(Arianna Gutierrez / Daily Titan)

When one envisions a ballet dancer, the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker,” the black and white swans in “Swan Lake” or the ghostly Wilis in “Giselle” may come to mind. While each performance tells a different story, the inhuman characters all carry the same typical portrayal: white and thin.

If the stories dancers tell on stage are unique and eclectic, why are the bodies that tell those stories indistinguishable? Dance as an art form has long been kept exclusive, and that does a disservice to both dancers and audiences.

In fact, the typical skinny ballerina wasn’t quintessential until it was popularized by choreographer George Balanchine, who founded the New York City Ballet in 1948. Balanchine not only wanted his dancers to be quick enough for his graceful and trademark moves like the petit allegro, but he also wanted them wispy thin. With long necks, small heads, lengthy legs and narrow hips, his desired aesthetic bordered on prepubescent and skeletal, and as the popularity of ballet spread across America, so did his image of the ideal dancer.

Dancers spend hours in front of mirrors examining their own bodies and picking apart flaws as they practice and rehearse. Ballet’s focus on the physical form can generate obsession and competitiveness, especially in young students who wear form-fitting clothes to better show their alignment as they compete against peers for roles.

All of these factors can lead to an increased risk of developing eating disorders, as a 2014 study concluded. It showed that dancers are three times more likely to develop eating disorders such as anorexia, compared to their peers who don’t dance.

Despite not having a traditional ballet body, dancer Misty Copeland became the first African American female principal dancer for the American Ballet Theatre in 2015, which is the highest rank in a ballet company.

Still, critics have been harsh on Copeland for not fitting the image of a typical ballerina. In a personal essay, Copeland recounted how she was advised to lose weight by the American Ballet Theatre’s artistic staff, despite being 5-foot-2 inches and weighing 108 pounds.

After being advised by a doctor to use birth control to regulate her period, Copeland gained weight, and even after her body adjusted to the pill, she was left with a curvier figure that Balanchine would have shunned. Despite the criticism she has received, Copeland found confidence in her own body, performing in many lead roles for ABT and other companies, as well as starring in a viral ad for Under Armour in 2014.

Another dancer who has had to overcome criticism of her body is Michaela DePrince. Originally from Sierra Leone, DePrince began to study ballet after being adopted by an American family. As a teenager, one of her teachers told her that “we don’t put a lot of effort into black girls, because they end up having big boobs and big thighs.” Now, as a soloist with the Dutch National Ballet, DePrince works to inspire young girls who aren’t well-represented in ballet.

When dance students only see one type of body represented on stage, they believe that is what they must be in order to be successful. As a result, they either change their body to fit the mold, or quit.

Sometimes teachers pass this mindset on to their students, believing that understanding this reality is the only way for them to become professional dancers and that they are preventing them future disappointment. It becomes a cycle. If more body types and races were represented on stage, any dance student could find someone to admire and be inspired by.

What Copeland and DePrince have achieved despite the adversity is inspirational. As new generations of dancers begin to take the stage, the days of nothing but thin and white professional dancers will take their final bows.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.