A ballerina with a tatoo in a black tutu
Ballet

Today, is there still an ideal professional ballerina body type?

Just a little over a century ago, ballerinas looked much different from today’s ballet dancers. In fact, when you look at modern professional ballerinas, you can definitely notice that they generally have several physical similitude: they are svelte and have long toned lean muscles. As a result, many little girls often wonder if it still can be possible to become a professional ballerina when their physique do not match the perfect ballet body. The good news is that with the body positivity and dancers’ health conditions making the head lines, the ballet world had to take action to lose its elitist reputation.

In the 19th-century

Marie Sanlaville-A 19th-century ballerinaRose Tamauri-19th-century ballerina

Back then, the society’s beauty trends were different. Generous curvy women were preferred, consequently ballerinas were not expected to have long toned legs and be skinny. Furthermore, ballets were more about telling a story. The dresses and costumes were not as close-fitting to the body unlike today’s leotards.

The birth of the modern classic ballerina body typeTanaquil Leclerc-20th-century ballerina

It’s at the beginning of the 20th century that super skinny long-legged ballerinas became the norm thanks to (or not thanks to) George Balanchine, one of the most influential 20th century choreographer. He created ballets for svelter looking ballerinas. However, Balanchine also started creating many roles for different body types. Taller, shorter and athletic.

It became important for ballerinas to be light weighted and of smaller stature so that their partners in a pas de deux could easily carry them.

Also, due to the costumes being lighter, the physique’s lines and shape were more and more exposed and visible to the public. Therefore, for the sake of aesthetics, less body fat became the rule.

At the beginning of the 21th century, the ballerina stereotype was born: a small head, slim figure, long arms and legs. Some call it the “androgynous body” or “Balanchine ballerina”. Slimmer dancers started to be selected.

 

Not too fat but also not too short nor too tall

The visuals and uniformity in ballets are very important. In view of appearing harmonious on stage, the corps should look homogeneous and proportioned. A dancer could not stand out among the others.

Ballerinas could not be taller than their partners. The ideal height requirement was an average 1,65m (5.5). Men also were discriminated if they were too short. They had to be taller than their partners.

The world of ballet like the world of fashion became white elitist and snobbish as the requirements were getting very high.

Ironically, it was the opposite in the 19th century. Ballerinas came from poor families and were sexually exploited by wealthy men at the Paris Opera. They became prostitutes to survive, therefore they had a bad reputation. 

This painting by Jean Béraud shows a scene from the opera house in Paris, 1889. Ballerinas and their “sugar daddies”. At the time, the Paris Opéra Ballet was a “high-class brothel,” where ballerinas were courtisans exchanging sexual favors for money with wealthy business men. (Credit: Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

The consequences

The 21 century saw the rise of anorexia, an eating disorder and mental illness. Girls desiring to look like models on TV and magazine, stop eating and lose so much weight that they die from malnutrition.

The same occurs in the ballet world. Ballerinas being under such harsh physical pressure become anorexic to meet the standards.

The opposite happened to Alice Renavand. This Franco-Vietnamese girl begun ballet when she was 8. Just 9 months later she was admitted at the Paris Opera Ballet school. Very talented, she was accepted in the Paris Opera Corps in 1997 where she excelled and got quickly chosen to perform important roles. Jealous, her peers rejected her. Because of this, she gained 44 pounds (20kg) and ended up being left out. Pina Bausch, a German modern dance choreographer, believing in Alice, chose and trusted her to perform in the “Rite of spring”. Alice’s confidence boosted, she lost the extra pounds and nothing ever stopped her from achieving her ultimate goal: in 2014, she was consecrated “étoile” (prima ballerina in French).

She wanted it so bad

More than ever, we are living in an era where we are free to speak out loud about all types of discrimination and injustice. For instance, thanks to dancers like Misty Coppeland, an African-American prima ballerina at the American Ballet Company, we are seeing more and more body type diversity in the realm of ballet. Though she was rejected and discriminated after not meeting the ballet body standards, she fought against old mindsets to achieve her dream of becoming a prima ballerina. This video explains it all.

Another example is how Marie-Agnès Gillot became a prima ballerina at the Paris Ballet Opera. She not only got too tall but was diagnosed with a double scoliosis when she was 12. The back deformity from scoliosis surely would stop her career. She hid her scoliosis from her peers wearing a corset that she removed twice a day to train. Despite the intense back pain, she was courageous and persistent to continue no matter what. Knowing that she could be let go of the Paris Opera school, she worked hard to be the best at every auditions so she couldn’t be rejected! It is her stubbornness and great determination that paid off. At only 15 she entered the Paris Ballet Opera corps and then got promoted to Prima Ballerina. It is her singularity that was her strength and made her stand out!

Today

Though physical diversification is being more and more welcomed in the prestigious ballet academies, the physical athletic abilities requirements remain the same. Ballet technique is complex and tough and those standards are not going to lower.

The truth is that if you wish to become a professional ballerina, you not only need to be mentally strong to overcome the pressure but also be physically fit to perform the large ballets’ repertoire. You need stamina and a strong core to jump those leaps, do pirouettes and fast beating of the feet.

Great news though!! Today, what will stop you from becoming a professional ballerina is not your skin color, your generous bust, your rounded booty nor whether you are too tall or too short anymore. It is whether you can master the technique and can interpret the different roles.

It is so much more about your abilities and your technique.

  • You need to be flexible in the knees, hips and lower back.
  • Your feet should point to make a beautiful shape.
  • Your hip joint should be able to rotate 180 degrees; each leg 90 degrees.
  • Let’s not lie, you should be slender enough to be carried by your partner.
  • You need to develop good healthy eating habits to get all the energy to train like an athlete.

However, it is important to note that many ballerinas are slim because of the intense physical efforts ballet training demands.

If you have any questions or opinion about the subject, please leave your comment below.

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26 Comments

  1. My granddaughter does ballet; she is the typical svelte type. For now, that’s the case, but who knows how she will look as she grows. Being thin is something she worries about already. I wish that weren’t’ the case, but sadly it is. 

    My friend’s daughter is in the same boat, except she is a little older, she already has eating issues by trying to maintain the ballerina figure. Good thing, other things are now being taken into consideration. 

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Yes that is sad, she shouldn’t worry about it. Thank you for your comment!

  2. arzu hosan says:

    First of all, thank you so much for such a beautiful article. In your article you describe the physical shape of the professional ballerings of different times. In fact, over time, the physical shape of the ballerings dancer body changes in choice.
    We see a change in the way it was now in the nineteenth century. Next we will see more changes.

  3. I think a lot of people have been troubled by this question and have been trying to look like and have just the perfect body. No doubt that losing some of those excess fat is necessary for one to be a perfect ballerina even though it does not necessarily mean having to copy what everyone else looks like. Thank you I really enjoyed the motivating stories of Marie and Alice.

  4. What an interesting read this was, Anne-Caroline, and with the videos to give extra explanation of the topic: perfect!

    Ballet is a topic I knew little about, but thanks to you that changed. It is amazing to see how body types of ballerinas changed throughout the history.

    I am happy that nowadays we are going in the direction of a healthy, strong body and that body type diversity is being embraced in ballet too.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Thank you!! Yes I am very happy it is changing!!

  5. Nuttanee says:

    This is an interesting article. When I was in school all the girls in my class were either doing ballet or piano. Because I was a chubby child I ended up doing the piano instead. I wonder what it would be like if my parents just did not listen to all the critics and just let me try, I am slim now and pretty active! Lol All is good, now I can tell all my friends that their daughters can just do ballet and thrive in is not because of their ultimate gene but for their talent.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Exactly!! Thank you for your comment!

  6. Hi,  I have heard that being a ballerina is very difficult, especially on the body.

    I have also heard that ballerinas have often to not eat as much as they should be, in an attempt to stay skinny. 

    It is an interesting question, because some of the work that ballerina’s can do wear and tear to the body. However, in my opinion, I think eating healthy is what enables the body to heal itself. If you lack the proper nutrition, then  I think it could have negative consequences in the long run.

    For example, some ballerinas are smokers, because it is a hunger suppressant, plus stress reliever. Well how is that a good idea?

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Right smoking doesn’t help at all!! The good news is that now Ballet academies are very concerned about their dancers’ health habits.

  7. Pamela Arsena says:

    I love your beautiful blog post about ballerina body types.  We live in a world where physical appearance is everything especially in ballet.  With that being said I really love how adorable ballerinas from the 19th century especially the flowing ballerina costumes.  As the costumes exude class and sophistication and a prime example where less is truly more. 

  8. Christine says:

    Very interesting history. I like the old ballerina dresses and costumes. Should we indeed thank Mr. Ballanchine? Or perhaps not … The world of ballet became really elitist, I didn’t even realize how much. I was a little surprised that male dancers could be refused if they were too short. I’m so glad that people like Misty Copeland defied such standards, and that nowadays your skin color, height, weight, or bust will no longer be a hindrance to join ballet. I think that this is an important step forward. 

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Thank you for your comment. Yes it is a major step forward!!

  9. Henderson says:

    It is fascinating how the whole ballet thing has started and also has evolved as well. I guess we are beginning to see new acts on stage in the whole performance like some more energy and the ballerina being thrown up or carried as well. This is the reasons here that you have also pointed. Well, I am sure that it sometimes shatter the dreams of some young kids.

  10. Benson says:

    Body structure have been one thing that stops most people from trying their luck with ballet and that is a sad thing knowing they can still do well even with the body they have and work for a better one. My daughter loves to watch her mom play the violin and would say she wished to be a ballerina someday. I would encourage not to give up on that dreams and tell her about the story of Alice. Thank you Anne.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      You are most welcome!

  11. You see, my sister, she is very young and very curvy. From watching some movies and cartoons, she has really nurtured the dreams of becoming a ballerina. I like the fact that you can point out how things were in the past as opposed to how they are run now. I will switch to a diet that might try to accommodate her becoming slender. This way, I will be helping her. Thanks

  12. Thanks for sharing your expertise on this topic. It was cool to read about how the perfect ballerina body type has been evolving throughout the centuries. I can see a huge difference just by looking at those images. It looks like the modern fashion industry has affected the ballet culture as well. I know someone who’s going to love your article. Thanks again!

  13. Thanks for this post, right from the beginning I do like ballet but then I don’t really have the state that really fits in this dance, but when I do it, I found myself enjoying it a lot. I wanna ask : is this dance only for long tiny skinny girls or as well for me as a fat lady? can I also do it and maybe with time after losing some weight? thanks 

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      Of course you can do ballet! The weight issue is really for dancers that want to become professional. If you take ballet for pleasure, your weight is not a problem at all!

  14. Michel says:

    It is in a way sad that many ballerinas have resorted to eating disorders in order to maintain that perfect ballerina body. Luckily there are still role models around like Misty Copeland who have more healthy body images. 
    it’s also a lot to do with the technique nowadays  

    However nobody wants to go and watch a fat ballerina, but if you are not naturally slim I would urge you to avoid many years of torment and pick another career for yourself. 

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      I agree with you. Anyone can take ballet classes for their own pleasure and in this case, your weight doesn’t matter.

  15. KingAndrea says:

    I couldn’t stop laughing when i got to the point where you said “let’s not lie, you need to be slender enough to be carried by your partner”, this is a fact that even though some people are against the body type discriminations, you should come to the fact that ballet is a dance for two. I love how you’ve explained the historical development of body types in ballet I correspondence to our present world. This has been interesting, thanksfor sharing.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      You’re most welcome! Thanks for your comment!

  16. Roslinecar says:

    I could remember years back when I used to be a ballerina, it was part of the most interesting time of my life but I had to stop due to some reasons I’ll like to keep secret, no offense. Unlike now, no one specified a particular body type professionally but in respect of this, there were requirements that qualifies you even when you’re not slender like being flexible and being able to be carried by your partner and others. You’ve explained everything about body type for a professional ballerina. I’ll share to some of my friends and I’m sure they will love it.

    1. Anne-Caroline says:

      I am happy to hear that no one specified a particular body type to you!! That’s an advancement! Thank you!

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