Diana Feil on Unsplash

Is Ballet Abusive? The Dark Side Of A Beloved Sport

Ad failed to load

For many kids, dancing is a powerful way to find confidence in themselves. For parents, it's a presumed safe space for kids. I love ballet. I attended an arts high school, where dancers of incredible grace and artistry shone onstage, transcendent. But many dancers also counted calories, or spooned mustard and cucumbers onto their trays for lunch. In the dorm room I'd inherited, I could make out the scratchings of a tormented soul — found another rib today. So happy. Next door, a dancer wept over her feet. She knew that without surgery to remove the imperfect arch, she'd never make it professionally. To my astonishment, she elected for surgery, and smiled on crutches.

At the gym, I watch little girls march off to class next door like porcelain soldiers, hair pulled tight enough to ache, pink tights accentuating sinew, and wonder if ballet class will make them stronger or weaker. If it will build them up, or tear them down. What I love about the art form — the discipline, the athleticism, the centuries-old techniques brought to life — often comes with a cost. When is art worth the price, and when should you pull your daughter out of class? Just how abusive is ballet, really? Romper took a deep dive into the world en pointe.

The Instructor

"Anything that has a competitive element — dance, gymnastics, even sports — if you have a coach who’s not being loving and supportive, it’s very easy to internalize it, and think there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not good enough," Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, a former dancer who now treats body image issues at RevitaLife Therapy, tells Romper.

Ad failed to load

It takes ten years to make a dancer, explains Noelle Rose Andressen, director of Rubans Rouges Dance, and while her experiences were mostly positive, she didn't come through entirely unscathed. "I'd see my instructor's face wrinkle up with scorn," she tells Romper, and often teachers implied that losing weight would lead to better roles (no matter that she was thin already). Such experiences inform her teaching today.

Ballet is an art at which you will fail every day.

"You don't put somebody down," Andressen says sternly. "You don't drop the hint that a dancer has to lose weight, otherwise she's no good. I was fortunate. I had a grandmother who took me to my classes when I was young, and she made sure that I was treated well, the best she could."

Ad failed to load
Courtesy of Chicago Dance Therapy

When I ask her about the recent gymnastics scandal, in which a coach was fired after video became public of him forcing 13-year-old gymnast into the splits while she cried out, Andressen hisses with dismay. "That will never happen on my watch or in my company," she says. At Rubans Rouges Dance, she follows a "two-finger policy," using only two fingers to adjust a dancer. "You should be gentle, never applying pressure, because you can injure a person, and not even realize it," she explains. "And then we have a no-touch zone, which we let parents know about. It's very important with what's going on in gymnastics."

Andressen believes parents have a responsibility to vet any studio before they enroll. She also recommends asking teachers about their personal philosophy, and the school's philosophy, too. If they have a handbook, be sure to read it. If they don't — well, that might be a red flag, she explains.

Ad failed to load

Ballet — a discipline which straddles the aesthetic and the athletic — attracts girls in large numbers. As such, instructors, parents, and coaches must take care that their emotional and physical development is looked after. The right teacher will never manipulates a dancer like a marionette.

"Being forced into anything when you're not ready, physically or emotionally, is traumatizing," explains dance therapist Erica Hornthal, of Chicago Dance Therapy. "When I was younger, I wasn't a great gymnast," she tells me. "I remember sitting in splits, and they would push on our hips to increase the stretch. I was never injured. It wasn't debilitating. But there's this resistance. Something didn't feel right ... It can be scary for a child. She can suddenly realize, 'this person has more power over me than I do.'"

Courtesy of Chicago Dance Therapy
Ad failed to load

Additionally, too much focus on the body when a dancer is very young can leave psychological scars, according to therapist Samantha Drazin, LMHC. "You teach them that their self-worth is bound in the shape of their shoulder-blades, or how much fat you can pinch on their back ... It extends beyond just the abuse in the studio. It has lifelong consequences."

The Hunger

"I danced so much I had very low body fat. I looked very young when I was 20. I remember one girl who developed breasts, and the teacher said, you're the wrong body for ballet," Hershenson tells Romper.

Ad failed to load
Pixabay

Here are the facts: 16.4 percent of female ballet dancers develop some form of eating disorder, according to an article in the European Eating Disorders Review. That's nearly five times the rate of the general population. Nevertheless, Hershenson doesn't blame ballet: "This is the thing. For somebody to really develop a full-blown eating disorder, it's genetics plus environment." She tells me that dancers turn to cigarettes or cocaine to avoid feeling hunger. That warning signs may be a young girl in baggy clothes, withdrawing from her friends.

"Ballet wasn't the reason," explains Johanna Kandel, also a former dancer and the founder of Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness. "There were many factors that caused the perfect storm. But I will tell you that the trigger pull was prepping to audition for a company production of The Nutcracker. The director came in and basically said we all needed to lose weight."

Ad failed to load

Ironically, many of the traits that make a good dancer — constant striving, an all-or-nothing attitude, people pleasing, perfectionism — are also conducive to an eating disorder for those with an underlying susceptibility, notes Kandel. After a decade of struggle, she finally got the treatment she needed, but she couldn't continue with ballet. "That was probably the biggest loss of my life," she says. "I remember being 8 and telling my mother that if I can't dance, I don't want to live."

Kandel has been an activist for 17 years. Today, the ballet studio is her favorite place to speak. "It was the norm for dancers to live on coffee and cigarettes. I tell them that to be successful, you need to nourish your body."

Johanna Kandel speaks about the dangers of eating disorders. Photo courtesy of The Alliance For Eating Disorders Awareness
Ad failed to load

For very young dancers, there's a grace period, "a unique and non-affected place," for dietician Justine Roth, MS, RD, CDN. Her 3-year-old, enrolled in ballet, comes home proud because her belly is the biggest. For her and many tiny ballerinas like her, it's just fun, especially if they get healthy messages from adults around them.

"But then, somewhere along the way, things get sticky," Roth tells Romper. "I see it as early as 8. Girls heavily comparing themselves to other dancers, counting carbs ... the highest spike in eating disorder behavior is actually right before puberty."

Malnutrition at these ages can delay puberty and therefore stunt growth, she explains. Lack of menstruation is a major problem that may compromise bone health and future fertility. She's heard some horrific stories of dance teachers promoting starvation.

Ad failed to load

"I had someone tell me once that the director of her company opened up her fridge, and it was empty. He said to the class, that's what all your refrigerators should look like. They were only 11. Actually," Roth pauses. "There was a death in that company."

Ballet didn't always fetishize the anorexic ideal. For Dr. Jennifer Fisher, a ballet historian at UC Irvine, Claire Trevor School of the Arts, the emaciated look is a phenomenon of the last 30 or 40 years. She tells me ballet dancers in the 19th century — of whom there are only sketches — were flattered to be called "plump."

"Ballet has its roots in royal courts, as a display of manners, grace, and power," Fisher explains. "It developed as an art form, and then required athleticism, which started to dictate a body type ... I'm not talking about the thinness we see today. They're underweight today, and I don't like it."

Ad failed to load
All dance reflects the culture in which it develops. It's also capable of embodying and suggesting new ideas.

Ballet is a conservative art form, according to Fisher, and slow to change. A certain body type, a certain skin tone. Such ideals are protected by institutions that believe an elite art has nothing to do with politics or social justice movements. Just three weeks ago, Fisher attended a performance of the Mariinsky Ballet in Orange County. The curtain was emblazoned with a character in blackface.

"All dance reflects the culture in which it develops," explains Fisher. "It's also capable of embodying and suggesting new ideas."

Ad failed to load
Pexels

The Mirror

"I teach dance majors, and I see the looks on their face when I say, ballet is an art at which you will fail every day. They say, yeah. Nobody says that, but yeah. We fail every day," says Fisher. She goes on to say that if you train with that understanding, and if you have a strong, positive home life that helps you feel worthwhile as a human being, you can stand up to ballet's demands:

Ad failed to load

"Every day in the mirror, you have your little failures, but you also succeed every day. You develop the ability to understand you'll never be perfect, but this art form, if you love it, will give you something to strive for," says Fisher.

On the other hand, if the mirror reflects poor support, or a lagging spirit that doubts her own worth, you'll see a dangerous distortion.

"The mirror can be several things," Andressen says. "It can be a wonderful tool ... you can also become so attached you don't know how to break away. You're looking at yourself in the mirror and at other dancers, and you're comparing your reflection to theirs."

Ad failed to load

Andressen consciously teaches the proper use of the mirror. Likewise, ballet must be approached carefully, and with some reverence. "Dance is always the mistress that you're chasing. It's an unnatural form of perfection that very few can inhabit and reach. It's so elusive, this mistress. It's like a siren's call."

I'd see my instructor's face just wrinkle up with scorn.

Dancers can answer that call in different ways, according to their personality, in-born resilience, and indeed, the tools they've learned while dancing. "The healthy dancers, the way they describe it is that when they dance, it’s not them," says Hershenson. "They become a character, they become another person. They’re able to step outside themselves." When these dancers judge their image in the mirror, they judge their practice of an art. They understand that no mirror can reflect their intrinsic worth.

Ad failed to load
Pixabay

The Injuries

Dancers earn physical scars suprisingly early. Dr. Derek Ochiai of the Virginia Sportsmedicine Institute is a medical consultant for the Washington Ballet, specializing in hip issues. "Ballet ... puts a ton of stress on the hip, forcing external rotation, where you put your legs into positions that 95 percent of the population can't manage," he tells Romper. Cartilage and Achilles tendon tears, hip flexor strains, and foot and ankle issues are par for the course. Dancers also get concussions, and male dancers develop upper extremity problems.

Ad failed to load

Unfortunately, such injuries aren't limited to seasoned professionals. In the past year, Ochiai has seen at least three dancers, just 15 or 16 years old, with hip injuries so severe they required surgery.

Victor Vic/Rubans Rouges Dance

What exacerbates these injuries is the fact that young dancers don't always report them, because they want to keep dancing. "I've had several dancers tell me ballet is their life, and they're 14 years old," says Ochiai. "With other athletes, we talk about cross training. Each season, do something different. Ballet isn't really like that. It's truly a yearlong thing."

Ad failed to load
If you have a weak sense of self, different types of mental disorders may emerge.

Recently, Ochiai gave a talk about stress fractures, a number of which are the result of osteopenia or osteoporosis. "That can be hormonal, or it can be the result of extreme dieting," he explains.

Psychologically, even a recoverable injury can be devastating. For Dr. Miriam Rowan, Psy.D., who practices clinical sport and performance psychology at Amplify Wellness + Performance in the Greater Boston Area, an injury can also be an opportunity for growth. But how do you teach a young dancer that? "Resilience is important," Dr. Rowan says. "If you have a weak sense of self, different types of mental disorders may emerge." In her practice, she emphasizes balance — spending time with peers who aren't dancers, and being mindful of the present moment.

Ad failed to load

The Stage

Rowan considers dance an incredibly enriching experience, and many of the interviewees refer to ballet in romantic terms — as their first love. As does Melissa Musen Gerstein, who danced for almost 20 years. She's now the co-founder of the multi-media company The MOMS. "Dance has a wonderful impact on girls. It gives you the most invaluable tools for life," she tells Romper.

Courtesy of Melissa Musen Gerstein
Ad failed to load

Ballet has the potential to strengthen a person, to give them an outlet for fantasy, creation, and expression. Everyone I spoke to was hopeful that ballet would continue to become more inclusive and more human, especially for younger dancers. Rowan tells me that American Ballet Theatre (ABT) recently put together a pedagogy to distribute nationwide. She's excited about their decision to incorporate mental health and wellness into the curriculum. "It's a real evolution for dance," she says.

You develop the ability to understand you'll never be perfect, but this art form, if you love it, will give you something to strive for.

Personally, I find it inspiring that so many former dancers entered fields that serve the next generation of dancers — as critics, therapists, and activists. But as Fisher reminds me, change comes slowly to ballet:

Ad failed to load

"Nowadays, when you enter the Royal Ballet School, or schools in Russia and China, they measure you. They meet your parents, they look at your teeth, and test your bones to see if you're worth investing in, like thoroughbred horses. A lot of people say we're missing something. None of us who trained years ago can believe what they're doing now ... these people are superhuman. But do you they know why they're dancing?"

Misty Copeland performs. Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The pendulum between artistry and athleticism may have swung towards the Olympians for now. Yet everyone continues to look for the spark of an artist, and not every girl who dances needs to aspire to the life of a prima ballerina. Long after dance, the joy and love remain. If our daughters want to take ballet, and if they continue to feel passionate and empowered in their classes, they should dance. They should also remember — and family and friends remind them — that they are more than a vessel for daunting techniques, and that they don't have to suffer silently.

Ad failed to load

A dancer's body is an instrument she alone has the power to control, nourish, and, as an artist, transcend.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

8 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say That, Yes, You Are Their Favorite

For a baby to show a preference for a specific person is not only normal, but an essential part of their development. Babies need to form strong attachments to their caregivers for their emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Usually, but not alw…
By Kimmie Fink

10 Reasons Why I Won't Apologize For Giving My Toddler A Pacifier

My first child had no interest in a pacifier. I tried a couple times to get him to take one, but he always spat them out and gave me an incredulous, judgmental look. But my second? It was love at first suckle. And after a while, the incredulous, judg…
By Jamie Kenney

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at Names.org recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

7 Things A Mom Really Means When She Says She Doesn't Want Anything On Mother's Day

Every year my family asks me what I want for Mother's Day, and every single year I tell them the same thing: Nothing. So, by now, they know that when I say "nothing" I absolutely do not mean "nothing." In fact, there are more than a few things a mom …
By Candace Ganger

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

8 Fascinating Facts About Babies Born In May, The Luckiest Month Of All

The height of all things fresh and springy, May is an excellent month to have a baby. It's a time of growth, graduations, and outdoor celebrations. And these fascinating facts about May babies will give you more reasons than ever to appreciate childr…
By Lindsay E. Mack

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

Here's The Right Birth Method For You, According To Your Zodiac Sign

If you're pregnant, you've probably given childbirth some serious thought. Some moms-to-be prepare a meticulous birth plan, while others are comfortable just going with the flow. And me? Well, I made a plan... but that plan was useless when faced wit…
By Steph Montgomery

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills
)}