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Body Shaming In Ballet: Yes, It’s Still Happening

Dear Dance Community, we are not replaceable.

Ballet is not all wine and roses, nor is it always pink tutus and tiaras. Behind all the glamour are dancers who struggle to reach an idealized version of unattainable perfection. Many dancers go through, or will go through, some form of body shaming and/or disordered eating in their careers to fit the skinny ballet aesthetic. Their roles and contracts will be threatened if a few more pounds aren’t shed. They will be replaced with dancers that “fit the mold,” or will possibly never be given a chance to dance professionally. 

Ballet dancer Kathryn Morgan recently announced her departure from Miami City Ballet after only one season due to the negative state of her mental and physical health. Morgan was a soloist for New York City Ballet up until 2012, leaving due to issues with her thyroid and has since focused on her health in order to make her comeback in the ballet world. Morgan joined Miami City Ballet at the beginning of the 2019-2020 season and as of about a week ago is no longer a member. 

Morgan publicly shared the news in a post on her Instagram page (@kathryn_morgan) and in a very raw video on her YouTube channel (Kathryn Morgan). In her post, Morgan shared that early on, Miami City Ballet was not the right fit for her and continued to share her reasons for her leaving in the YouTube video.

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As many of you have already discovered, I made the decision to leave Miami City Ballet after one season. A lot of you have been wondering as to the reasons why, so today on YouTube, I open up. While I am exceedingly grateful to have had the opportunity to dance with them, early on I began to realize it was not the right fit for me. My health quickly started to deteriorate as I was trying to fit a mold and a certain look that I was not. Dancers… no contract or “title” is EVER worth your mental and physical health. You are worth so much more than that. I give you the full honest story in today’s video. Thank you so much for your continued love and support. It means the WORLD to me. (And no… I’m not done dancing! We talk about that too😉). LINK IN BIO #balletbodiesunite

A post shared by Kathryn Morgan (@kathryn_morgan) on

“My health quickly started to deteriorate as I was trying to fit a mold and a certain look that I was not. Dancers … no contract or ‘title’ is EVER worth your mental and physical health,” Morgan wrote in the Instagram post. 

Her video goes into more detail to share her experiences of being body shamed and her mental and physical struggle of trying to shed pounds until her mental and physical health started to backslide. Then she decided she had had enough. 

Morgan’s very real post about struggling with body shaming and knowing your worth inspired many dancers to share their own stories on social media, including myself and UCI dance majors Danielle Dawson and Jayne Friscia. 

Dawson is a fourth year dance and literary journalism double major who has spent the majority of her training studying the art of classical ballet. Dawson felt inspired to share her story on social media after reading Fricsia’s post about her experience. She hopes that by all of these dancers coming forward with similar experiences, we can come together and let other dancers know that they aren’t alone and that their stories are valid. 

Dawson was clinically underweight for a majority of her childhood. Her parents would give her protein shakes in the mornings before elementary school to help get her weight up to a healthy number. Dawson would throw the shakes away when she got to school though because she didn’t want to gain weight. 

The ideology that dancers have to be super thin to fit the ballet aesthetic is pushed on dancers from a very young age. Phrases used in a dance class such as “I can see your lunch” or “suck in your stomach” introduce young dancers to an unhealthy relationship with food and their body.

“It was far too frequent in my classes for my teachers to use verbal cues in our training that normalized disordered eating or that signaled me to think my already clinically underweight body was still not good enough. I was still not skinny enough to fit the mold of the ‘perfect ballet body,’” Dawson said.

“Lay off the Pop-Tarts and Cracker Jacks,” is a comment that has stuck with Dawson since one of her dancer teachers said this to her in high school. Her teacher didn’t want to bother with costume adjustments for the upcoming performance of “The Nutcracker,” Dawson said, prompting them to make this remark. Dawson was also told to stop engaging in certain activities by multiple teachers to prevent the development of “thunder thighs” or overly muscular legs, and claimed that she was too heavy to be lifted by the male dancers in class. 

It was comments like these that insinuated that Dawson was still not good enough for ballet. She  began severely restricting her diet and engaging in disordered eating. There were days she consumed no more than a cookie and a bottle of water. The comments have stuck with her and continue to still affect her self-criticism and hyper-analysis of her own body.

Dawson will not be continuing in the professional ballet world post-grad as she feels it would not be mentally healthy for her to continue. Dawson hopes that real change and awareness can be made throughout the ballet community with brave individuals coming forward and sharing their stories. 

“I have always loved the art form and it will always be a part of me,” Dawson said.

Friscia, a third year dance major with the Claire Trevor School of the Arts, was also inspired to shine a light on the subject via social media. Friscia wanted to share her story with people in her life that were not as familiar with the issues circling the ballet community to help raise awareness. 

“Sharing your story erases the idea that dancers are replaceable. The more of us that speak up about how mistreated we are in the ballet community, the less ok it will be for artistic staff to put us through that,” Friscia said.

Friscia shared her experiences with body shaming in her dance journey. When Friscia was very ill, her weight dropped to 107 pounds and she received praise for being thinner despite the fact that she had been battling pneumonia, the flu and mono for the past four months. At the same time Friscia was witnessing a close friend of hers use laxative teas and new weekly diets because she was constantly told that if she didn’t lose weight, she would never dance professionally. 

As for my story, I was 14 when I first began battling my body and my head. I was continually ridiculed and told to lose weight all through high school by my dance teacher. I was forced to keep and turn in weekly food journals. I was told things like “I see what kind of food you bring to dance, you eat too many carbs,” and that if I didn’t lose 10 pounds by the show, my male partner wouldn’t be able to lift me. At one point I was even told that I would never make it in dance but that I could always teach. 

I hated the body I was given, and I just wanted to feel like I looked like a dancer. I developed body dysmorphia and disordered eating, struggled with binge episodes from lack of food intake, and sometimes, I too would go the whole day with only a few snacks and a whole lot of water. It was at that time  that I was putting my physical and mental health aside to try and fit into someone else’s definition of a dancer. I’ve grown so much since then and have slowly learned to love my body for everything it is capable of and not hate it for everything it’s not. 

The ballet world can be toxic for dancers and it needs to change. Behaviors of body shaming in ballet should not be normal. If you are dancing in an environment that is toxic for your mental health and physical health, leave. I promise you that it’s not worth it. 

Dear dancers, you are not replaceable.

Claire Desenberg is an Entertainment Intern for the fall 2020 quarter. She can be reached at cdesenbe@uci.edu