What Is a Ballet Body?

Like many ballet dancers, Lauren Lovette has had some questions during the pandemic. One keeps rising to the top of her list. What is a ballet body? And a corollary: What does healthy look like? “Am I really working on being a better dancer?” Lovette said. “Or am I just trying to starve and get skinnier, so now I have the line?”

In ballet, line isn’t just about the body’s shape on a stage. It has to do with the body’s overall harmonious outline: how, from head to toe, limbs and torso create the illusion of continuous reach and length. Weight, with its bulk and bulges — including, yes, breasts — plays its part and can interfere with a seamless, sculptural quality.

For Lovette, a member of New York City Ballet since 2010, this pause from performance has brought some clarity. “I’m not going to be dancing at 94 pounds anymore,” she said. “That’s not going to be me.”

Since the pandemic began nearly a year ago, similar questions have been spinning in my mind: How can body image, a fraught topic for any female dancer, no matter her size, be a source of strength rather than agony? Could this pause in live performance be an opening for the aesthetic requirements of ballet — especially extreme thinness — to change?

Ballet is an elite art form. Certain physical attributes are necessary — good turnout, along with flexible ankles and feet — but there is no single standard. It really comes down to how a body moves through space: with dynamism, musicality and athleticism.

Ballet is subjective; what looks good, what becomes a kind of standard, is set by the company director — typically a man, and a white one at that. Many think that change is overdue. Benjamin Millepied, the former artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet who now leads the contemporary company L.A. Dance Project, said: “We’ve gone through a longtime trend of this idea of the skinny body, and I’m really against this. I want to see dancers who have their individuality.”

Before the pandemic, female dancers were embracing their athleticism by incorporating strength training into their regimen. While they seemed less frail — a good thing — the overall look of a ballet company remained Twiggy thin.

Right now, many dancers — like the rest of us — are living with slightly different bodies. Marika Molnar, a physical therapist and director of health and wellness at New York City Ballet, said she thinks the dancers she works with look great at the moment. “Maybe they’ve gained five pounds, but they look fantastic,” she said. “I don’t know how that’s going to translate onto the stage and a tutu, but they all look terrific now, very healthy.”

With the performance world on hold, dancers have had nearly a year to think about the uncomfortable, traumatizing side of their art form and its culture. Speaking out isn’t the norm in ballet, but in October one dancer brought up the subject of body image. For her, as for so many, it had to do with her size.

Kathryn Morgan, 32, a dancer with a large YouTube following, posted a video, “Why I Left Miami City Ballet,” describing her experience with the company, which lasted just one season. Morgan, a Size 2, had already spent years dealing with an autoimmune disease, which nearly 11 years ago forced her to leave New York City Ballet. Her soloist contract with Miami, beginning in May 2019, was meant to be her comeback.

“I went in — full, open disclosure — saying I have this particular condition,” she said in an interview. “This is how my body is. I am not ever going to be the smallest one onstage.”

Once she arrived, her body was constantly criticized, she said; roles were promised and then taken away. She made it to the stage only four times, and three of them were in the decidedly nonclassical part of the Stripper in George Balanchine’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” in which the character wears heels, not pointe shoes. In that role, she noted, she was “half-naked.” (The costume, fittingly for the role, is a skimpy dress.)

Morgan said she thought that her performances were successful — the applause reminded her of being at a rock concert. Afterward, though, she said she was told that she was “not in shape” and that her body “wasn’t where it needs to be.” Weight was never mentioned specifically.

She began to regress, she said. Her blood work was as bad as it had been at the start of her illness in New York. Her hair began to fall out. She said her doctor told her that he didn’t know what situation she was in, but to get out of it. She finished out her contract and decided not to renew it. For Morgan, small by ordinary standards, shrinking any more while staying healthy was simply not doable.

When a dancer is criticized for her body, it’s not just cosmetic. “Our body is the art,” said Chloe Freytag, a former Miami City Ballet dancer who said she broke her contract midseason over demands that she lose weight.

In ballet, Freytag said, the body is required to be in peak athletic condition. “But extreme condition can look really different on a lot of different bodies,” she 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.”

Dancers don’t usually talk about the internal workings of company life; contracts, which tend to run year to year, are hard won, and the competition is stiff. By the time dancers get into a company, usually in their late teens, they have likely trained for 10 or more years. But once they are hired, the protective bubble of school fades.

Being in a company is demanding, with constant pressures. There’s always a younger, fresher dancer primed to move up the ranks. You’re fortunate to be called to a rehearsal to learn a new role; the real victory is actually getting to perform it. But casting, done by the director or choreographer, and often announced close to the performance date, can seem mysterious and arbitrary. A dancer can wonder: Did the best person get the role? Was it favoritism? Would I have gotten the part if I were a few pounds lighter?

The world is full of heartbroken ballet dancers, former and current, and Morgan knows it. And with her longtime presence on YouTube, where she regularly gives advice to young dancers, classes and audition tutorials, she is in a position to talk about it. “The reason people are silent is because their jobs are on the line and they know that they’re replaceable,” she said. “I had nothing to lose.”

Miami City Ballet has a policy not to discuss its former dancers. But in speaking generally about the aesthetic requirement of thinness, Lourdes Lopez, the company’s artistic director, said she hoped that would change. “For me, this Covid thing has been a real kind of paradigm shift,” she said. “It’s been like a great reset.” And that means, she said, “everything from what we view as a body type” to “the color of one’s skin onstage.”

Another thing that female bodies in ballet have historically been is white. For Black dancers, body image and racism are inextricably linked, and it’s about more than thinness. Black women especially have long dealt with stereotypes that they are too muscular, too athletic.

“We accept that the white body can be anything and everything,” said Theresa Ruth Howard, a former dancer who writes and speaks about equity in ballet. “For a white ballet dancer, physical shortcomings — bad feet, a little bit tight, a little bit turned in — they get to be that.”

Erica Lall, a member of American Ballet Theater, recalled that as a student in Texas, when she was 13 or 14, her mother was told in a meeting that she had bulging muscles. “I was just kind of like, how?” she said. Lall, who aptly described herself as a “string bean,” is naturally slim with a short torso and long legs — what many would consider an ideal ballet body.

Quarantine, along with the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, gave her a chance “to think and feel what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in the ballet world for a long time,” she said. “I was preventing myself from strengthening my quads and my hamstrings and even my rotator muscles, because I was worried that I would just bulge too much.”

She focused on building strength, realigning her body with Gyrotonic training. “You need those muscles,” she said.

In the past in ballet, gyms were taboo because of a fear of bulking up. Dancers were not to be seen as athletic but as beautiful, waiflike and ethereal. Yet ballerinas, especially up to the 1950s, had more curves. That fashion changed — and the person that many like to blame is George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet, who had an outsize influence on postwar ballet in America.

It was believed by some — and still is — that Balanchine’s preference was for dancers with long legs and tiny heads. The notion of a Balanchine body stuck, and created a template for what people think a ballet dancer should look like. But Balanchine choreographed for, and chose for his company, dancers with a range of body types. “I think his biggest measure of acceptability was irreverence,” the dance historian Elizabeth Kendall said, “which translated into the personality is stronger than the step.”

In a joint interview, City Ballet’s current leadership, the artistic director Jonathan Stafford and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan, said the dance world is moving in a better direction. “Look at the white European beginnings of ballet,” Stafford said. “It’s taken ballet a very long time to get past that ‘ideal’ image — whatever ideal meant to that person — whether it’s someone tall and thin, or whether it’s someone very pale. Obviously, ballet companies have been very late to get past that aesthetic.”

Stafford and Whelan represent a generational shift in leadership that is exploring a new take on what ballet culture could look like. Both were principal dancers and have long associations with the company; Whelan was a star, whose career lasted 30 years. They were appointed to their new roles in 2019, after City Ballet was rocked by the loss of its veteran leader, Peter Martins, who retired amid an investigation into reports of physical and emotional abuse (he denied the accusations) and a scandal in which male dancers shared photographs of female dancers.

Millepied, a member of City Ballet from 1995 to 2011, said that when he was in the company dancers were referred to as kids, which isn’t, sadly, a rarity in ballet. Sometimes they’re called boys and girls. Millepied found it dehumanizing. “When the curtain would go down at City Ballet, we would stand and wait to see if Peter would say good job or something, or even look at us,” he said. “That’s the level of control that there was, and we performed with a level of intensity, but that all had to do also with being skinny.”

There has been a lot to fix in the culture, and such changes take time and commitment. Stafford and Whelan have instituted a new rule: No staff member is allowed to talk to a dancer about a body issue concern without protocols to ensure sensitivity and confidentiality. “It cannot happen in passing,” Stafford said. “It cannot happen in a space that’s maybe a little too public. It’s got to be a healthy environment.”

In the past, Whelan said, things “were more emotionally rickety.” Stafford said, “There wasn’t a clear delineation of, OK, who handles this when we see a dancer who may be struggling and not as healthy as we need them to be?”

Whelan said she was never told to lose weight when she was in the company, but she heard stories from other dancers. “It always happened in different ways, and sometimes they were very upset with how things were spoken to them,” she said. “It was never a nice topic, and it was probably done with a little less necessary care.”

As Stafford and Whelan see it, a healthy body is a strong body, and the ballet body of today has muscles. Can the emotional and physical gains — for some, five or so pounds’ worth — of the pandemic survive when theaters reopen? There are some hurdles, and not all of them are about entrenched ways of thinking. They’re practical.

“I think the aesthetic for ballet will probably go back to the way it was because they have to fit into their costumes,” Molnar said. “Those costumes are expensive.” In ballet, this is a serious concern; dancers are known to get parts based on whether they fit a costume. “But I don’t really know,” Molnar continued. “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.”

Body trauma isn’t confined to one ballet company — or even just ballet. Nicole Sabella is a member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, but before that, despite her talent, she was continually denied spots in other companies because her shape didn’t conform with standards of thinness. Brittany O’Connor, now a freelance dancer, is a former member of Dresden Semperoper Ballett, where, at 5’ 10” and 127 pounds, she was told that she wasn’t skinny enough. Both mentor dancers about body image.

“This time off has been a struggle because we try to stay tiny, but it’s unrealistic,” O’Connor said. “Even though we’re not happy because we’re not performing, we’re finding this love for our body even if we gain a few pounds.”

Lovette, for one, has gained six, and she loves the way her body looks, even if, in her words, “It doesn’t look anything like a dancer.” She was referring to a body part that ballet has a hard time dealing with: breasts. (Every dancer has a demon and for Lovette, it’s this.)

“You’ve got to get really skinny to change something like that about your body. And I would. I would get as thin as I could. I didn’t want to be a triple D.”

Lovette may not have starved herself, but she recalled the feeling of rewarding herself for, say, skipping a bread roll. “Or, if I get picked up in that lift, I can’t have a whole sandwich,” she said. “I need just a couple of carrot sticks or some nuts.”

When I interviewed Lovette, in January, she talked about being burned out and wondered about how well she had taken care of herself for years. She swore to be honest with herself. “There are certain things that we need to talk about,” she said. “I’m not home free or always in the right when it comes to how I’ve felt about and treated my body.”

A month later she decided to retire from New York City Ballet after its coming fall season. She is just 29. “I want more control and say in what I get to do and who I get to work with,” she said at the beginning of March. “And I want to make things and to be able to focus on really making them — and not have it be so squeezed into everything that it takes to be a professional ballerina. Because it takes so much.”

Lovette also understands that she can help make ballet better. In the past few years, she has started making a name for herself as a choreographer. That puts her in a rare position to affect change.

“This is so why I wanted to be a choreographer,” she said. “The choreographer has even more power than anybody else because we get to choose who’s in the ballet. Most places I go, I can take anyone in the company. Maybe they’ll nudge and say: ‘Oh, no, no, no, you shouldn’t choose her. You should choose her. She’s better.’ But I can go, ‘No. I want her.’ Every time! And it’s so empowering.”

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