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
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 type
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 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!
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.