Redefining the ballet body
What constitutes a "ballet body"? Dancer Catherine Wells is calling for a new definition, one that frees ballet from the shackles of physical uniformity.
“You know why I called you in here don’t you?”
I was 23. She was the artistic director. I didn’t know, but she held the inadequacies of my body to be so self-evident that it didn’t need explaining.
“We want you to be leaner. More muscular.”
I looked down at the muscles stretching across my tight abdomen, my calves so strong that they defied confinement by even the most lenient of knee high boots. I knew I wasn’t fat. I was fit and healthy.
“Maybe you are the kind of person who has to eat salad when other people get to eat sandwiches,” she said.
Not even ice-cream, or hamburgers, or doughnuts. I was being denied a sandwich. I knew in that moment what I had suspected since I entered the world of dance at the age of seven. I knew that I would never look like a “ballet dancer".
That night, I cried deep and heartbroken tears and then I quit my job dancing for that company. It took me years to set foot back in a studio to dance.
I was always aware that dancers are encouraged to look a certain way. I have lost track of how many times I was told to lose weight over the course of my training. The negative body image narrative around me was constant, from teachers to fellow dancers. I was humiliated in front of a classroom of peers, the teacher pointing out that while I was more capable than another, slimmer dancer, she would be the one to get a job. I went through the sometimes agonisingly awkward, self-conscious years of a teenage girl being told at every turn that my body wasn't right. I had fellow dancers refuse to partner me because I was too heavy. Even in positive reviews of my dancing, my body was always commented on, pointedly acknowledged, set apart as “real”, or “different”. Almost as if I could dance in spite of it, instead of because of it.
Dancing is my preferred form of expression, and my passion. It is also my livelihood. I care deeply about the trajectory of this art form and wholeheartedly believe in its value. Here’s the confusing part: I am a ballet dancer, so shouldn’t that mean that I look like one?
My body has allowed me to experience some of my greatest joys.
I can dance the way I do because of my uniqueness and muscular strength. Lessening that musculature for aesthetic reasons would impact my strength, and in turn, my ability. Any person who dances and performs will understand the courage and vulnerability it takes to express yourself through your body in front of an audience.
So, for my fellow dancers and teachers out there, here is what I have learned through these experiences and what I believe:
There is no such thing as a “dancer’s body.” There is no such thing as a “real body”. All bodies are real. If you dance, you have a dancer’s body.
There is not one person in the world who can dance like you. You are completely unique and irreplaceable. The world of dance is only made richer by the unbounded diversity of the bodies in it.
Ballet is my first love. I adore the exquisite precision of a well-trained ballet dancer. I love teaching the intricacies of technique and elegance that are the foundations of ballet, and I passionately believe in the structure, artistry and kinetic intelligence that it fosters.
But I believe that far more important than the seemingly non-negotiable qualifying characteristics of the “ballet body”, are the qualities of determination, discipline, passion and courage. The only thing that matters is whether or not you want to dance. If the answer is yes, nobody can stop you from doing it. Ballet dancers, all dancers, are amazing athletes and athletes come in all shapes and sizes.
My plea is that we honour the evolution of this art form by fostering all possibilities for progress and expansion. Let us unite in a common purpose that allows dance to flourish with unfettered creativity and diversity, not confined by the antiquated and limiting aesthetic of physical uniformity in dancers’ bodies. There is room for every single body in dance, even in ballet.
As my first ballet teacher once said to me and I have never forgotten,
“Go woman, you were born to dance.”
ABOUT Catherine Wells
Catherine Wells is a lecturer in classical ballet at Adelaide College of the Arts in South Australia. She is also a company teacher for Australian Dance Theatre and a teacher at Terry Simpson Studios in Adelaide. Catherine has over 17 years experience dancing professionally and teaching in Australia and the US.
Pictured top is Catherine Wells. Photo: Chris Herzfeld, Camlight Productions.