The dance world concentrates on the movement of the human body, but not all bodies have been represented on concert stages. For over one-hundred years, teachers and choreographers have combated obesity at the ballet bar. They have done this by turning dance spaces into places where an overweight student would often feel left out. This attitude is not only troublesome for the young people in the class, but also for the art itself. Young people suffering with obesity may want to dance, but are discouraged by the social climate, and the stigma the dance community holds against obesity.
George Balanchine, a world renowned contemporary ballet choreographer, coined the phrase, “Balanchine Body.” People with this body-type are literally stick thin. The creative reasoning behind this is so that all of his performers will look the same. Their bodies will be sure to take his movements in similar ways. These long lean bodies also allowed Balanchine to extenuate the lines from the dancers feet, to their arms. The thinness of their limbs made these lines uninterrupted by any curves. These lines are something that, Balanchine believed, no obese dancer could achieve.
This body-type was quickly desired by many other ballet companies around the world. Dancers who desire to have a job dancing professionally need to achieve this body type to get jobs. This trend, which was even more dangerous than the body weights of dancers before this point, caused many teachers to push their students to these standards. This furthered the negative environment that dance studios can exhibit.
Dance teachers have a large impact on the self-esteem of their students. Students look up to their teachers, and take everything that comes from their mouths as truth (at least at a young age). If a dance teacher says, “To be a better dancer, you must be thin,” then the students are more likely to become anorexic. The teachers often told students what they should eat and how often. One student reported their teacher telling them not to eat before the lessons because it made her look fat. An apple a day keeps you thin for ballet. Teachers are known to poke fun at students weight, make them perform routine weigh-ins, and compare students to one another.
Anorexia is a disorder that fits in well with the climate of the dance world. Dance is an art of complete control. A dancer must have knowledge of every muscle in their body. They must use this knowledge to control each muscle to create a specified shape or movement. Anorexia is a disorder that is centered around having complete control. Studies show that many people who become anorexic, do so because their diet is the only thing they have control over. It is different for dancers because many feel the influence of others even when it comes to their food intake. The fear of obesity may be what drives dancers to become anorexic.
For dancers, the importance of having a long lean body comes before everything else. Many young female dancers dream of partnering with a male dancer. To do this the female dancer must have enough strength to help the male performer lift her, twirl her, and carry her across the stage. This also needs to be sustained for an entire song. Young dancers fear not having a chance to experience this, and will do anything they can to make it happen.
Attitudes toward weight need to be adjusted in the dance studio. Recently there have been more modern dance performances celebrating obesity, and proving that bigger is beautiful. These brave dancers may yet break some of the many “rules” of dance that are hurting the health of dancers young and old. They may not be at a ballet bar quite yet, but these dancers are not letting obesity hold them back.
By Joshua Shane