The Challenges Surrounding Body Image in the Dance Community

by Mira Henry ‘24

What is a ballet body? Better yet, what do you think a ballet body should be? This idea/question has been circulating around the dance world for many years and it is not discussed lightly. On March 3rd, the New York Times released an article titled “What is a ballet body?”. While a few gave praise to the article, many were not so happy about it.


A comment left on the article from a user by the name of J said “Ballet culture is so toxic, and this article merely scratches the surface. While there will always be some limitations (i.e. weight limits for lifts, to keep all parties safe from injury), the industry needs a reckoning. A debate if rail thin dancers will be permitted to wear the 5 lbs of weight they’ve gained during the pandemic is hardly body positivity or inclusivity. It’s time for some real change.” Personally, I agree. If this article was created to start promoting body positivity in the community, then the discussion around if a 5 lb weight gain should be allowed should not have been included. Asking whether or not weight gain can be allowed, should not be advised as embracing different sized bodies.


In an interview with the Physical therapist and director of health and wellness at New York City Ballet, Marika Molnar constantly brought her ideas back to how weight gain would translate on stage, saying “Maybe they’ve gained five pounds, but they look fantastic … I don’t know how that’s going to translate onto the stage and a tutu” and again saying “I think the aesthetic for ballet will probably go back to the way it was because they have to fit into their costumes … those costumes are expensive.” Molnar’s comments made many people angry and I agree. The idea that costumes cannot be changed and people have to fit in them because they are expensive is absolutely ridiculous. A comment left on the article said “So it is better to perpetuate the unhealthy body type for dancers because it would be too difficult to let out a seam on a bodice?  Move over a hook and eye? As a sewist in a costume department, I can count on one hand the number of times a tutu has been impossible to alter. Using the costume as an excuse to manipulate a dancer is a cop-out.” As a dancer myself I have had costumes altered to fit me countless times and there have only ever been one or two instances where I was told fixing it would be impossible. In that case, I found a new costume!  Molnar also went on to say, “I think it would be fun to see if they can maintain the level of their physical activity and not have to lose so much weight and look emaciated.” She points out that she knew they were underweight and emaciated and as director of health and wellness she should understand how that is not healthy. Yet, she also mentioned it would be fun to see if they didn't have to lose weight implying that she was never okay with the weight gain, to begin with. 


The article went on to include interviews with several different dancers including Kathryn Morgan, Chloe Fraytag, and Erica Lall, who all talked about the issues they faced in the industry. Erica Lall also talked about what it was like to be a woman of color in the ballet community and how quarantine allowed her “to think and feel what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in the ballet world for a long time.” Kathyrn Morgan shared the challenges she faced in the Miami Ballet because of her body shape. Her youtube video “Why I Left Miami City Ballet” was a major topic of discussion in the dance community this past year. Another former Miami Ballet Dancer, Chloe Fraytag, said “You can have insane stamina, powerful strength and a really different looking body than somebody else next to you who has the same stamina and the same strength. I do think we can change the standard of how we identify a qualified dancer.” This statement really struck a chord with me because everyone is different, just because two dancers might look completely different from each other doesn’t mean that they don't have the same skill set or talent. The ballet world needs to get over their idea of the “ideal” body type and the aesthetic of having everyone look the same and realize that if they branch out from the standards they might like the new.


The New York times ended the article with the interview from Lauren Lovette who is leaving the New York City Ballet at the end of this season at only 29 years old. She plans to become a choreographer and begin to try and change the outdated ideas from the inside out.


Aside from this article from the New York Times, many other major news outlets have released articles talking about dancers' bodies. On April 7 The Washington Post released an article called “Ballet directors talk about ‘fitness.’ That’s still code for rail-thin dancers.” Which talked a lot about how “ Lengthen’ doesn’t mean get longer, it means get thinner.” To be told to lengthen something is a correction in order to get you to straighten or correct what you are doing wrong. Many other smaller dance news sources have also published articles around this topic and I believe many more discussions will spring up around this topic this year because it is something very important to many in the community.  


George Balanchine is considered one of the fathers of contemporary ballet. He was one of the founders of the New York City Ballet and his influence in choreography can be seen all over modern ballet choreography. So it should come as no surprise that he set the standard for his idea of the “ideal” body type for ballet. Today, many argue whether his standards caused the lack of body diversity in the community or if people took his original ideas and pushed it to the extreme. No matter which is true I believe that the leaders of the community need to reflect on the positivity they want to spread and begin to make changes so that the dance world can evolve. Because the drama that it is causing isn't helping anyone right now.