I read this article Is There Such A Thing As Ballet That Doesn’t Hurt Women? and got so fired up. There are too many things to say about it, but I’ll try to narrow it down to a few…
First off, thank you Ellen O’Connell Whittet for writing and sharing this much needed voice in the ballet world! It gives me hope that things are shifting.
do I know if there can be a ballet world that doesn’t hurt women?
I consider the question as someone who spent her adolescence in the trenches of classical ballet training at the Joffrey in New York City, who quit at 19 years old before having direct professional experience, and who now teaches a bunch of adult beginner ballet classes in Brooklyn, while also being a coach and working on my own dance expression through videos and live performances.
What I do know is that in MY ballet world currently, all kinds of humans with all kinds of bodies come to the studio because they want to move, they want to learn how to do new things with their bodies, they want to connect to a community and feel less alone, they want to fulfill a childhood dream that they never got to realize, or they just plain and simply want to feel joy and release in their bodies in an environment that won’t judge them.
I wish I could say the same about the professional ballet world. My experience of it had some positives: I learned discipline, I learned solid dance technique, I had structure and consistency during a time in my life when I needed it, I met kids from all over the country, I was exposed to the culture of NYC as I grew up with my Jersey roots behind me… all great things that I’m super grateful for and know that I’m privileged to have experienced.
But the ballet world also taught me that having a belly and boobs was a bad thing, that my feet didn’t have the right shape, that my thighs were too overdeveloped, that I was better when I listened than when I spoke, that I had to look a certain way and get my leg to a certain height if I ever wanted to be “good,” that dance had nothing to do with my joy or expression, that it was all about getting it right and getting approval.
Whether it was my male ballet teacher poking at my belly as he “jokingly” called us the Pillsbury Dough Girls (and yes, as teenage girls we were required to wear white leotards every day, year after year) or whether it was my own gaze in the mirror that had internalized a cautious, body-policing eye, I was always judging myself from the outside in, trying to fit the ideal.
Like Ellen O’Connell Whittet says so eloquently in this article:
“It never occurred to me that ballet’s logic was flawed — instead, I believed my body was.”
No wonder why I quit ballet at 19 years old, and thought I’d never really be able to dance in any significant way. From the perspective I have now, I can see how ballet is essentially a microcosm of the patriarchal world we live in. It’s a world that advertises specific beauty standards, makes you feel inadequate if you don’t fit them, and then sells you on destroying your body in order to get closer to the ideal.
Now, one could argue and say, “Well, ballet is meant for specific body types. Just like someone who’s 4’11” can’t play basketball.”
And while I can see some truth in that, here’s the thing -
Ballet is marketed to young girls.
Tutus, ballet slippers, pink frills….
They are literally sold on the dream.
So many of them grow up feeling like a prima ballerina, only to be smacked down at some point during ballet school by the teacher who says they’re too pudgy or too wild to ever be able to do it for real. Some quit. Some stick around. Those who stick around often go through puberty during the time they are training. Put those physical, hormonal, and emotional shifts into the mix, and it’s even more reason for a young girl to freak out about her body, and sometimes torture herself trying to fit in to an unrealistic ideal.
young people internalize that THEY are the ones flawed, and whether or not they continue with ballet, this belief can stick with them.
If they do continue with ballet, they are then at the mercy of a world where they traditionally don’t have much of a voice and must conform to the gender role stereotypes. (Read Ellen’s article for more on this.)
This is not ok.
while I don’t know all the answers, I sense the solution is twofold:
As individuals in the dance world, for one, we must educate ourselves on these constructs we’ve been ushered into and question them, and learn how to use our discernment to love and trust our own bodies before we compare them to the systems that we’re supposed to fit into. We must do the painful yet necessary work of unraveling the internalized beliefs that have been disconnecting us from our bodies and our expression. We must find modes of dance and creative expression that help us feel free and ok to be ourselves. And we must model this for the younger generations.
Second, we must also work collectively on the systemic level, challenging the structures that make the ballet world and the world at large a toxic place.
We need to remind young dancers that the ballet world is only ONE dance world they could explore.
We need to embed into the fiber of their beings the belief that their bodies are not flawed - the system is.
We need to start a trend of young dancers who learn about what makes them unique, and celebrate those flairs, rather than see them as flaws.
We need to guide these young dancers in finding - or creating - the kind of environment that they will thrive in.
We need to change the language that is used in dance classrooms, and teach young ones - and teachers - how to spot abusive language and to know when boundaries are being crossed.
We need to encourage emotional expression just as much as we encourage technique.
we need to return to what the essence of dance is and always was for humans:
A mode of expression for joy, pain, grief, and everything in between, a community builder, a freedom maker, a thing that MOVES people emotionally and physically and spiritually.
If those elements are not present, why do it? Why train another generation of young ones to battle their bodies, sacrifice their childhood, and destroy their bodies?
Why can’t the ballet world be a safe haven for these young ones, who at such a delicate time in their lives and in the historical context we’re in, so desperately need a safe haven, structure, support, and community to turn to?
we can do better.
Please reach out to me if you want to work together to shift this system. I’m fired up and ready to speak/teach/lead/do whatever it takes.