Updated: Apr 27
I awoke to a disturbing Instagram story post from one of my favorite ballet dancers and it definitely fired me up. So… I took class, experienced and allowed my emotions to run their course, chatted with other dancers throughout the day, completed the day, and am now feeling a bit more clear-headed to try and organize all of the thoughts that have been racing through my brain since 6:30am this morning. I may be a little scattered, so I apologize. Thank you for your patience as I needed some time to digest and settle my emotions before sitting down to write this unplanned blog post. This is written from the dancer perspective and initiated by something that happened to a dancer. All concepts mentioned are applicable to performance athletes of all kinds AND, better yet, all people, everyone.
Please be aware that I do talk about weight (no numbers are mentioned) and physical appearance - throughout this post.
If you haven’t read my ‘this is my dancer’s body’ post from earlier this year, please give it a read.
Ah yes, the holidays. A time of family, friends, food, and unsolicited commentary about dancers’ bodies. The year was 2010 and a principal ballet dancer with the New York City Ballet was destroyed by a NY Times critic. He claimed that she “ate one too many sugar plums,” and so began - at least for me - the realization that people, literally anyone, feel they have the authority to make comments about a dancer’s body. Sure, I had heard comments like these in the dance studio, from my teacher, other parents, or my own peers, but never in such a public arena. Alas, the time has returned. Today, 12 years since this review, this ugly head is reared once more. A world-renown principal dancer (one of my personal favorites for so many reasons inside + outside of the studio) at a top, American-based ballet company received unsolicited feedback from a Board member of the organization that “they don’t mind the extra weight” and “it might be time to look for a new career.” (I pull these quotes from this dancer’s Instagram stories, and it breaks my heart every time I look at that screenshot I took this morning.) And so we take 12 steps backwards; the tango of life.
“But she’s a top ballerina, this shouldn’t happen to her.”
… yes, AND… this shouldn’t be happening to ANYONE; any dancer of ANY level - big ballet, small-project-based ballet, college-level dancers, pre-professional training dancers, dancers who dance for fun, recreational dancers, dancers who have no “formal” training and enjoy moving their body in a way that makes them happy, the list goes on. No dancer (or person, for that matter) should have to deal with unsolicited comments on their body from anyone - teachers, directors, board members, audience members, peers, nobody.
Many things pop to mind when thinking through this entire conversation. Let’s explore a few of these thoughts. Maybe they’re questions for the person making the unsolicited comments, maybe they’re things for YOU to consider before making a comment about somebody else’s body, in or outside of the studio. Maybe it’s just things that I’ve deeply thought about or unraveled for myself over the years.
Would you make a similar comment if the dancer lost a lot of weight? I feel like it’s more often that we hear about people making comments on a dancer’s body when they’ve gained or appear to have put on weight. So, let’s reverse it. If a dancer lost a lot of weight, would you tell them that they’re “unfit” or “not right” for the stage? If your gut tells you that you wouldn’t say anything to a dancer who appears to have lost weight but would to a dancer who appears to have gained weight, why? It’s something for you to explore for yourself. I don’t have an answer for you. Maybe it’s related to our societal drive to desire smaller bodies? Maybe it’s because weight loss is what we’ve been conditioned to favor?
There is so much more to weight than meets the eye. Especially in the dance world, disordered eating is a likely reason for any changes to a dancer’s physical appearance - whether that’s weight gain or loss. Other possible reasons for changes to anyone’s body could include intestinal disorders, unmanaged inflammation, thyroid gland dysfunction, poor or irregular sleep patterns/habits, viral or bacterial illness, stress, and so many more. What I want to tell you, though, is that a dancer doesn’t have to be sick or have any reason for a weight/physical appearance change. Some people claim that, “oh, they’re a mom.” Not only is ANY of this any of your business to comment on, but change is literally the only constant that we live with. Our bodies are meant to change over the course of our lifetime AND it changes as a response to our environment with the sole purpose of our survival. Sure, I went to grad school to learn the science behind that, but I didn’t need the degree to know that’s the state our body likes to be in: alive.
We all, no matter the size, composition, etc. of our body, have our own internal dialogue we're dealing with. I’m not sure I have to explain this one any further. We all, as dancers and nondancers, have our own inner dialogue that’s telling us whatever it is (a nice voice or a degrading voice) about our body - what we like, what we don’t like. This is exhausting and, at least for me, very challenging to silence that voice. It jumps to action whenever I catch a glance of myself in a mirror - whether I’m in the studio donning a leotard + tights or at home checking out my newest outfit. This constant, unavoidable voice does not need outside validation - good or bad and ESPECIALLY the negative. Have you ever noticed that the first thing you say to a friend you haven’t seen in a while is related to their appearance? “Omg, you look amazing, have you lost weight.” “Oh wow, are you doing ok?” My challenge to you, here, is to find a new greeting. How can you greet someone - anyone - without making unsolicited comments on their appearance? Again, I can’t answer that for you. It’s something for you to explore yourself, AND it’s an exercise that I’m still working on myself.
A final, and major, component to consider in this post, is trust. For dance, trust must go in both directions: between the dancer + director AND between the director + dancer. It’s a two-way, open communication street. (Of course, this depends on how a company might be managed, but the concept should be universal.)
The dancer must trust that if they approach their director about anything in their life (a situation, a change, etc.) that the director’s response/reaction will be respectful and supportive at its core.
The director must trust that the dancer will talk with them when, and if ever, they are ready to discuss anything in their life (a situation, a change, etc.).
And, for my dancers, if you know you want/need to talk to your director about something but are still uncertain or need support, bring a buddy! This might be a peer, a therapist, or any supportive person you have confided in and/or knows/ is informed about what’s going on. They don’t have to say anything, just their presence can be helpful when you stand up for yourself.
Ok, I think that’s all of it for now. Thanks for taking the time to read. I also just want to give a shoutout to all the dancers who have reached out to me today and shared their experiences from a variety of places within the dance world AND the world-world.
This is a constant work in progress. It’s only possible to make progress with your mindful implementation of making these subtle changes/adjustments in your daily life - conversations with friends, your self-talk, your interactions with others, and so much more. I’m not a therapist, but I’m happy to be a listening, supportive ear if you need. If it’s nutrition support you need, I gotchu, and you know what to do.
PS - I found the NY Times’ critic’s apology (not sure if that’s what you can call it?) article here. It was published on this website October 6, 2021. So… only 11 years late, and actually for something that shouldn’t have been written at all.