Challenges and Struggles
The curtains open, beautiful and elegant dancers in tutus portray princesses, fairies, swans. Accompanied by fierce princes, they move around, turn, wave their arms in precise uniformity. But behind the scenes, costumes, and makeups, dancers endure an extremely physically and mentally demanding occupation which requires effortless perfection.
The Perfectionism Epidemic
“Perfect is the horizon that vanishes as you approach it,” writes Kathleen McGuire, former dancer and author at Dance Magazine. Yet, dancers feel enormous pressure to adhere to standards that are rooted in the dance system, especially in ballet.
Research has shown high levels of perfectionism in dancers. This leaves them vulnerable to anxiety, feeling of inadequacy, and eating disorders.
This is because, as a physical art form, dance involves a mental and emotional toll. Additionally, it requires the artists to spend hours in front of a mirror, comparing themselves to idealised targets and dozens of others.
The Relationship with the Body
“On a surface level, people say that the aesthetic, the body types are changing, that they’re promoting healthier bodies. There might be instances where the environment seems less toxic. But there’s still a big issue, especially with body image. Because in a lot of companies, it’s still the skinniest that gets the role,” affirms Romy Adair, dancer and founder of ‘The Hard Corps’ podcast.
Adair created her podcast ‘The Hard Corps’ as a safe space to have open conversations with professionals in the dance industry. “Body image, body dysmorphia, eating disorders. 80% of the guests on my podcast have struggled with it, if not all of them.”
The system surrounding the dance world isn’t horrific as depicted in films like “Black Swan” with Natalie Portman, or “Tiny Pretty Things” on Netflix. However, in an age that promotes diversity, inclusion, and self-love, dance culture still portrays of the perfectly lean ballerina as an icon.
Damaging Power Dynamics
While alarming, this fits into dance’s long history of misogyny. In the 1930s, George Balanchine, the father of the American Ballet, created a legacy that sought to exert control over female bodies. This control was on their emaciation, but also i the form of disproportionate male leadership in a female-dominated field. Indeed, artistic directors and teachers in most companies are men.
Directors take advantage of the imbalanced power dynamics between the staff and the dancers. Since students start training, they learn to accept harsh criticism and even hitting from their instructors without questioning. Mistreatment is perceived as inevitable in the dance community and is justified as “it’s just the way ballet is.”
A Hyper Competitive Field
In an industry that’s saturated with dancers for few contracts available, coaches and directors hold unchecked influence on very young students for long periods of time. As such, dancers are willing to endure mistreatment and even abuse because of their love for the art and for fear of losing their jobs.
“Dancers would do anything to get a job. It gets to a point when you want it so much that you just put up with anything,” affirms dancer Romy Adair. “Even me, I’d dance for free at this point. I don’t want to do anything else.”
Martina Ganora, contemporary dancer at the MAS Company in Milan, says that the modern and contemporary styles of dance are more accepting and inclusive. Yet, contemporary and modern dancers like her are still victims of psychological abuses.
Has the Dance World Become More Democratic?
Social media, the Internet and TV are allowing dance to become more accessible. Fusions of styles are making the industry more inclusive to all people. However, ballet is often considered a niche art. It was created for the elites, and it still largely is.
“The ballet world is stuck in an old mentality just doing the classics. Most new ballets look the same and have no connection with the times we live in,” suggests Jade Hale Christofi, dancer, choreographer, and director.
Through his choreography to the song ‘Take Me to Church’ by Hozier, starring ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, Christofi reached nearly 30 million views.
“’Take Me to Church’ showed that people don’t even have to know what ballet is. But, in its rawest form, it can touch anyone. It’s more important to put something inspiring for young dancers on stage than showing something that has no relevance for the audiences,” explains Christofi.
Pieces like this “allow audiences to open their eyes to different ways of seeing ballet and different kinds of people performing,” concludes Renako McDonald, modern dancer, teacher, and choreographer.