The Costs and Contradictions of Ballet

The Costs and Contradictions of Ballet

Mind and Body

The domineering logic of ballet.


In December of 2017, a #MeToo scandal rocked the ballet world. Peter Martins, the artistic director of New York City Ballet, stepped down from his position amid allegations of sexual harassment and physical abuse from within the company. The accusations included incidents that dated back to early in his tenure as director in the 1990s: Martins was alleged to have physically assaulted one dancer onstage in front of the whole company, exposed himself to another in his dressing room, and misused his position of power to receive sexual favors. After a two-month investigation, New York City Ballet and its affiliated institution, the School of American Ballet, issued a statement that their findings “did not corroborate the allegations of harassment or violence” against him. By then, Martins had quietly exited the scene after announcing his retirement early in the new year.

Within months, the reverberations were being felt across the dance world. In March 2018, Kenneth Greve, the director of the Finnish National Ballet, was removed from his managerial position over accusations of inappropriate conduct. The following month, in an anonymous internal survey at the Paris Opera Ballet, 77 percent of its dancers said they’d been the object of verbal harassment or had witnessed a colleague being verbally harassed, and 26 percent reported either being the victim of or a witness to sexual harassment at work. In the fall of 2018, Alexandra Waterbury, a former student at the School of American Ballet, filed a suit against New York City Ballet and Chase Finlay, one of the company’s principal dancers and her former boyfriend. Waterbury accused Finlay of sharing sexually explicit photos of her with other male dancers, and she accused the company of not only encouraging a “fraternity-like atmosphere” that “permeates the Ballet and its dancers” but failing to protect her and other women. In 2020, her claims against the company and the school were dropped, though in April 2022 a New York appellate court reinstated New York City Ballet as a defendant in the case.

As much of the outside world looked on with shock and dismay, many dancers—including myself—looked on with a combination of relief and regret. Relief because accountability appeared to be at hand for things that we knew were all too pervasive; regret because we wondered why it had taken so long.

As a ballet dancer for almost 30 years, I am intimately familiar with the expectation of suffering in silence. We smile while bearing the full weight of our body en pointe for hours. “Blood builds character,” one of my teachers said when he noticed a dancer’s toes beginning to bleed through her shoe. Yet ballet isn’t training to endure sustained agony in the body alone; it is also training to endure it in the mind. We learn to accept, even with gratitude, one of the most valuable currencies of the trade: relentless criticism of our technique, our bodies, our entire selves. And we all have stories of that one person we encountered at some point—the teacher wielding a cane, the choreographer who slapped a dancer so hard it left a welt on her skin, the ballet mistress who made you balance a cup of water on your head to correct your posture, the ballet master who held a lit cigarette under a dancer’s leg to get her extension higher. It took #MeToo for many of us to recognize that these were more than just familiar stories; they were symptoms of an institutional and cultural disorder that we repeatedly ignored.

Ellen O’Connell Whittet’s What You Become in Flight and Alice Robb’s Don’t Think, Dear are two memoirs that tell of the costs and contradictions of being a ballet dancer and also reflect more broadly on the difficulties of reconciling feminist ideals with a culture that glorifies hyperfemininity. In charting their paths through ballet and ultimately to careers as writers, the authors of these two books offer complementary approaches to the subject. What You Become in Flight is Whittet’s debut book and the bridge between her careers as a dancer and as a writer. Her conventionally structured memoir chronicles the beginnings of her dance training in London, the intensification of her career at various schools in California and across the United States, a career-ending injury, and her path to physical and emotional recovery in a post-ballet life. Journalist Alice Robb has written numerous articles on psychology, mental health, and ballet culture, and her first book, Why We Dream, examined the phenomena of lucid dreaming and overcoming trauma. Don’t Think, Dear (the title comes from an oft-cited remark by the famed 20th-century choreographer George Balanchine) echoes these themes by blending dance history, sports psychology, and meditations on her ballet training, including three years at the School of American Ballet. Robb not only excavates her relationship with the art form but also grapples with the moral ambiguities surrounding ballet icons and the hidden ways that ballet training carries over into one’s life beyond the studio.

Read together, the two books do more than pull back the curtain on ballet as a technique and an institutional culture. They also reveal the construction of a ballerina’s psyche and the challenges of learning and unlearning the physical and mental habits that ballet teaches women: to endure pain as a virtue, to wholly submit their bodies to the art, and to accept their pain and submission as normal.

Learning the formal codes of the technique dominates a ballerina’s early training. “All art demands our time and bodies,” Whittet writes, “but unlike other art forms, like writing, dance allows someone to devote themselves to it as soon as she can walk.”

A young dancer will spend an entire 60-to-90-minute class repeating the basic positions and foundational vocabulary: first position, second position, third, fourth, fifth; pliés, tendus, jetés, ronds de jambe. Within a matter of years, the dancer is able to translate a verbal sequence into a physical motion picture; mind and body work simultaneously to decode language in one form and recode it in another. The sequence of the barre warm-up, the position of the legs and corresponding position of the arms, the grammar of steps, the etiquette of finishing a combination using one side of the body and then starting a new side—these codes are chiseled into the dancer’s body and etched into the mind. They are legible in the dancer’s carriage, the space between the fingertips, the gait that yields to the earth while also pressing away from it.

Ballet is full of contradictions. The dancer must take every effort to make everything look effortless. Repetition and ritual are, as Robb notes, the source of an extreme sense of escape and sense of control. “Even as the trappings of ballet—the competition, the impossible physical standards, the punishing hours—can be a source of profound anxiety and distress,” she writes, “ballet itself—the movement, the music, the choreography—is simultaneously a salve for these emotions.”

The discipline required of ballet is more than just a source of tension or admiration. Discipline is productive: It quite literally creates the dancer. Reading these two accounts of the rituals of training, it is hard not to think of Foucault’s notion of discipline in Discipline and Punish, which “produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile bodies.’” Discipline seeks to enhance the dancer’s body as a set of capacities and aptitudes—sharper dégagés, higher extensions, loftier grand jetés—while simultaneously rendering a form of power and control over its subject.

Ballet’s disciplinary power over the body and the mind, and the dancer’s role in relationships of subjection and submission, are among the unifying themes in these two books. Surveillance and self-scrutiny are central to their narratives as well as to a ballet class. Dancers are taught to constantly check their bodies, to “self-correct,” as Robb recalls of her years in ballet class; they are taught to “look in the mirror and scan for flaws,” and through their own surveillance and self-scrutiny conform with the expectations and wishes of others. Robb recalls how even as a young dancer, she became obsessed not only with her reflection in the mirror but with an internal perception of her body. Training a dancer to understand her body and ultimately control it requires not sterile anatomical labels but “luscious metaphors of food and everyday life.” Robb “imagined tea cups on my shoulders; how my legs felt light if I lifted from underneath.” Other features of a typical ballet class reinforce the dynamics of surveillance. An instructor paces alongside the students, an omniscient giver and reminder of countless corrections. The form-fitting uniform of a leotard and tights forgives nothing, and the mirrors serve as a reminder that the dancer is always exposed to someone’s watchful eyes, whether the teacher’s, the audience’s, her classmates’, or, eventually, her own. This kind of power, Foucault writes, “has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes.” The dancer subjects herself not just to the domination of another person but to a tradition and the discipline it requires.

To learn ballet, therefore, is to learn to embody this form of power. There is power in creating new physical capacities, of course. There are few things that make me feel as powerful as when I am taking off for a grand jeté or finishing a series of turns. There is nothing that compares to what Robb describes as the feeling of “every nerve and joint and tendon…alert, alive.” But ballet’s other power is in how these physical techniques, rules, and habits are inscribed in the mind and soul of the dancer through constant surveillance, silence, and submission. It is a power that the subject does not possess per se. It is a discreet, omnipresent, anonymous, and automatic power that shapes a dancer’s beliefs about beauty, the “correct” body, and the kind of treatment their bodies and minds deserve.

Among the most prominent features of these modes of power is the revaluation of pain. Pain, of course, is not the same thing as effort. Biologically, “pain is the body’s warning system,” Robb observes, but dancers “are inducted into a perverse relationship with pain…. [I]t’s a source of pride, a sign of progress—something to be ignored, if not outright relished.” Pain is not only inevitable; when it is endured silently, it is virtuous. The pain that Whittet encounters throughout her training as a young dancer is a harbinger of injuries to come, but it feels necessary in order to become a dancer, to perform to her fullest potential. What is more, pain becomes a currency of validation; it signals that one belongs “in that circle of hot teenage girl bodies,” Whittet writes. Swallowing one’s pain becomes a way of gaining favor with teachers and choreographers. Ballet relies on this economy of pain: The ability to withstand pain, both physical and emotional, is not only a badge of honor rewarded within the studio and the school; it is the spectacle that draws audiences in the first place. “It is impossible to look at a dancer’s body,” Robb writes, “without thinking of the discipline and pain involved in shaping it—and that is part of the pleasure of looking.”

At a certain point, however, this economy of pain betrays the dancer. By age 15, Whittet tells us, she had already endured a sprained hip flexor, a dislocated pelvis, and a broken foot (and this is before she suffered the career-ending injury of ruptured discs in her spine). When she finally sees an orthopedic surgeon, she recalls her stubborn ability to minimize the pain; but after hearing her discuss her various maladies, the doctor, unsurprisingly, tells her not to dance. Robb relates a similar story, of a childhood friend and fellow trainee at the School of American Ballet who, in her striving to become a dancer, learns not only to swallow her pain but to blame herself for it. Another classmate sprains her ankle in class and experiences her injury as a punishment: She must sit at the front of the room, “watching and worrying as her classmates pulled ahead.” Later, Robb’s friend will suffer labral tears, stress fractures, herniated discs, and a broken toe, all while pushing the extremes of restrictive dieting to achieve and maintain the thinness prized by company leaders.

Even the choice of pointe shoes—perhaps the most defining object of the ballerina—is subject to this hierarchy of aesthetics and stoicism over health and longevity. When a new pointe shoe brand, Gaynor Minden, entered the market in 1993, it sparked a debate (still ongoing as far as I know). Gaynor’s modernized shoes are made with flexible polymers and offer shock-absorbing foam, in contrast to traditional shoes made of layers of cardboard and leather. The new shoes were designed to increase their longevity, but also for the comfort of the dancer. And it was this last part that led many in the ballet world to disdain them. “Ballet isn’t about health. It’s an art form,” Suki Schorer, a former Balanchine dancer and current teacher at the School of American Ballet, told The New Yorker in 2002. Robb even recalls her own longing for the “shocking” pointe-shoe-induced pain as evidence of her commitment to the art. “If I was supposed to feel pain, then I didn’t want to skimp on it. I wanted bunions, blisters, bleeding toenails…. If my feet looked whole, I felt like a fraud.”

Both Whittet and Robb reveal another aspect of how pain is mixed with power in ballet. Because part of its allure is to make pain invisible, ballet teaches “the value of keeping stories secret,” Whittet writes. As an adolescent, she had begun to wear a brace for her back pain, which served as a constant (but invisible) reminder that with just a little extra support, she could persist. Throughout the book, Whittet confronts a tangled family history of desire, addiction, pain, grief, and the loss of a beloved cousin. At this point in her life, her body had been stretched, starved, and broken, physically and figuratively, in more ways than one. Ballet had taught her that she would be rewarded only if she pretended she was not broken. Similarly, as adolescent dancers, Robb and her classmates learned to withstand “emotional pain, even humiliation,” as a badge of honor, while rarely enjoying their accomplishments. As both writers show, in ballet, pain, injuries, eating disorders, self-deprecation, and the denial of one’s accomplishments all become a source of camaraderie among dancers—a tiny revolution of speaking up even when the art form demands silence.

Yet despite this camaraderie, “ballet logic” and its disciplining mechanisms persist. When I ended up in the emergency room as a young dancer after an ankle sprain so severe that the doctor said I’d have been better off breaking the bone outright, I remember thinking, “It’s because I’m not strong enough”—not “Am I past the point of fatigue? Was I pushed too hard?” It simply never occurred to me that dancing en pointe for hours at a time or launching into a tour jeté might be the slightest bit risky, dangerous, even damaging. Many years later, as I received treatment for a nerve issue in my hip, my physical therapist told me that a ballet-style jump puts roughly twice the amount of force on one’s knee joint that running does. The demands of ballet’s technique—such as keeping one’s hips externally rotated—also come with risks and can lead to injuries in those with structural predispositions. When I was diagnosed with moderate to severe tendinopathy in one of my ankles, the message from the orthopedic surgeon was clear: My tendon was fraying not because I was weak but because three decades of ballet had pushed it to the point of degeneration. My body wasn’t flawed; the logic of ballet was.

Ballet is woman” are the apocryphal words of George Balanchine, considered by many to be the father of ballet as we know it today. For Balanchine, women’s bodies were not merely his “object of concern,” as the dance historian Jennifer Homans writes in her recent biography, Mr. B; they were the primary medium of his art. Those women had to be fashioned, honed, and molded to Balanchine’s liking. Fat, curves, any excess flesh, were considered obstructions. Extreme dieting, taking pills, and excess exercise were common strategies among dancers who wanted to earn or stay in his favor. And yet “at some level,” Homans writes, the dancers “accepted it all,” for without him, what were they? What would ballet be?

For both Whittet and Robb, Balanchine’s ideas represent the extremes of the physical, mental, and emotional transformations a woman must undergo to become a ballet dancer. A woman learns that her body is not her own, but rather the object of the audience, her male partners, or her choreographers, “who told it what to do and how.” Whittet and Robb both learn to adhere to ballet’s punitive beauty standards, regardless of whether they were in the studio or not. In her early twenties, after she quit ballet, Robb develops problematic habits around food and an “overwhelming fear of gaining weight.” She relishes being rewarded for her thinness, of being “approvingly called a waif.”

Both Whittet and Robb learn to fear puberty’s threat of widening hips, while also tacitly agreeing to male physical touches and the surveilling eyes of teachers, no matter how uncomfortable they might be. In short, they learned that “self-objectification is the price of admission” in ballet, as Theresa Ruth Howard, another former dancer and educator, explained in a speech, “Deconstructing the Anatomy of Culture and Leadership in Ballet.”

Yet while Whittet and Robb acknowledge the high price of admission, they remain somewhat ambivalent about it. On the one hand, the demands of ballet leave no other option for dancers but to consent. If you don’t want another person’s hands around your ribcage and inner thighs, don’t be a ballerina. If you don’t want to do another person’s bidding, don’t be a ballerina. If you don’t want to change your body, don’t be a ballerina. Whittet, for instance, writes that “at no point in any ballet class I ever took was there a chance to revoke or rethink my implicit consent to teachers, choreographers, and partners who must, for the aesthetics of ballet, touch women’s bodies to perfect positions or movement—either directly or by encouraging us to dance even when our bodies felt very, very wrong.” On the other hand, as Robb notes, there is still some space for agency, ambition, and expression even within the constraints and discipline that ballet places on women. It matters, she writes, that many of Balanchine’s muses “were willing and enthusiastic subjects,” even if they were underage or economically vulnerable. Robb is in no way diminishing the downright creepiness of the cult-like following around Balanchine (at one point drawing a comparison to the psychological manipulation techniques of Keith Raniere, the leader of the sex cult NXIVM). But she also refuses to erase any of the agency that the dancers themselves have. Robb acknowledges that for some dancers, submitting to another person (in this case, the Balanchine figure) can be necessary to achieve a higher form of empowerment, a way of transcending their bodies. Balanchine’s legacy is thus one of possessiveness and tyrannical power over women, but it also includes “the pieces he left behind”: the ecstasy of watching or performing his ballets, where some women find their strength and self-expression even as they submit.

Why would a young woman choose, as it so often appears, to submit herself to a situation that mingles pain and pleasure, self-destruction and power? While neither Robb nor Whittet cite her, the work of the feminist philosopher Manon Garcia offers a useful answer. Submission is not mere passivity; nor is it natural or innate to women. Rather, it is prescribed and expected behavior under male domination. They can refuse an action or behavior—say, refusing to diet, or refusing the sexual advances of their boss—and suffer the repercussions. They can also choose a certain action and maybe even find power and pleasure in that choice.

The ambiguity of submission, therefore, is precisely that dancers must choose to conform to standards in a patriarchal society. There is a larger force of power at work. Ballet’s environment and template for womanhood—one that enables dancers to feel ambitious and powerful but nonthreatening, strong but still effortlessly feminine—is perhaps one of the most visible and exaggerated examples of the forms of patriarchal domination that exist throughout society.

One thing that is unambiguous, however, is that the body has its limits. Whittet was rehearsing the iconic Balanchine ballet Serenade when she fell to the floor, injuring her lumbar spine and tearing her sacroiliac ligaments. She ends up in another back brace—this time to hold her joints in place. When the time arrives for it to come off, she has already decided that she will no longer be dancing ballet. That moment of unbracing is also one of unlearning: unlearning the ways that something outside of her body holds it together, and more important, unlearning the values that brought her to the breaking point. It is during the year she spends studying abroad in France as a college student that Whittet gives up ballet. She begins to eat when she is hungry; she revels in the softness of her stomach; she falls in and out of love. When a car accident puts her in another brace, Whittet no longer worries about how it will hold her back from ballet. Instead, she yields to her body’s limitations and makes way for new forms of self-discovery and self-expression. Through therapy and an MFA writing program, Whittet eventually discovers how her mind can unlearn the painful stories that her body had for so long stored in muscle memory. “Growing back from hunger is, for a woman, the greatest form of protest,” she writes.

These protests are difficult; many dancers struggle to unlearn what ballet encodes in them. Robb gives up her dream of becoming a ballerina at age 15, but even as she successfully begins her second act as a writer, she finds that ballet haunts her waking and dreaming life. Being a ballerina—or, to be more precise, being recognized as a ballerina—is a mark of distinction she yearns for even after she has given up such an ambition, and she describes her feelings toward ballet as somewhere “between longing and regret and feminist disdain.” Throughout Robb’s book, I recognized the ballet logic weaseling its way into her mind much in the way it had with mine. Like Robb, I feared for a long time any form of exercise that might lead to bulky muscles, disrupting the coveted balletic lines. Before I began seriously training in modern and contemporary dance techniques, I shared what Whittet calls a “small-hearted” attachment to the belief that “modern dance was for failed ballet dancers.” (Whittet later gave up that notion after taking two modern dance classes.) I also understand why Robb nevertheless chooses to find a way to keep ballet in her life, to try and feel at home in her body. But I understand as well why Whittet and Robb both stopped—not for a lack of strength or ambition, but because they were no longer willing to accept the excessive demands that ballet placed on their body and mind.

“Get into the habit of breaking habits,” said one of my own ballet teachers, Muriel Maffre—and yet the idea of building a physical practice that requires constantly breaking the patterns and questioning the discipline that one has imposed on oneself is no easy feat. I continue to dance, but much of my practice involves trying to unlearn what ballet implicitly taught me while staying proficient in the physical language. What if, rather than focusing on all the ways in which my body fell short, I used ballet as a practice of radical acceptance of where it was and how it felt in that moment? Relearning ballet from teachers with an integrated approach to dance, biomechanics, and functional movement expanded my perception of my own body and its habits. Training in mirrorless studios and immersing myself in a range of dance techniques and movement languages—from Merce Cunningham to Lester Horton to William Forsythe to Gaga—helped me break the ballet logic. It was exhausting, but above all it was liberating. It freed me from the expectations that ballet could only be one thing and for certain types of bodies. Rather than valuing lighter-than-air thinness, I valued weightedness and seeing how bodies could play with gravity. Instead of seeking endless lines, I sought how the spine and hips could spiral and arc. Extensions mattered less than intention in movement, and an appreciation of autonomy mattered more than standards of aptitude.

Like Robb and Whittet, I had to step outside the world of ballet to fully understand all that I had put myself through (and continue to). Ironically, perhaps, by choosing a life of the mind—I, as a political theorist, and Whittet and Robb as writers—we came to see the history of our bodies in a new light. A patch of scar tissue near my ankle and a nagging hip issue serve as daily reminders to try, as Whittet has, to “untangle my injury from the movements that caused it,” to see it “as the result of something much deeper”: namely, a societal and cultural expectation for women to ignore their own pain, to accept if not welcome it as normal. Whereas I used to let ballet define me, now I find ways to define it on my own terms. I choose to find a way—again, as Whittet writes, reflecting on her final ballet performance—to love ballet “for the power and grace I [feel] in my body, and for knowing it no longer had a hold on me.”

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