Ballet: Dainty or Dangerous?

Savannah Mbungu

I was really interested in ballet as a little girl. I’m still fascinated by it. I wanted to become a ballet dancer by the age of eight. I would look at dancers and performers online and I fell in love.

I briefly joined ballet in year 4 or  5in primary school. I did a few classes. Then I went to see a beautiful performance in real life with school. I decided I wanted to dance professionally and told my mum and she spoke to my aunty because she had connections with these kinds of activities. 

A few years later, my mum told me that my aunty’s friend who worked in the ballet industry had said I had no chance because I wasn’t slim enough. Even though I was a healthy weight at the time.

The ballet industry is famous for damaging its dancers for the entertainment of others. 1.4 million people in the UK have an eating disorder but this is much more likely if you are a dancer. 16.4% of ballet dancers have an eating disorder. On the website for the Royal Ballet they had support for students which is good but some of it seemed a bit dodgy because it made it seem very likely that you could have a mental break in the ballet world, they hire clinical psychologists and counsellors and rehab specialists which suggests that dancers could get addicted to drugs, exercise or losing weight. The video for student support didn’t really show the pain that comes with dancing, instead it showed that they expect a lot from you, the video says you have to give 100%. It used words like strong, determined and powerful. This is supposed to be a video about a support programme but it seems very stressful. The larger ballet schools in Russia and France didn’t even have a support page, which seems like they are keeping it quiet. Russia has a very strict culture and this was shown on the website. I also found out that the russian school monitors the dancer’s weight in front of everyone, humiliating them and forcing them onto diets of watermelon and chewing gum.

I asked everyone at my school about their opinions on ballet using a survey. I found other people;s opinions interesting, and hearing people with different views. Nobody thought that ballet should be replaced with a more accepting form of dance but they all mostly agreed that ballet dancers are under too much pressure to be skinny. One of the people who responded said that you do need exercise for any sport, and if you have extra weight it can be painful. I agree with this to an extent but people don’t have to fit into the standards set for them, being healthy is all that matters. Another person said that didn’t know much about ballet but they think there is gatekeeping for different body types to enter.

There are lots of reports online from ballet dancers who have had negative experiences in the ballet industry. Garcia started ballet school at a healthy weight and then lost 15 pounds believing that this would please her teachers. She used laxatives, purging, skip[ping meals and excessive exercise to lose wight. Megan wanted to lose weight and it turned into a dangerous obsession. She relied on caffeine pills and coffee to get through the day. This was because she wanted to tour the world with a dance company.

However, lots of people think that ballet is a healthy art form and has lots of benefits. Ballet can boost your confidence, which I agree with to some extent but it doesn’t really boost confidence if they expect you to lose weight. On the other hand, ballet can make you feel beautiful and elegant and that could boost confidence.

Ballet burns calories, this is a good think if you are eating a lot and need to lose weight but not if you have an eating disorder.  Ballet says it promotes nutritional consciousness but this could easily turn into an obsession where people weigh everything that they eat and can’t enjoy it.

Some people more diversity in ballet might change ballet for the better. Different cultures have different body types. There is still an idea that WOC aren’t allowed to be dainty and elegant, they are always seen as masculine and strong. 

Lots of dancers are tackling the negative body images in dance, for example Allison Buczkowski who is a plus size dancer and had a really supportive environment when she was training.

I still there is a lot of pressure for people to be skinny and look a certain way, to fit this one image that is perfection. I think other cultures should get involved in ballet and the industry should embrace diversity which will help with body image too. When I was a child I thought that ballet shoes were supposed to be pink. Black dancers had to dye their ballet shoes and it is only recently that you can buy black ballet shoes. I think as long as you are happy and healthy, you shouldn’t be rejected by any art form.

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