers have an eating disorder. But that’s true with any sport. Just watch the top finishers at the boston marathon, for example. Go to an NCAA track and field meet.

      I am not saying that ballerinas need to be thin to the point of not being healthy. In fact, I stated that they are the ones who aren’t strong enough to dance. Thin and sick are not synonyms. Sick is dangerous. Thin, is, due to the nature of the art, a requirement in order to dance the roles of a principle or prima ballerina. But thin can be healthy. It should be healthy.

      Comment by surfacingaftersilence | December 19, 2010 | Reply

  4. the first part of my post was deleted, but whatever. it gets the point across =)

    Comment by Danielle | December 19, 2010 | Reply

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