Today’s ballet teachers and company directors know that they can no longer simply instruct their dancers to lose weight. But that doesn’t mean they’ve relinquished their rigid, narrow vision of what a “good” ballet body looks like: They simply swathe that ideal in the gauzy, feel-good messaging of today’s fitness culture.
For decades, the prevailing attitude was to lose the weight, no matter how, says Harrison: “Lose it by ‘Nutcracker’ — and by the way it’s November 15 — and [do it] without getting injured and without passing out.” In her infamous memoir “Dancing on My Grave,” New York City Ballet principal dancer Gelsey Kirkland recounts an incident in the late 1960s when the company’s co-founder and de facto dictator, George Balanchine, stopped a class to examine Kirkland’s body and “rapped his knuckles” down her sternum. “Must see bones,” he told her. At the time, Kirkland weighed less than 100 pounds. “He did not merely say, ‘eat less,’ ” Kirkland remembered. “He repeatedly said, ‘eat nothing.’ ” Experiences like Kirkland’s (whose account has been corroborated by other company dancers) can be found throughout the ballet world. Balanchine’s preferred female body type — swan-necked, slim-hipped, long-legged, impossibly thin and capable of terrifically difficult footwork — became the enduring global standard for ballet companies and schools.
In the 1990s, ballet’s high-pressure and eating-disorder-friendlyculture came in for some unwelcome attention. The press spread the word about anorexia and bulimia running rampant among teenage girls; gymnastics and figure skating also came under scrutiny. In books and press coverage, harrowing tales of dancers starving themselves, of smoking or snorting their appetites away, made for bad PR as the nation moved toward a new, tenuous “body positive” culture in which emaciation was no longer considered the height of feminine beauty.
The bad old days of American ballet teachers and company directors telling their dancers to eat nothing, or telling them exactly how many pounds they should lose, are largely over. The focus now is on optimum performance, on strength, on food as fuel. Companies encourage dancers to cross train at the gym, on top of their heavy rehearsal schedules and daily technique classes. They partner with nutritionists (Harrison, for example, was the in-house nutritionist at Atlanta Ballet for six years and now consults with the company) and team up with activewear brands to emphasize that their dancers are athletes as well as artists.
Company directors today commonly say they want “fit” dancers — provided that they also appear fit. That is, in addition to having the strength and stamina to dance a full ballet, they must adhere to the conventional understanding of what a fit person looks like. It’s not enough to lift your pas de deux partner over your head: You also need to have a six-pack while you’re doing it.
Company directors can still fire or refuse to hire dancers for not being this kind of “fit.” But because of the new cultural injunction against explicitly telling dancers to lose weight, gatekeepers have developed a suite of euphemisms that all amount to the same message: slim down. One former Tulsa Ballet dancer was told in his annual review that he was not “in good physical shape.” The dancer had no idea what to make of that. “What does that mean?” he remembers asking his colleagues. “Like I’m too small? Like I need to be less short?” One of his friends translated for him: “No, you need to lose weight.” When the dancer used a dangerous and unsustainable crash diet to become skinnier than he had ever been, he was praised. The company’s decision-makers said he looked “longer.”
“In my day, they didn’t care how you lost it, you just had to lose it,” says Rita Corridon, who performed with the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s. In 2019, when her daughter Isabella was preparing to graduate from American Ballet Theatre’s full-time training program and looking for company jobs, she got a different message — or rather, the same message, phrased differently: to “lengthen.” Isabella reduced her food intake, added gym workouts on top of her daily dance classes, and within a month got her 5-foot-6 teenage frame down to “about 111 pounds.” Along with the admiration of her classmates and approval of her teachers, she secured a company job.
Such dancing around the truth might feel familiar to many outside of the rarefied world of ballet, as fitness culture creeps out of the gym and slowly takes over the rest of women’s lives, manifesting in sweat-proof makeup and yoga pants you can wear to the office. Consider the ethic of body positivity expressed in the popular slogan, “Strong is the new skinny.” Today, women are permitted, even expected, to be muscular — but never bulky, just lean. They are expected to be the “right kind” of strong, in the right places; they have to look “athletic,” but not like water polo players or shot-put throwers. “Strong is the new skinny,” as long as you’re still skinny.
Even the weight loss industry has rebranded: Now, you’re less likely to hear marketing about pounds shed and “fat pants” thrown away and more likely to hear friendlier marketing that emphasizes health, fitness and, of course, “wellness.” In 2018, Weight Watchers changed to “WW,” purportedly to focus on participants’ overall health — but its program still requires tracking your food intake and assigning a “SmartPoint” value to what you eat. “High SmartPoints doesn’t mean a food is ‘bad,’ ” the WW website assures you, “because no food is bad! It just means that we need to balance it with lower-SmartPoints foods.” You know, so we can lose weight.
Amid a wider culture that purports to care about health but still glorifies slenderness, ballet companies guardtheir reputations: It’s not a good look to be caught telling dancers explicitly to lose weight, or firing them for failing to do so. But the demands remain unchanged. In ballet, “long” is the new skinny, but skinny still reigns supreme.