Body Types, Flexibility, and Ballet

Or, more accurately, somatotypes.

You’re probably familiar with the concept of the three basic somatotypes — ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph — first proposed by William Sheldon in the 1950s.

Anyway, I’ve been reading a bit about the whole idea (in part because I’m not sure it’s really based on empirical evidence, and I’m trying to find out if it actually plays out as it’s supposed to), and I’ve run across an interesting hypothesis.

In a few places (here’s one that might be a useful resource for dancers in general), I’ve read that ectomorphs tend to be the most flexible, mesomorphs the least flexible, and endomorphs somewhere in between.

I was surprised by that.

I fall somewhere between the mesomorph and ectomorph types — I’m inclined to call myself a mesomorph with ectomorphic tendencies(1), if I have to describe myself in those terms at all — but I definitely possess the classic mesomorphic traits of explosive power and relative ease in building muscle(2).  However, I’ve historically been among the most flexible people I’ve known.  Even now, with my lower-body flexibility relatively reduced by the effects of cycling, I’m still among the most flexible people in my ballet classes.

That said, I can’t speak to the flexibility of mesomorphs in general because, frankly, I haven’t known many, and those I have known I’ve known in contexts (hello, gymnastics) that both select for and develop high degrees of flexibility.  Out of everyone I know, Brian (aka PDG the First) has the build most like my own, although he’s actually a classic mesomorph (heavier-boned and much more muscular in the upper body than I am) with an extremely low body fat percentage.  He’s pretty flexible, but he’s also a professional dancer, which complicates things.

Meanwhile, true ectomorphs in my life have often been fairly inflexible.  Denis, for example, is definitely an ectomorph, with the classic “stringy muscles and narrow shoulders” build, and he’s really quite inflexible.  My second boyfriend was also an ectomorph, but was probably just about average in the flexibility department.  My father was arguably an ectomorph, though one with mesomorphic tendencies (he had a broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped build like mine), and I don’t think he was any more flexible than the average man.  Then again, how would I know?  Dad kind of hated all sports and, while I think he enjoyed watching ballet, he wasn’t a dancer.

T, from ballet, is decidedly an ectomorph (and a beautiful one) and he’s really quite flexible, but like me he has a gymnastics background.  Jim, the other ballet-class ectomorph, seems to be about average in the flexibility department, but he’s also probably in his 70s, and people tend to lose flexibility as they age.  It seems like it might be impolite to buttonhole him and say, “Hey, when you were twenty, could you do splits?”  There are a host of female ectomorphs in my ballet classes, meanwhile, and most of them seem to be about average in terms of flexibility.

The endomorphs I’ve known, meanwhile, have largely tracked with Sheldon’s theory — they’ve often been fairly flexible, and some of them have been very flexible,

I’m not actually contending, here, that mesomorphs are really the most flexible body type, and I’m not even contending that I’m a good example.  I meet the criteria for benign hypermobility joint syndrome(3) and I’ve been involved with gymnastics and dance off and on since pre-school and first grade, respectively.  Both of these conditions would probably behave as confounds if I were attempting to do some kind of scientific study, here.

But I’m not.  I’m just curious.

What do you think?  Where do you fit on Sheldon’s spectrum?  Do you find that you adhere to his ideas about flexibility?

~

This whole thought process has also led me to think about ballet, and how dancers self-select.  Louisville is a Midwestern city, prone to Midwestern girth lines (though non-scientific observation suggests that Louisvillians tend to be a bit leaner than is typical for the region).  With a few brave exceptions, however, my fellow ballet students are overwhelmingly very much leaner than is typical of our region, and indeed leaner than is typical, period.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised by this if I was taking pre-pro track classes, since there are powerful selection pressures involved there, and I am less surprised that my fellow intermediate students tend to be leaner — again, we are subject to a degree of selection pressure, since, presumably, those of us who choose to advance to that level probably have performance-oriented aspirations(4).

What surprises me is that even the Ballet Essentials class tends towards a very lean physique.  Given our location, I would expect new adult dancers to be significantly larger.  I wonder, though, whether our overwhelmingly-lean class average scares off bigger dancers, or whether perhaps our affiliation with a professional company is intimidating somehow?

I haven’t looked at the adult classes in other local dance schools, for the most part, but I have seen pictures of a couple of the adult groups from other schools, and I would say that their average overall body size was larger.

This makes me wonder how classes already populated with very slim dancers can make bigger dancers feel more welcome.  Any ideas?  Obviously, just buttonholing people on the way out of class and saying, “Hi!  Did you enjoy class?  I hope we’ll see you next time!” might help, but are there other, proactive ways to make classes feel more welcoming to people of diverse body sizes?

~

Also, one more semi-related thing: is it just me, or is ballet seriously a harbor for small guys?  I’ve noticed that, of the guys in class, most of us are on the small end of average.  Some of us are even smaller than that.  Even Brian is small (he’s about my height; maybe 5’8″).  I want to say that PDG II is a little taller, but not by much.  Our two exceptions are T (who isn’t super-tall) and N, who is pretty darned tall.

So, dancers out there — if there are guys in your classes, do they tend to be small?  And if so, do you think it’s a selection-pressure thing, or maybe a deselection-pressure thing (since many other sports tend to favor taller guys, maybe smaller guys are more likely to be free to stumble into ballet)?

There’s definitely a selection pressure thing in favor of smaller guys in cycling, for what it’s worth.  The same holds true for long-distance running.  I would actually expect selection pressures in ballet to select for taller guys (and it does seem to do so at the highest professional levels), but ballet is subject to such complex selection pressures in the US that being tall might actually rather wash out.  It’s more important, really, to be brave and confident in one’s own masculinity, and being small is good preparation for that sort of thing.  But that, as they say, is “a whole ‘nother” post.

Notes

  1. In case you’re wondering, I have the broad shoulders and relatively narrow hips of a mesomorph coupled with the fine bones of an ectomorph (especially up top; the bones in my legs definitely show the influence of a lifetime of high-impact activity).  Some of my joints are the small, flat joins of an ectomorph; others are the whacking great knobs of a mesomorph (I’m looking at you, knees).  My musculature falls somewhere in between as well; my legs fairly shout “mesomorph!” while my arms are squarely (or lithely, perhaps?) in the ectomorph camp.  I somehow have rather defined pectoral muscles even though I don’t work on them at all at this juncture, and that’s a mesomorph trait; however, if I wrap my fingers around my wrists, the thumb and middle finger overlap — an ectomorph trait.  So, there you have it.  As always, I refuse to be one thing or the other.  Nyah.  😛
  2. Curiously, and contrary to what our culture might lead one to expect, I would contend that I inherited these traits from my Mom.  Mom is definitely a mesomorph; she has a medium frame and builds muscle easily.  She’s put together like a gymnast — small and strong.  Her personality, meanwhile, is best explained in terms of the sport she played in high school: Mom’s 5’3″, but her chosen sport was basketball, and apparently she was pretty good!  Mom is the kind of person who everyone thinks is taller until they see her in pictures (especially with my step-Dad, who is almost a foot taller than Mom).  I’m guessing she probably just intimidated her way around the court with her towering willpower 😀

    I’ve never bothered, before, to really sit down and think about where my parents fall on the continuum of somatotypes, but it’s interesting to do so.  I find myself feeling really quite grateful for the genes I inherited.  Both my Dad’s family and my Mom’s family tend to be healthy and long-lived (with the exception of those on Dad’s side who have succumbed to the deleterious effects of alcoholism), and I seem to have dodged the hypothyroidism bullet.  I won’t claim that I dodged the “addictive personality” bullet, because I know for a fact that I didn’t, but I can say that I’ve grown up with enough awareness and guidance to prevent myself from developing dangerous addictions.

  3. The weirdest and least useful effect of BHJS, for me, is that I have hypermobile joints in my pelvis.  Evidently, there’s more laxity in my sacroiliac joints than is usual.  As a physical therapist, Denis thinks this is fascinating.  As someone whose pelvis does funky things at times, I’m glad Denis is a physical therapist and knows how to put it back where it belongs.
  4. I should note that there’s one really powerful exception: the curviest girl I routinely see at ballet class dances at the advanced beginner/intermediate level, and she’s really very good — she has natural grace, makes beautiful lines, and her technique is excellent.  I think her curvy, feminine physique actually lends something unique and special to her dancing, and I’m always concerned when I don’t see her for a few weeks that she’s dropped out because of the otherwise uniformly-ectomorphic body types of the other ladies in class.  The girl in question is very probably someone who doctors would classify as “overweight,” which goes to show you that all those categorical labels are rather silly.  I suspect she’s just made the way she’s made, and I hope nobody gives her grief about it, because she’s beautiful.

Also, holy snotrockets, this post is long.

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About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2014/10/30, in balllet and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. The whole “body type” thing has always bugged me because I have never been able to figure out which one I am. I have a small build, but put on weight super easy, yet have extreme difficulty putting on muscle. I’d never considered that one could be a mix of more than two, but I also wonder, could one be none?
    Boyfriend is obviously the “puts on muscle easily, especially in the legs” type, with some people it’s so easy to tell.
    In most of the ballet classes I’ve ever taken, the vast majority of people were thin. I say “thin” rather than “lean” because some of them were clearly just what I’ve heard called “skinnyfat” – thin but soft, low muscle – with slender builds (I guess how I would be if I didn’t exercise but just ate right). But yes, most people have been on the smaller end of the population spectrum. Larger people in general have been rare – 1 out of about 35 first semester, and about 3 or 4 out of 20 something the other semesters. At evening class we’ll get a larger student or two every few weeks (without including me, which I’m not even sure if I count. Most people always comment on how thin I am). In the context of this paragraph, “larger” can mean anything from a thicker build (hips and butt) to obese.

    The men have always been very lean, some about 5’8 and some a bit taller.

    While I have never felt like I’m too heavy for ballet (I fluctuate between 116 and 119 lbs and I’m 5’4, but I doubt I’ll be taking part in a pas de deux anytime soon), I’ve felt weird about the size of my chest. At times completely mortified. Now, this is just my experience here (since I’ve never experienced the world through their eyes) but I feel as though I get just as much – or more – “disapproving” looks as the bigger people get. This was more apparent in the class with the fewest larger people, and I do wonder if that has something to do with it – if having diversity in body sizes present makes the environment more welcoming. For sure I feel the enviroment towards different body shapes and sizes is the most welcoming at evening class, both towards me and other not conventionally-ballet-bodied.
    I definitely feel more comfortable is there is a variety. It is something that I worry over, as I would like to eventually advance and I wonder about the environment in more advanced classes.
    Other than doing outreach to get in – consistently – a variety of different body types, I don’t know what could be done to make it more welcoming. Frankly, I feel like they just don’t care, like getting in a diverse group of people is not high on their priority list.
    Oh, and I can definitely see how an affiliation with a professional dance company would be a deterrent. I would feel so anxious for even attempting it, imagine them laughing and thinking ‘Is she serious? She’s got to be kidding? Thinking she can do ballet!’. Or maybe that’s just my weird self.

    • That’s a good question – I dint know if Sheldon’s system allows for the ideas of people not belonging to a body type. Honestly, it didn’t seem like a terribly scientific system in the first place really more of a mid-20th venture attempt to categorize people according to visible characteristics.

      Also, good point about the “thin” versus “lean” thing. I’ve noticed that we occasionally pick up students who definitely fit that category – and then either they stick around and become strong and lean or they drop out.

      It sounds like the rate of “larger” students at your school is actually about the same as in mine. It works be really interesting to do a study of ballet schools with adult open classes across the country and see if that’s the case everywhere! Sounds like the guys at your school are also about in line with mine.

      You’re right about the weird anti-breast sentiment in ballet. It strikes me as particularly odd because breast size and relatively independent either of body size or of ability to dance. We just have this idea that female dancers look a certain way, and it’s weird how that idea operates powerfully even at an amateur level.
      Body type does, meanwhile, seem to grow more uniform in more advanced classes (though today’s class was an exception), and I do feel like that’s more a question of self-selection pressure than of conditioning, though I’m not sure. I can definitely imagine people hanging back in the beginner classes (because they don’t force people in the open division to advance at my school) because they feel like they’d “stand out” in the higher levels.

      And you’re also spot on in identifying size diversity as not really a priority in ballet! I think it’s something most lean dancers probably never think of (that privilege-is-invisible-to-those-who-have-it thing).

  2. The Lite Rider

    I’m an ectomorph – but since I started performance sports late in life, I fear my flexibility was already decreasing. I never felt flexible enough in recreational figure skating, or even ice dance. My coach attributed it to “age”, saying that in her experience it didn’t matter what the body type — flexibility and “moving differently than younger people” appeared across the board in us old folks.. However, I could do a spread eagle position like nobody’s business! And had a pretty darn high spiral — one that rivaled much younger recreational skaters.

    It’s interesting stuff. Since I only did dance a little bit when younger and much older, skied for 15 years, and skated for 11 years I can say anecdotally that it didn’t seem to matter what type of body people had in terms of ability to move or flexibility. Those who were supposed to be more flexible due to body type often weren’t. And vice versa. In fact I’ve seen really overweight people have wonderful flexibility and range of movement. Far better than mine — and I “stretch” all the time! Don’t have much input re dance, but I’m guessing it relfects similarly.

    I do weights consistently, so that there is some definition to my long, stringy look! 🙂 So that I don’t just look “thin”.

    Found the breast thing so interesting. It was the same in skating. Older women actually wanting to be flat-chested. Unfortunately, it just didn’t work for those folks. It’s really alarming that we can’t just have our bodies, no matter what the type, and feel free within our chosen discipline. I believe that in ADULT skating the desire to be as thin as possible (lucky me, I didn’t have to try) and flat-chested was the chase to emulate youth. Very sad.

    Personally, I’ll take ANY type of body in dance. It is the expression I like to see, no matter whether thin, tall, short, densely muscled, or slight. Curvy or stockier can work just as well.

    • Well said! Whenever I run into people who think there isn’t room for a diverse array of body sizes in dance, I try to point them in the direction of Ragen Chastain (who writes the excellent blog, “Dances with Fat,” has run marathons, and who is now training for her first Ironman!).

      I love your point about how you like to see the expression — I think that’s “where it’s at,” as they say, in dance.

      If anything, I think an array of dancers of different sizes who all have fluid, expressive movement makes for a richer palette — or maybe a better analogy would be that of an orchestra, where you get one kind of sound if your orchestra is made up entirely of strings; another if you include some woodwinds; still another if you bring in the brass and percussion. I love the idea of choreography that brings in the piccolos and the timpanis as well as the violins and ‘cellos!

      I think maybe this is something I should think about as a choreographer ^-^

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