I see them walking down the Avenue past my building, their postures erect, the younger ones with their mothers in tow. As a parent of a ballet dancer, I easily recognize those girls. They’re the summer program girls at the School of American Ballet, all of them slender, agile, strikingly pretty, selected for those very qualities.
I don’t think they realize what is in store for them if they become one of the elect. I’m sure my daughter didn’t. Neither did I. Yet over the years, I have learned that behind the idealized onstage world of graceful and ethereal women lurks a darker side.
So I wasn’t shocked to hear the recent news about eating disorders in the ballet field that came in the wake of the death of Heidi Guenther, a 22-year-old Boston Ballet professional. It always seemed to me that professional schools should sound emphatic notes of caution to the unsuspecting entering student and her parents. Perhaps they should even put out a sign like the warning labels you see on cigarettes: “A dance career may be hazardous to your health.”
Yet all too conveniently, it seems, company directors and schools continue to overlook the fact that they are the ones who set the standard for the field: In the breaking story about Guenther’s death, we were told that her dance company is actually accepting of all body types – that it even features a “voluptuous” dancer. (But why then, any casual reader might question, was the petite Guenther told by her company director to lose 5 pounds?)
In the world in which my daughter moves, directors and schools have long promoted the image of the delicate, slender, long-limbed ballet dancer. “The Balanchine Look,” they call it. In a field where openings are few and competition is keen, dancers know they have to conform to that aesthetic ideal. Tellingly, I have often seen the nation’s most elite professional school referred to as “a stable of thoroughbreds” – that is, not a place where talented and impressionable young people are encouraged, but where they are carefully selected for their physical traits and then trained in the manner of racehorses to perform. Undergoing the relentlessly intense physical training, conforming to an intangible aesthetic, many end up navigating that fine line between being slender, but not too much so, between being healthy and malnourished. Under all these pressures, it’s not surprising some lose their balance.
It’s true, as companies and schools declare, that one’s well-being is, after all, an individual matter. Yet I have observed over the years that eating disorders and the dance world are intertwined. These problems continue to haunt even the best and most established professionals. In fact, I cannot say I know any dancer who has been untouched by unhealthy eating habits – the ballet world’s endemic affliction.
It’s also true, as the company directors, schools and medical professionals concur, that some parents push their daughters too aggressively. I’ve seen that side, mothers urging daughters to be thin – daughters never made to be thin – forcing them, as though they were Cinderella’s stepsisters, into a mold that just won’t fit. But these are not your typical parents.
“You look thin,” a more concerned parent may say, as I have said to my daughter on occasion after a rough “Nutcracker” season. But the dancer, I have learned, listens only to what the director tells her. This, in fact, is the heart of the matter: Dancers need to hear concern for their well-being articulated by those in charge of their artistic development, and they most often don’t.
“I want to see the bones,” the disgruntled Balanchine dancer Gelsey Kirkland attributed to the master. But even if the quote turns out to be apocryphal, the substance of it is anything but: Walk into a company class, and you do see the bones. “I want to see the ribs,” one of Balanchine’s proteges, now a company director, says. Parents are quite properly terrified to see those bones and ribs, but dancers are terrified at the idea of gaining weight, and no wonder: “No one wants to see a fat person dance,” these slender sylphs are often told. Isolated from the real world, depriving themselves of food and extracurricular activities in order to dance, spending most of their time in the mirrored studio, clinging to every word their teacher or director says, dancers are prone to developing distorted body images of funhouse proportions. Is it all that surprising that – as medical statistics show – eating disorders among dancers are five times more prevalent than in the general population?
As I observe my daughter’s company class, I notice all its female members conform to the aesthetic ideal. I watch them hone their perfect bodies, go through their daily paces, stretching, pirouetting, leaping, soaring across the studio floor. Their movements are captivating, enormously pleasing to behold. Unlike us ordinary folk, they do not seem earthbound. Yet I am not drawn into their display. I have become all too aware that beyond the world on the stage is a real world, where the quest for such perfection can take a terrible toll.
(c) Olya Thompson, first published in Newsday.
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