The world of professional dance has long had a stereotype. It is thought to be an industry full of unrealistic expectations and self-destructive tendencies. Eating disorders are practically encouraged and weight loss is expected. The ideal ballerina image is one of a waif-like beauty, almost too thin to exist. While some of this may still be true, most of it is an outdated urban legend.
First, that waif-like girl almost so thin you can see through her dates back to the time of George Balanchine. Balanchine is widely considered a choreographic god. He created more than 400 works and was the artistic director of the New York City Ballet. He was the kind of guy who made careers. However, he was also the kind of guy who destroyed dancers. He was known for marrying his muses, often a good 20 years younger than him, and in Gelsey Kirkland’s book “Dancing on My Grave: An Autobiography,” she all but accuses him of causing the eating disorders that nearly ended her life.
This is what used to be. Now, there are dancers like Misty Copeland who are strong and independent. In an interview with Self.com, Copeland talks about her trials with binge eating. She said, “I had always been proud of my body … but now it had become the enemy.” She has since recovered from that mentality, and the woman who is a principal artist at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and one of the biggest ballet names in the country today is both beautiful and strong. You can see every muscle of Copeland’s body in clear definition, and you can see the fluidity with which they serve her. How did she recover? She found support in a boyfriend and she started looking at food as fuel instead of a coping mechanism. As her health improved she began to move up in the company. Health is always more important than insecurity, and the dance world is starting to see this. More and more big companies like ABT are adding nutritionists, physical trainers and athletic coaches to their teams. Dancers are beginning to be supported instead of degraded, and the horror stories are fading into the past.
For example, there is a rather famous kickline of women who range from 5 feet 8 inches to 5 feet 10 inches in Radio City. Now, this is one of the best paying jobs in the industry next to Cirque du Soleil, and for good reason. These ladies perform 90-minute shows, two to four times a day, six days a week. That’s basically cardio on steroids. They do P90X to get into shape preseason, and several of them are fitness teachers on their days off. This particular company is different — the casting and even the show is entirely based off of height. Lindsey Smith, a former kickliner and current Disney dancer, described her first day in rehearsal.
“The very first thing you do is get put in the kickline,” Smith said. “You come in barefoot and stand. Tallest girls in the middle. All of the numbers are based off your kickline spot. … You are only as good as the girl next to you.”
This eliminates competition between dancers and creates an environment of mutual support and respect.
As for body image, your body is less pretty and more a machine with a smile. These girls do 300 kicks per show — just try kicking your face consistently 300 times in a row. It’s not only tiring if you aren’t used to it, it might just be impossible, and it takes a lot out of you. Smith fondly remembers her first orientation where they told all the girls to aim for an intake of 4,000 calories a day. She took that as a “challenge accepted” and it wasn’t too hard to complete. All the shows are catered so the girls can grab a snack on their 30-minute break in between shows. Smith never struggled with severe body image issues because she detached her personal worth from her success in auditions.
“Make sure you can stand up to the task of what is being asked of you in an audition, but remove the personal insecurity of it,” Smith said.
She is a tall dancer at 5 feet 8 inches, but she has never felt tall. All of her jobs have been specifically for taller women, like the kickline or even her show at Disney where she has been an equity dancer for 10 years. She just found a place where she fits and is better off for it.
Talese Hunt, another Radio City girl, has danced on and off her whole life. She is a pilates teacher who spent the past few months teaching in South Korea and has performed locally at Pioneer Theatre and Tuacahn. She worked on a cruise ship and has been through weigh-ins and weight checks. However, Hunt chooses to “listen to [her] body and keep [her]self feeling strong.” She talks about her trouble keeping weight on when she was dancing in the kickline, but that was due to the extremity of the exercise. She was focused on eating to stay strong and healthy instead of maintaining a specific number.
“It’s about finding balance and moderating so that you feel energetic and powerful,” Hunt said. “A spoonful of ice cream can do wonders for your mental state. And some days it’s a bowlful. I think everyone has to find what works for them.”
For Hunt, the focus has always been health and her love of dance. So why do so many people dance despite the craziness? Even without the sometimes unrealistic weight expectations and the difficulty of being judged on appearance, dance is a grueling and challenging profession. Many dancers retire young and some never get that first job. The kickline alone is a two-day audition with hours of new choreography and perfecting movements. Smith describes it as a constant challenge.
“Your rookie year you just jump in and realize this the hardest thing of your life,” Smith said.
But dance is an art form all its own, and dancers are a breed unto themselves. When it’s perfect it’s all worth it, according to Hunt.
“When a song moves me it is the most magical feeling,” Hunt said.
Dancers love to dance. So even in a world that might be less than perfect, isn’t it better to follow the people pioneering a new attitiude and creating change than to cut off a beautiful art form or quit because of discouragement?
“As a dancer you are hired for a visual aesthetic. You are expected to maintain the look that they hired you at,” Smith said. “[But the successful companies are comprised of] girls who lift each other up and make each other stronger.”
So in an industry still trying to get with the times, let’s lift together.