Danseur Ignoble: The Search (This. Is. Looooooooong.)

I noticed today that, for this week, the top search that led someone to my blog was “why should ballet dancers be an ectomorph?”

Grammatical awkwardness aside, I think that’s a good question, and one that I haven’t touched on in a while.

The short answer is:
“Because that’s the trend.”

My full answer to this question is really long, so here’s the TL;DR version up front:

They shouldn’t, necessarily — but because fashion and function influence each-other profoundly in the performing arts and especially in ballet, trends in the art form stemming from the mid-20th century have created a situation that makes it easier for ectomorphic dancers to succeed as professionals. Likewise, I would posit that choreography has evolved to best suit the ectomorphic bodies currently in vogue.

Since professional dancers broadly inform our cultural definition (“what a ballet dancer is“), we have come to think that ballet dancers should be ectomorphs — but really, there’s no overwhelming em>functional advantage.

Functionally speaking, some advantages exist — ectomorphs are usually light, and thus easier to lift when partnered — but disadvantages also exist — ectomorphs are more prone to osteoporosis; they’re less likely to be good at explosive movements like jumps. The mesomorphic and endomorphic body types also come with advantages and disadvantages in dance.

At the end of the day, it’s really a question of fashion.

…And now, on to the “Really Long, But Feel Free To Read It Anyway” version:

1

Over the long history of ballet as an art, the preferred body types have varied. Around a hundred years ago, at the turn of the twentieth century, both male and female dancers tended to be far less lean than they are expected to be today.

For example, check out the gams on Madame Emma Sandrini in this picture I found in a Huffington Post article:

1913:  Ballet dancer Sandrini Debat-Ponsan.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Doze thighs, doe. 1913: Ballet dancer Sandrini Debat-Ponsan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Girlfriend got some nice big thighs, right?

And, while the pose and costume obscure things a little, you can also tell that she’s walking around with a higher body-fat percentage than one would usually expect on a professional ballerina in 2015.

Neither of these factors, by the way, in any way reduce her grace or her presence. This is a woman who looks self-possessed, assured, and ready to own the stage.

If you click through to the article, you’ll notice two pictures of Vaslav Nijinsky right at the top. One of them, I’ve posted on this blog before, so I won’t bore you with still more pictures of Nijinksy (Is it possible to be bored with Nijinsky? I have my doubts, but who knows?).

Nijinsky, too, defies modern ballet’s standard of beauty: he’s lean, yes, but he’s decidedly a mesomorph; a stocky little athlete with the kind of build that, in 2015, you’d more readily expect in a Cirque de Soleil performer than in a world-famous danseur noble.

(For what it’s worth, he makes me feel better about my “German track-cycling team” thighs, which have slowly dwindled towards more ballet-standard dimensions; over time, I seem to be shrinking away from the Nijinsky end of the spectrum, though I doubt I’ll ever end up at the David Hallberg end.)

Meanwhile, over at the Ballet Photography blog, you’ll find what might be “the first dance photograph ever made,” a shot of an unknown dancer taken by an unknown daguerrotypist” (click through to see it).

The dancer in question, by modern standards, would be considered solid (those ankles are bigger than mine!) and buxom, but — like Mme. Sandrini above — she is nonetheless an icon of grace and aplomb.

Even the legendary Anna Pavlova looked a little more huggable than your average Prima Ballerina of 2015:

Not that you can't hug bony people (or nobody would ever hug me), but it's really nice to hug people who have at least a little padding.  Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1885 - 1931) dancing in a production of 'Gavotte'.      (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Not that you can’t hug bony people (or nobody would ever hug me), but it’s really nice to hug people who have at least a little padding. Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova (1885 – 1931) dancing in a production of ‘Gavotte’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you continue to read (or just scroll through) the Huffington Post article, you’ll notice that, throughout much of the 20th century, dancers looked a lot more like ordinary people. Most of them appear to be mesomorphs, much like many of the all-around athletes of their day (athletic specialization — that is, focusing on one event at the expense of others — was still just beginning to take hold again at the turn of the twentieth century).

…And then you come to the first picture of the legendary “Mr. B,” George Balanchine, with Eva (Hartwig) Zorina, taken in 1939, and run smack into the first prime example of the modern ballet aesthetic: lean, tending towards the ectomorphic:

Racehorse legs, y'all.  23rd December 1939:  Vera Zorina, the stage name of Eva Hartwig, the ballet dancer and actress, rehearsing with her husband George Balanchine for the Warner Brothers musical production of 'On Your Toes'.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Racehorse legs, y’all. 23rd December 1939: Vera Zorina, the stage name of Eva Hartwig, the ballet dancer and actress, rehearsing with her husband George Balanchine for the Warner Brothers musical production of ‘On Your Toes’. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As you continue through HuffPost’s article, you’ll see that Mr. B’s early dancers — in the 1930s and early 1940s — have already begun to tend towards the ectomorphic end of the scale (or at least towards the borderland between ectomorph and mesomorph), though buxom, curvy Dutch ballerina Marina Franca still displays a more diverse aesthetic than one imagines in the professional ballet universe of 2015*.

Balanchine’s New York City Ballet would go on to be a driving style-maker — not only in the United States, but in the world at large.

*It’s worth noting that Danish ballet is still its own thing, and may still reflect a different aesthetic than, say, American or French ballet.

Anyway, to make a long story short, as you move forwards in time, you’ll notice that the dancers in the HuffPost’s collection of photographs get leaner and leaner — and that’s largely a reflection of fashion.

Unsurprisingly, the body types preferred by choreographers reflect (and, indeed, amplify) general social trends: so in photographs from the 1960s (the age of “Twiggy,” but also the dawn of the age of the James Bond films), willowy women are paired with men of a more heroic, mesomorphic build; the transition towards ectomorphic male dancers occurred rather later (even Baryshnikov was stockier than many of today’s danseurs nobles).

In 2015, when we’re all freaked out about the so-called “obesity crisis,” but we still nonetheless worship ectomorphic celebrities and models, it should really be no surprise that there’s a near-universal trend towards ectomorphic dancers both male and female — and that even the more muscular dancers tend to be extremely lean (Misty Copeland comes to mind, as does Ivan Vasiliev).

However, fashion and function inform one-another, and I would hazard (though, not being a ballet historian, I’m indulging in pure conjecture, here) that as we’ve tended towards a preference for leaner dancers, we’ve also tended towards a preference for technical elements that are either easier to execute with a leaner body or that simply suit leaner bodies better (note: there are also movements and technical elements that look better when curvier, rounder people do them).

2

For a less-potentially-painful example, though, let’s draw a corollary and look at knees.

A lot — a looooot — of performance ballet technique as we know it today favors dancers with hyperextended knees. Artistic directors, choreographers, and (apparently) audiences like the way they look. Moreover, since this particular feature has been in vogue for quite a while, many of us on all fronts have grown up seeing hyperextended knees as a normative feature of professional dancers.

Since experience shapes taste, hyperextended knees are now part of what we envision when we envision ballet, even though they are entirely unnecessary for correct technique.

In fact, hyperextended knees can interefere with correct technique at times — and they (and other hypermobile joints) increase the potential for injury.

Hyperextended knees make for long, elegant lines in extensions (arabesques, developpés, etc), leaps, and turns-with-extension (fouettés; pique arabesque turns, etc.), so those movements get used a lot on stage.

Meanwhile, they can make some other movements awkward: those of us with hyperextended knees have to learn how to adjust our knees in sous-sous, for example.

We also have to learn how to extend fully without locking our hyperextensions, which can result in injury and sometimes in fainting (you guys, it’s a really bad idea to stand under hot lights with your knees locked). Those of us with hyperextensions might look all graceful and stuff, but we’re doing extra work the whole time.

Likewise, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there are elements of choreography that one encounters less often in the ballets of 2015 simply because they’re harder for hyperextendy people to accomplish gracefully and without injury.

It so happens that hyperextended knees, like hypermobile joints in general, seem to be pretty common to ectomorphs and borderline ectomorph-mesomorphs (though, again, this is an unscientific conjecture, and my sample — lots of dancers and gymnasts — is probably highly biased).

I suspect that this is at least partly because the body-type divisions are as much functional as anything — bigger, stronger muscles can functionally reduce the expression of hypermobile joints. Physiotherapy for joint hypermobility, for example, focuses on strengthening the muscles that surround the joint or joints involved.

Since stronger muscles tend to be bigger, it would follow that people with bigger muscles might be less likely to display joint hypermobility even if they’re predisposed towards it.

So, in short, I would posit that choreographic trends have evolved to reflect the fashion for ectomorphic bodies, just as they have evolved to reflect the trend for extreme flexibility; that the choreography we see today is designed to display ectomorphic, hypermobile bodies as brilliantly as possible — at the expense, really, of other body types.

3

The techniques we learn in class — though built, of course, on the age-old foundations of classical ballet — reflect those that are used on stage, especially when we take class at schools affiliated with professional companies.

It seems reasonable that, especially as we progress into more advanced classes, those of us whose bodies most easily accomplish the techniques we’re learning will feel encouraged and be more likely to continue. In pre-professional settings, the students who fit current trends in choreography and presentation will be more likely to be promoted. In auditions, they’re more likely to be selected.

Thus, those who fit the fashion for the long, lean body currently in vogue will be encouraged to continue dancing, while those who don’t are often actively discouraged — and as long as that’s the case, the choreography we see on stage will continue to favor ectomorphic types. Choreographers are artists, and artists work to maximize the beauty of the materials at hand.

Moreover, uniformity in body type makes for easier casting, easier creation of choreography — even easier costume fittings.

If all of your roles are designed for willowy people, dancers can be exchanged as needed when someone gets injured, retires, takes a break to have kids, or what have you. (This isn’t a defense of the trend, by the way: “easier” isn’t always “better” or “right.”)

Just as important, though, is the role of silent, often wholly unintentional, visual peer-pressure.

I’m always delighted when someone who isn’t your typical ectomorphic ballet dancer type shows up in Intermediate class and keeps coming back — especially since some of the most graceful dancers I’ve seen in class have been the rounder, curvier girls (likewise, among the male dancers in my studio, I have the biggest thighs, but also the highest jumps).

Too often, it seems like people who don’t fit the perceived mold show up and feel like they don’t and can’t belong — and, in the end, that only reinforces the idea that dancers must possess bodies that fit within a defined, narrow type.

They don’t feel welcome; they don’t feel like they can succeed — so they don’t come back.

The curious culture of ballet — which tends to create quiet, serious, focused classes — can also make it hard for new students to feel welcome, which only further decreases the likelihood that someone who doesn’t feel like she or he “fits” will return. Since ballet has a high rate of attrition to begin with (let’s face it; if it was easier, they’d call it bootcamp), we wind up losing a lot of would-be dancers right up front.

I’ve written about this before — if, as dancers and teachers of dance and choreographers and artistic directors, we don’t make room for a diversity of body types, ballet will remain uniform in terms of body type.

As a result, we may overlook people who might have proven to be innovative, gifted dancers or choreographers. If that’s the case, in the end, not only do those gifted individuals lose out, but the art itself is diminished.

There are those who would argue that I’m wrong, here; that the preferred body type is part of the medium of ballet, just as linseed oil is part of the medium of oil painting.

Given the long history of ballet and the diversity of forms that have graced the stage over the course of that history, I beg to differ.

Advertisements

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 2015/10/06, in balllet, body diversity, dance, history, justice, weight and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Excellent break down of the topic. As a dancer who doesn’t fit the body type, it’s been rough (as I’ve chronicled in my blog). As a brand new beginner dancer I hardly received any teacher attention or feedback during class, and while I do now, I feel like I almost had to prove that I was serious about ballett or something, while the dancers who fit the body typer were given more attention from the beginning. There have been countless times now when I’ve had to hear disparaging remarks about my body type (not directly directed at me, but come on!) before class or during class from classmates.
    It was amazing seeing the variety in dancers bodies over the last century. However, while the early dancers are thicker than the modern era’s willowy dancers, I still would say they are much slimmer than the average nondancer person these days. I do wonder if back during their era if their body type actually was representative of the average person’t body, and as people got larger overall there was a backlash of sorts from fashion towards an extremely thin person being fashinable. Or maybe I’m just rambling…
    Also agree about the problems with hyperextensions (though they do make a pretty line). I tend to stand with my knees hyperextended when I’m not paying attention to my posture, so I’m always trying to be aware of it. So much that when I’m in class sometimes I fail to straighten my supporting leg all the way because I’m scared of locking it back.

    • First, thanks!

      Next, I think you’re exactly right about the backlash effect, Kit!

      The dancers pictured from the turn of the 20th century are definitely quite a bit slimmer than the average non-dancing Kentuckian of 2015, but in their own time would indeed have been much closer to the average. Meanwhile, today’s professional dancers are so different in appearance from the average American that they almost look like they belong to a different species.

      I’m sorry to hear you’ve had to put up with disparaging remarks from your classmates, even not directed at you. It’s odd — I think people feel like it’s acceptable to say things within the culture of ballet that they might not say in other contexts (though some people are just insensitive jerks all the time) specifically because of the pervasiveness of the physical ideal. Like, the ideal is so broadly accepted that those who resemble it never pause to ask themselves whether or not it’s really necessary.

      I think your observations about feedback correlate pretty precisely with my experiences, as well — even as a little kid, I suspect I got more feedback in class from the beginning because I “looked the part.” (I’m sure it was completely unintentional, and that my childhood teachers would be mortified to hear about it, but that only further underscores how ingrained the problem is.)

      And, of course, a student (whether child or adult) who receives more attention and more corrections will be likely to progress more quickly than one who doesn’t, and ultimately will be more likely to continue dancing. The student-who-receives-more-attention in question will probably simply believe that she or he is more naturally talented; certainly, as a little kid especially, it never occurred to me that body type had much to do with my relative success, even though my sister dropped out of ballet specifically because she felt “too fat.”

      Food for thought, this. I’m quite sure I’ve internalized a lot of this; the point at which my body “feels right” to me (like “the outside matches the inside,” I guess?) lies in plane with the ideal of the ballet world, and I suspect that I probably do make unconscious snap-judgments about other dancers and about myself based on that ideal. The challenge is remaining conscious enough to counteract those assumptions when they occur, too “see with eyes unclouded.” I think my current teachers do a good job in that regard, at least.

      One last bit! I do the same thing WRT not straightening my legs all the way sometimes! It’s comforting, somehow, to learn that I’m not the only one 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: