In this three part series, Junior Girl and ballet dancer Georgia Licence examines the aesthetics of race and body in the ballet industry. In this second post, she looks at ballet bodies and the unrelenting strive for perfection, and how ballerinas experience the beauty demands of society at a heightened level. You can read the first post here.
The previous blog post in this series focussed on the white aesthetic ideals of Romantic era ballet and the Ballet Blanc. Within this blog post, I am looking to expand upon these ideas and place more focus on the concept of the ‘Ideal Ballet Body’. I studied this concept in my third year at university, interviewing many female dancers about what the words ‘ideal ballet body’ meant to them.
The female body has been scrutinised and objectified throughout history and in all of our day to day lives. Unfortunately, you can ask any girl and she will have experience of this, whether that be in the ballet environment or more generally.
The ideal ballet body is a continuation of the aesthetic attitude of the Ballet Blanc, propagating socially and culturally conditioned beauty ideals. The white aesthetics of ballet do not just stop at the level of the performances, they are perpetuated all the way through to the level of the individual ballerinas and their bodies.
We can all recognise the concept of external scrutiny, and pressures for our body to look a certain way. This is magnified in the ballet world as teachers, audiences, and even the mirrors lining the ballet studios, tell you that the way you look is not good enough.
In my research, the girls were asked to draw the ‘Ideal ballet body’ and their drawings were all almost identical. Each illustrated ballerina featured long, slender legs, a small chest, narrow shoulders and fair skin. The labels that accompanied these drawings were meticulously detailed, exemplifying the degree to which the ‘ideal ballet body’ is indeed a very specific type of body.
It could be argued that this strict set of ideals could be justified as professional dancers’ bodies will transform and adapt according to the techniques they frequently engage with. This would suggest that any ballerina training at a high enough level will begin to resemble these ideals over time due to their training. Additionally, ballet demands a great deal of natural capacity in terms of flexibility and turn-out. This means that those who make it to the professional level will already possess these characteristics and will have been able to cope with the physical and technical demands of the dance style.
On the other hand, ballet has been known to take this to extreme lengths, and anyone who does not resemble an element of this ideal body will be marginalised. Ballet teachers are renowned for being strict, and many of the girls in my research recounted stories of where their teachers told them that they were too big, or where they were sent to the back of the class or the back of the stage to make space for the more classical looking ballerinas in the front.
Training in a leotard and in a room full of mirrors makes bodies highly visible, and external critiques are responsible for reinforcing the demands of this ‘perfect body’. A dancer’s body is their aesthetic project, and dancers will go to great lengths to look the way the industry demands them to. Though eating disorders are a very significant and upsetting outcome of these ideals, here we are focussing on the racial issues this phenomenon creates.
It is interesting to realise that ballerina bodies are, as with the wider aesthetics of the ballets themselves, a product of the cultural context in which it originated. Ballet originated in the French and Italian renaissance courts and, therefore, was predominantly engaged with by white-European people. The aesthetics mentioned earlier, including fair skin, are white-European features.
Ballerina bodies are difficult enough to achieve even if you are white-European, so for those not displaying these characteristics, the battle to obtain the ‘ideal ballet body’ is even more difficult. In 2017, there were 447 professional dancers in America, and only 7 of these were black women.
One of the participants in my research told me how she felt out of place in a ballet class environment surrounded by white girls, and that her teacher told her she would never be able to become a professional dancer as she would develop larger breasts and bottom than the other girls. The buttocks symbolises the dichotomy between European and African aesthetic values. The positive cultural values attached to different body parts are neglected in the ballet world and these figures are made to feel undesirable. The idolisation of slim and fair dancers entirely disregards the beauty ideals of the African diaspora, for example. Equally, the expectations of a sleek ballet bun are difficult to achieve when you do not have long, straight hair. One girl told me how she used to burn her hair to achieve the look, and how she had a friend who bought a clip-in ‘ballet bun’, but that it scraped her scalp when she put it in. Additionally, black professional dancers have been seen to powder their skin and contour their features to appear white-European and fit in with the corps.
These stories illustrate the way that strive the ideal ballet body is unrelenting, and anyone who does not look that way will go to extreme lengths in order to change themselves. It is astonishing that, even in the twenty-first century, we are turning to the Romantic era as an ideal.
Girl Museum Inc.
Part 3 of this series will look into the future with optimism and with some examples of how things may be beginning to change.
19th century ballet bodies were different from today’s and the skill level is much higher so it is already different. But the allure of classical ballet remains the idealized body moving in idealized ways, whatever the color. Built into the very core of ballet is the strive for flexibility, length, line, technique, musicality. Why would audiences pay to see less than that?