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Ballet Independents' Group (BIG) Forum on Ballet - Body - Image
Royal Festival Hall, London, 24 May 2001

by Emma Pegler

Emma Pegler represented Critical-Dance at the most recent forum hosted by the Ballet Independents’ Group (BIG), an organization founded by Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson that hosts regular discussions on topics relating to ballet.

A panel of experts assembled in a reception room overlooking the Thames at the Royal Festival Hall to open the debate on the question of body image in the ballet world: Julia Buckroyd, teacher and researcher at the University of Hertfordshire and welfare consultant to vocational dance schools, Maina Gielgud, ballerina and former Artistic Director of the Australian and Royal Danish Ballet companies and The Right Honorable Baroness Warnock, philosopher, and mistress of Girton College, Cambridge.

What had prompted the debate was the Keefer case. In November, 2000 Krissy Keefer filed a complaint with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission against San Francisco Ballet (SFB) on behalf of her daughter, Fredrika. The complaint alleged that Fredrika, aged 8, had been refused admission to the San Francisco Ballet School (the School) on the basis of body type, and that this was in contravention of a recent City law enacted to prevent discrimination based on height or weight by any organisation receiving City funding. The School does not receive any such funding but SFB benefits from the City’s ‘Grants for the Arts Programme.’ The complaint, which is a serious one because, if substantiated, could lead to the revocation of City funding from SFB, is still pending. The facts of the case were summarised by Susie Crow and the panel was asked to open the debate by addressing two main issues: the physical aesthetic of ballet – what it is currently perceived to be and how might that evolve – and what are the responsibilities of schools, ballet companies and even the dancers themselves in determining that aesthetic.

Baroness Warnock defended the right of the School to adhere to its published criteria for entry. Julia Buckroyd agreed that dance schools are entitled to select candidates based on their own established criteria. However, this does not mean that those criteria are appropriate nor that they should not change, being too rigid and clinging to an outdated view of the image of ballerina. Is it necessary for ballet for the dancer to be a specific shape or size and what are the limits of shape for basic competence in the dance? This, Buckroyd believes, does not only touch emotional issues such as poor self-image, but also physical issues: a woman who is too thin will not menstruate and will be at a much higher risk of osteoporosis.

Maina Gielgud also defended the SFB School – its published criteria for entry are streamlined to prepare pupils for the main company and for the aesthetic that the director seeks in the dancers. If that is its goal, the School has the right to determine which physique has the highest chance of success in being selected for the company. That then begs the question – could the school be broader in its goals and train dancers for other companies (in the recognition that only a few of the pupils will find places in the company) where the aesthetic for body type may be less exclusive, less rigid? Ms Gielgud, having been in both camps – dancer and selector of dancers – was able to illuminate the discussion with direct experience. There is a greater emphasis on polished performance in dance today over drama, bringing with it the search for the ‘perfect body’. As a result, in the selection of young dancers, matters such as ‘turn-out’ are given precedence over musicality and natural aptitude for dance. Personally, whilst satisfying herself that visually a child could become a classically trained dancer, Gielgud prizes imagination and that need to dance in a child, over physical aptitude. Without those qualities, the audience will not be interested in the finished product.

The emphasis on physical aptitude is such that Gielgud believes that neither she nor many of the great dancers of the past would be successful in entering a good ballet school based on current criteria. She cited the fashion for the ‘six o’clock’ legs and the fact that once the audience’s eye develops a taste for the extremes of physical aptitude, it is hard to modify that. (Of course there is a whole lobby in the ballet world that despises the undignified splitting of the legs in this way, which they believe has robbed ballet of its grace and dignity, but many people are impressed with this athleticism and consider those without it to be inferior dancers.)

The debate that followed concentrated on the ‘ballerina’ on the basis that it is generally in ballet that the dancer’s body is required to conform to a particular size and shape, and that is much more prevalent for the female than male ballet dancer. Balanchine’s predilection for long slender limbs in his female dancers is well-known, for example, and I, myself, cannot think of too many occasions in which well-developed thighs have been a bar to a male ballet dancer getting to the top of his profession. In addition, young women are much more prone to develop eating disorders as a result of trying to maintain a slenderness that a healthy body cannot support.

I was impressed with the diversity of the 30 or so people that had attended the forum – a psychologist who specialises in eating disorders, a physiotherapist with the Royal Ballet, dance teachers and lecturers, a recent graduate from the Royal Ballet School, former Royal Ballet principal, and choreographer, Lynn Seymour, and various people with no real direct experience of dance but with a budding curiosity, to name a few. It meant that the discussion evolved well and touched on all issues involving the body image of dancers.

It was generally thought that, on the strict interpretation of the nature of Krissy Keefer’s complaint, the case could not easily be substantiated. The published criteria for entry into the school are: “The ideal candidate is a healthy child with a well-proportioned, slender body; a straight and supple spine, legs that are well turned out from the hip joint, and correctly arched feet. The child should also have an ear for music and an instinct for movement.” These criteria do not specifically mention height or weight, which is the basis for Keefer’s complaint. There has also been speculation in the media that Krissy Keefer’s background as an activist in feminist issues, may be the motive for putting her daughter in a position where she knew she would fail, thereby providing the opportunity to challenge the accepted norms for the ballerina’s body. Of course this overlooks the fact that Fredrika had a scholarship for SFB’s ‘Dance in Schools Programme’ enabling her to take some classes at the School; we cannot accuse the mother of taking a total outsider into the ballet environment, knowing that she would fail. A dance lecturer from San Francisco defended the seriousness and integrity of Krissy Keefer and a lecturer at Roehampton further defended Keefer’s stance, believing that it raised the need for a broader education in dance schools.

The panel and assembled forum agreed, however, that, whether or not Keefer’s case is successful, the School’s published criteria illustrate the sad truth that for ballet schools, an aptitude for dance is secondary to physical aptitude, which, in itself, prescribes a particular body type. The criteria of the School suggest, for example, that there is such a thing as “correctly arched feet” and, if the child “should also have an ear for music and an instinct for movement,” having a natural ability to dance is clearly a secondary consideration. It was recognised that determining whether an 8 year old has innate talent and will be a good dancer is difficult, but then determining the child’s figure after puberty is equally difficult.

Lynn Seymour widened the debate, making the point that, aside from the problems presented for the dancer vis a vis the prevailing body image, it is counter-productive for the dance world in general; a dance school that places uniformity of body over creativity may ensure that only bodies that can withstand the rigours of the training are selected, but that will inevitably mean that potential choreographers and directors would be lost if they do not have the ‘perfect’ dancer’s body. Schools do not only produce dancers – they are also the training grounds for the creators of dance. In other words, it is the responsibility of dance schools, companies and their artistic directors to recognise that the school is not just a pool of bodies from which to select the perfect dancer for their company – selection for schools should therefore embrace more than a uniform idea of the perfect body.

A teacher from London Studio Centre shared his experiences of selecting dancers, believing that teachers do not have the gift of prophecy as to how well a dancer will progress. The Royal Ballet physiotherapist explained that a dancer with what would generally be perceived as a physical weakness and therefore bar to success, can, with hard work, improve and compensate for those weaknesses and become an outstanding dancer. So, it is also incumbent on the dancers themselves to realistically control their bodies, not to push them by trying to attain the unattainable and thereby perpetuating the idea of a perfect body type, but to play to their strengths and work to overcome any weaknesses. Of course, overcoming weaknesses will depend upon a good teacher recognising such weaknesses, but, as in all walks of life, those with the greatest struggles often become the most successful artists, driven on by sheer determination. A dance teacher from Lewisham College pointed out that there is a responsibility on teachers to build the instrument of dance – the body – and not just teach the steps and style.

A great deal of the debate about the dancer’s body is predicated on the fact that the elite ballet schools are searching for the stars of tomorrow for their companies. In reality only two or three pupils will progress from the Royal Ballet School into the company each year. Where do the others go? Should such schools be providing a broader education, preparing the pupils in the knowledge that the majority will have to seek positions in other ballet companies, pursue other types of dance, or indeed live a life outside of dance? If only a few are ultimately selected for the company, need all pupils selected for the school be of the rigid body type that it is expected will progress to the company – should the schools be allowed to function just on the lines of creating a large pool of uniform dancers from which to draw the lucky three? Should dance schools provide a broader education, both in dance, so that the dancers can move to other forms if not successful in getting into the main company, and generally?

The forum allowed the free-flow of all ideas related to body image in the dance world. It came to no firm conclusions or recommendations, but I think that is appropriate – it raised the issues in a controlled and objective way, heightening awareness of the pressures on young dancers and supporting the idea that dance is about dance; the perfection of the instrument of dance should not become paramount.

A full transcript of the proceedings will be available. To obtain a copy, e-mail Susie Crow at susiecrow@easynet.co.uk or Jennifer Jackson at jenjackma@aol.com.

 

Please join a discussion on this topic in our forum.

Edited by Azlan Ezaddin.

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