Ballet is often a beautiful tragedy.  The art of ballet is one of stunning beauty and grace– it is world renowned and it’s alluring nature touches many lives.  However, the health problems that many ballerinas face is simply devastating.

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Society associates ballet with eating disorders as the stereotypical ballet dancer is stick thin and very often appears to be unhealthy and malnourished. George Balanchine, founder of the School of American Ballet, describes the perfect ballerina as very lean with long legs and arms, small hips, short torso, small ribcage, and long neck. If a young dancer has Balanchine’s ideal body they are almost automatically considered a ballet prodigy. Having a body like most professional ballet dancers is an unrealistic standard.

Why are professional ballet dancers required to be so thin? Ballet requires great strength and muscle, so it is quite contradictory that dancers are so slender.  They appear weak and frail when they should appear strong and powerful like they are.  Many ballet dancers are starving themselves which leads to serious health problems. They are doing something that is so physically demanding and in doing this they do not have the nourishment to support them.  Many dancers push their bodies to unhealthy limits.

Women today often idealize the ballet body and characterize it as the perfect body.  But in most cases this body type cannot be obtained in a healthy way.  The average women is 5’2 and 140 pounds.  The average ballerina is 5’5 and 100 pounds.  Many women, including a majority of young dancers, go to drastic measures to obtain this body type.  Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge Eating Disorder are all life threatening eating disorders that a large amount of people and a statistically high amount of dancers have.  One in five dancers has an eating disorder.  Why is this the case?

The Ballet Body Type

Ballet in and of itself has an emphasis on body type.  Dance is the movement of our bodies. Dancers are often very self conscious because they, themselves are what audiences are sitting down to watch.   The technique of ballet is very meticulous–the angle your feet should arch, the way your thumb and middle finger should be more relaxed than your other fingers, the way your legs must be turned out at all times– this gives dancers the tendency to be extremely conscious of every detail of their bodies.  In addition, as ballet dancers you are required to wear skin tight clothes, leotards and tights, which makes it very easy to be hypercritical of yourself.  Another factor in the emphasis of body type in ballet is in partnering.  In partnering, male dancers have to pull off very difficult lifts, spins, and catches, and this is often a factor in creating additional pressure on the women dancers because they feel like they have to be as light as possible for the men to lift them.  In my own experience at ballet auditions, the first thing the judges would do was measure your proportions and weigh you on a scale.  This automatically made me feel self-conscious.  As well as it made me feel like the way I am built is more important than the talent I came to show them.

The Devastating Effects

Many ballet dancers end up with serious long term health problems from the way they push their body in order to obtain a ballet figure.  Common effects of eating disorders are extreme slenderness, dry skin, hair loss, and infertility.  Many experience anemia due to iron deficiency.  Many experience bone deterioration as they are not getting enough calcium.  Another serious effect on dancers is muscle deterioration due to lack of nutrients to maintain muscles.  In fact, the muscles begin to consume themselves in their effort to find nourishment.  In many cases this leads to the deterioration of the most important muscle in the body– the heart, and this is ultimately life threatening.

The Start of Change

While it is historically true that eating disorders are in extremely high rates among ballet dancers, the image of ballerinas is slowly beginning to change from the Balanchine idea of the perfect body. George Balanchine projected this body image on the dancers he oversaw as artistic director of the New York City Ballet.  However NYC ballet dancers today are beginning to push past those boundaries and create a new image of ballet dancers.

Misty Copeland, soloist at the American Ballet Theater, is not the traditional ballerina.  She used to be considered a “prodigy” as her mentors claimed she was created in Balanchine’s vision.  Soon after her initial admission into the company she had to be put on a birth control pill.  This was because her bones were beginning to be brittle and she needed to start menstruating in order to have the hormones that would help strengthen her bones.  However, her body began to change and she gained weight.

Initially she struggled with this and tried to lose the weight she gained.  But now she is a revolutionary image in the ballet world.  Her body is strong, not frail.  The American Ballet Theater features her in powerful roles.  Her first big role after being promoted to a soloist in the company was the title role of the ballet “Firebird.”

Copeland recalls the day that she became the image of the strong ballerina: “When I turned onto the sidewalk, I saw it: a huge billboard on the front of the Metropolitan Opera House with my picture on it. I was in profile, wearing a red leotard, with my chest and back arched so you could see my full, feminine breasts and my round butt. It was everything that people don’t expect in a ballerina. I stood completely still for five minutes, just crying. It was beauty. It was power. It was a woman. ”

Soon she became a spokeswoman for Under Armor which illustrates the athleticism and strength of ballet dancers.  Copeland is changing the way society views ballet dancers, and hopefully in the long run ballet companies will appreciate the “strong ballerina” as opposed to the traditional Balanchine body image.