In “What Is a Ballet Body?” Gia Kourlas writes about how the pandemic has made many dancers rethink their relationship to weight:
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.”
The article continues, examining the intersection of race and body image in dance:
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.
Students, read the entire article, then tell us:
What is your reaction to the stories that the dancers shared? Did any of their experiences, revelations or insights resonate with anything you have thought about or felt during the pandemic?
How have sports, the arts, social media or your peers affected your perception of an “ideal” body type? What outside influences most affect your body image and your beliefs about what a body “should” or “could” look like?
How has the pandemic shifted your relationship to your body? Has your body changed at all during this time? Have you begun to think differently about your body? For example, do you pay less or more attention to how you feel physically? Do you feel grateful for your health or do you constantly worry about it? Do you feel less or more pressure to have a “perfect body” right now?
The article examines body image through the lenses of gender and race. What role do you think identity — race, gender, gender presentation, class, ability and so on — plays in body image? What kinds of bodies are typically celebrated in mainstream media and social media? What kinds of bodies are valued in the communities you belong to? How do these standards influence how you think about your body? Have you pushed back against them in any way?
How comfortable do you feel in your body? When do you feel most appreciative of your body? When does your body feel strongest and healthiest? What does having a positive relationship with your body look and feel like for you?
Have you heard, or are you a part, of the body positivity movement, which aims to accept and affirm bodies of all shapes and sizes? Do you feel like this mind-set could be helpful in your understanding, acceptance and appreciation of your own body?
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Students 13 and older in the United States and the United Kingdom, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.