Back when I was a non-aspiring dance student, there was tremendous controversy about how incredibly skinny some ballet dancers were. Quickly this got translated into just “ballet dancers,” and thus, “ballet dancer” became synonymous with “anorexic.”
Of course if you apply this as a blanket description of all ballet dancers, it couldn’t be further from the truth. I’ve always eaten like a horse and never gained an ounce. This is both good and bad; while I was a good clothes-horse when I was younger, I’m also now afflicted with early-onset osteoporosis. I’m sure the same is true of others who are built the same way. So yes, people like us do exist, and I have no doubt a lot of them become dancers.
What’s amusing is that at the time, I remember reading quotes from European and Russian dance figures that the preoccupation with weight was…sniff…an American obsession that the sniffers themselves could not be bothered with. Funny that nowadays, dancers in many U.S. companies look downright round compared to dancers in some companies in France and Russia.
A Russian-trained American choreographer/teacher, Eric Conrad, once gave us the formula that is currently used in Russia to determine whether a ballerina is fat. I don’t remember the formula, but I think it translated into something like this: a 5’6″ dancer can only weigh about 90 pounds. Now, don’t shout that from the rooftops. I’m going on memory here, and you know what my memory is like.
Anyway, that’s pretty alarming. Yet Conrad, while admitting that such a formula is a bit extreme, says that proper training can lead to the proper proportions. And indeed, this seems to have worked for someone like Joy Womack. She was never fat, but now she looks like she hasn’t a quarter-ounce of pudge anywhere. And yet, she seems healthy. This is the thing with most Russian dancers: you rarely hear reports of anorexia (of course, there may be other reasons for that), but yet, the dancers are exceedingly thin. I did once read something about Lopatkina’s diet consisting largely of grapefruit, but who knows how true that is? Not very, I would think.
That said, I don’t believe that proper training is the entire answer. As mentioned, most Russian (and French) dancers are very thin. But these days some are crossing the line into the realm of ‘skeletal,’ and in my view that cannot mean they are healthy. On the other end of the spectrum, I think there are some people who are “fat” (and I do put that in quotes) and that’s that. That is to say that I think there are people who are just “big boned” and will never fit the body type currently demanded for dancers. Do I think that should stop them from having dance careers? No. Not completely. Of course, one has to adhere to an expected body type — but in the U.S., that is hardly anorexic. There are some very athletic-looking ballerinas here currently, and to us in the U.S., they look just fine. I am far more comfortable watching them than I am watching a stage-full of skeletal creatures whom one can’t help thinking may be about to gracefully collapse into a large pile of bones.
Back in the day George Balanchine was the big bad wolf of U.S. ballet, the one who demanded that his ballerinas have bones sticking out in their chests. And yes, you did hear a lot about anorexia back in those days. There was a dancer during that period that I recall hearing about; apparently she was existing on one can of green beans a day. And she wasn’t the only one.
But yet, looking back through an ABT program from that time, there is only one dancer who definitely looks like there is something going on with her diet — as in, way too skinny. The rest look downright fleshed out compared to today’s dancers, who still look boldly athletic compared to some of their European/Russian counterparts. (I don’t have an NYCB program from the same period.)
Natalia Makarova did mention in her autobiography that she lost a lot of weight after her defection; she referred to her old Soviet-era body as “soft.” So there may be something to it — maybe weight standards in the U.S. were once more stringent than they were in Europe and the old Soviet Union of the same period.
Looking further back in time, you see what would be interpreted today as outright obesity. I read one (unintentionally) hilarious article that blamed this on the very modest clothing the dancers wore way back when, which, the author claimed, prevented teachers from teaching properly because mistakes were hidden. Therefore, the ballerinas of yore got away with having huge thighs and rear ends. (Yes…but somehow they also had very visible breasts, and as far as I know, ballet training by itself does not create the currently longed-for flat chest.)
No. In truth, the women back in the days of yore were just bigger (horizontally). So were the men who had to lift those women. I’m guessing that having very trim men leads to extremely trim women, particularly if those women are tall — although, years ago, I recall reading a quote from a male dancer who said that actually, the bigger women were easier to partner because they had more strength.
But still, I’m a bit troubled by the sight of near-skeletal beings onstage, and wonder how much further this can go, and what the effects will be on dancers if they are compelled to be ever-more skinny. I wonder, in fact, if that is even possible.