I was asked to provide a quote this week for My Best Daily, about Wayne Sleep’s new series Big Ballet on Channel 4.
I thought about it for a while and wrote up some notes. But it took an age to formulate an answer to questions about whether the world of dance needs to embrace a fuller figure, that I was happy with.
I so wanted to say that times had changed. That we had all grown up and moved on since the 1990s when I trained, and heroine chic was rife. I thought back to those days, when at least one in four of the girls in my institute were either anorexic or bulimic, and the rest had fairly serious aspirations of joining either side. Surely, with incredible sportswomen such as Jessica Ennis and Nicola Adams providing relevant role models and a focus on strength and nutrition over harrowing thin-ness, times have changed?
I want so badly to forget the stories of young girls – children – who are weighed on a weekly basis and told by adults that are supposed to care for, nurture and teach them – to lose weight by the next weigh-in. I wish I could wipe from memory the tricks those girls would use to stop themselves gaining weight, from eating wet tissue and smoking to removing hair pins and not drinking for hours beforehand.
But I don’t think we have moved forward.
I truly believe that the dancers we see in premiere companies such as the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet work seriously long hours and their days are packed full of intense physical exercise, so they’re never going to look like the rest of us. But from my couch, watching Big Ballet, to the Royal Opera House on Friday evening, there is nothing in between.
Dance is a visual art form and those among the elite are painfully aware of how they look. They are obsessed with perfection – of extension, proportion, height and weight as well as their technique. And they are chosen for it too – their jobs depend on it.
Russian directors expect their dancers to weigh just over six stone (39kg). Dorothy Gunther Pugh, artistic director of Ballet Memphis told Pointe Magazine: “As an artistic director, I care about how our ballets look. Weight is important. Choreographers, certainly, come in and say, “I will not cast that dancer because he or she is too big.” In auditions especially, we all become critics. I have to pare down a group of 350 pretty quickly, and the first thing I determine is which bodies are right for us… dancers’ bodies need to look a certain way to make the kind of pictures we want for classical ballet.” Peter Boal, artistic director of Pacific Northwest Ballet commented: “Sometimes both the excess and the underweight are unappealing to look at. And I think dancers know that.”
It sounds brutal if you’re not used to this opinion, but sadly I don’t think it’s changed much at all in the last 20 years. I also think it goes further than just being thin – there is an issue of body dysmorphia that is physically as well as psychologically damaging. It’s no secret that ballet dancers have a hard time living up to their own idea of perfection.
There are initiatives like Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme out there, and I think our collective consciousness on health issues is moving in the right direction – dancers are being recognised as athletes rather than the slim, ethereal beings they once were. But there is clearly more work to be done.