Feminism | Posted by Nellie B on 08/10/2009

A Feminist Goes to the Ballet

 

Ballet: The Epitome of feminine Grace?

Ballet: The Epitome of "feminine" Grace?

Ballet, as fine arts and sources of entertainment go, is not exactly what one might call a feminist pastime.  Though it is ridiculous trying to mandate whether something is “feminist” or not, ballet definitely deserves to be critiqued through a feminist lens. 

Don’t get me wrong– I love ballet.  I’ve been watching performances for years. I danced starting at age four, until I quit when I decided that I didn’t want to seriously jeopardize my feet by going en pointe during my teens.  So, a recent performance of several short dances by a local theatre troupe reminded me of the complexities of ballet.

The pros: while ballet is often ridiculed for being girly, feminine or, of course, “sissy,” the strength and discipline involved in training requires Herculean will.  One is reminded of Billy Elliot’s immortal line: “Just because I like ballet doesn’t mean I’m a poof.” Props to ballet for being a haven for a lot of young “sissy” boys, even if it’s not completely queer inclusive.

Billy Elliot: Not a poof

Billy Elliot: Not a "poof"

 

The cons: The mandate of thinness.  Yes, I recognize that the rigors and style of classical ballet (and modern dance, for that matter) require a certain size and measure of agility.  Few institutions other than modeling, for example, lead to a pervasive culture of eating disorders (the New York Times cited the incidence of eating disorders in dancers as one in five.) 

Another issue: a creative style that’s so gendered that pas de deux tend to signify the female portion through fluttery woodwind instruments while pounding, bass scale music denotes the male part.  Male ballet dancers show off their strength through powerful jumps and leaps, while women showcase their grace and femininity.  And, of course, the vast, vast majority of pas de deux are with male/female partners.

I am no less a feminist, however, for appreciating lovely pas des deux, even if that heteronormativity and mandate of thinness that accompanies ballet culture makes me queasy. Let’s not forget that women were the great pioneers of this art form, from Marie Camargo to Martha Graham. 

Any feminist ballerinas out there with input?

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  • Sophie @ at 11:28 am, August 10th, 2009

    I’d venture that ballet has stopped evolving for decades, so it’s not surprising that it is based on outdated values and gender roles.

    Where dancing is still evolving (contemporary, modern dance, hip hop), from Martha Graham to today’s choreographers, it has explored different values, using dancers with very different body shapes, making people from both genders dance various parts. Much more interesting and often as beautiful to watch.

  • Jill @ at 11:30 am, August 10th, 2009

    I totally agree, ballet is beautiful but not exactly feminist.

    However, Martha Graham was NOT a ballet dancer! She was a pioneer of modern dance, and her work is explicitly feminist in many ways. Her early work especially is incredibly rebellious against ballet. Her company was all female for many years, and almost all of her work is from a female perspective. Her dancers were not lithe ballerinas, but strong and fit women performing powerful movements full of emotion.

  • Helen H. @ at 7:58 pm, August 11th, 2009

    I’m no dancer but I’m all for going with what makes you comfortable, even if it involves breaking boundaries in terms of genre. Some of the best art is that which tests the limits.

    It’s three AM here, I should be asleep, not trying to come up with profound things to say about art :) .

  • Lily Felsenthal @ at 8:56 pm, August 13th, 2009

    Nellie–
    As a feminist ballerina, I felt I had to comment. Ballet is one of my favorite things in the world, I think it is a beautiful art form that requires a huge amount of discipline and strength. However, many of the points that you made I wholeheartedly agree with. The rigidness with which the ballet community adheres to the “Balanchine Ideal” of stick-thin dancers with tiny heads has prevented many a talented and passionate ballerina from pursuing their dreams. Also, you bring up and interesting point about how a lot of traditional ballet promotes traditional gender roles. However I think that as ballet evolves into the modern age, it has the potential to make room for new choreography that defies stereotypes and new directors who realize that talent is not in opposite correlation with the size of one’s waist.
    A fabulously written article Nellie, you are so talented :)

  • Larkin Elizabeth @ at 6:09 pm, August 14th, 2009

    I just got back from a fine arts camp with many, many ballerinas, but the majority of them were actually not stick-thin. They were slender, but very muscular. Also, the number of boys there was very small. Maybe it had to do with the man-tights.

  • Diane A. @ at 7:37 pm, August 14th, 2009

    Good points Nellie, I’ve never thought of ballet this way before. I’m looking forward to reading your articles!

  • Elise @ at 3:15 pm, August 16th, 2009

    Hi, just wanted to leave a comment to tell you how much I’ve enjoyed stopping by your site today. Your posts are really engaging and I love your photo’s.

    Thanks so much for brightening my day, best wishes

  • Chelsea! @ at 6:21 pm, October 27th, 2009

    You make a good point about the thinness, however, I find it sort of wrong. The reason we dancers are so small and thin sometimes is because when you start dancing very young, your body and muscles develop differently, giving us ballerinas (and ballerinos) our small physiques.

    And when girls do leaps, it requires strength too. Those things are NOT easy, I can tell you that. It took me three years to get them down.

  • Julie @ at 10:24 pm, February 15th, 2010

    You article is 100% on the right track.

    As a dancer of 20yrs experience I do not feel at all feminine and girly when I dance – I am a very strong and powerful – I make it look like I am light and whistful but it takes a lot of effort and practise to make it look so easy.

    Many of my dancing associates have difficult relationships with food, and it all comes down to ballet.

    I disagree with the previous poster – Yes we might do a lot of exercise but once puberty sets in all sorts of thoughts enter a girls head… unless these thoughts are healthy and helped to be moderated then annorexia and bulemia can easily become the natural state for non-dancers – let alone dancers who often are perfectionists by nature and I would argue that many of us a masochists also… so put the two together and you have a perfect recipe for either eating disorder to flourish…

    these are my thoughts anyway…

  • Will the White Stripes help to de-feminize ballet? « Gender Across Borders @ at 2:01 pm, April 23rd, 2010

    [...] Few institutions other than modeling, for example, lead to a pervasive culture of eating disorders (the New York Times cited the incidence of eating disorders in dancers as one in five.)- the F-Bomb [...]

  • Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists | fbomb @ at 11:01 am, June 1st, 2010

    [...] just say it, cool enough) that one of our regular contributers, Nellie B. (Vandalize Gay, A Feminist Goes to the Ballet, Prom and Assimilation to name a few), is actually published in it! She was also nice enough to let [...]

  • A @ at 10:53 pm, July 20th, 2010

    I take ballet, but not in a very serious course. Many of the girls in my class are not exceptionally thin and we aren’t pressured to be.

  • Rowena @ at 5:35 am, August 11th, 2010

    I enjoyed reading this article which still stands a whole year later – that’s topical relevance for you!:)

    I relate to all you wrote and must agree with the first response which commented on the anachronistic nature of classical ballet with all its gender bias.

    I love ballet but am not a fan of the classical Ballet’s themselves – I keep thinking its such a waste of talent that dancers should spend many years of hard training only to tippy-toe about on stage in the ludicrous role of some silly fairy tale or another. I only go to watch these dancers showcase their dancing talent and I often wish I were a choreographer! ..as its very easy to visualize artistically better ideas on how to showcase such dancing talent – even dancing minus the silly fairy-tale narrative is a good start.

    But regarding the thinness of dancers – I recently attended a modern ballet performance – geared towards breaking the classical bias and including all shapes and sizes in the cast. It was fun to watch the men doing all the pas de deux with very creative choreography.
    But I very much doubt that any of them could have lifted the heavy girls that swayed and skipped around them. It is a sad truth that dancing (as an art form) doesn’t favor too much earth-bound flesh. The bodies that break through such earth bound limitations are always very lean. It isn’t just a classical ballet prejudice but is a genuine physical and aesthetic limitation. Sadly, the visual of a fleshy body trying to launch itself airborne for example is more comical than inspiring.

  • nancy @ at 5:28 pm, December 27th, 2010

    well I’m a feminist dancer in the UK.
    I just do ballet and really enjoy it but my teacher knows that most of us don’t want to do it professionally and so whilst we do things like sit-ups they are for strength rather than to be thin or anything.

    When people find out I do ballet they are often very surprised as I am not the ‘pink, girly’ type.

    Some dancers I know work dancing on cruise ships and the women get paid less than the men and do 1 more show a week than them.
    This is what makes me angry.

  • Hannah @ at 11:03 pm, March 7th, 2011

    I am a serious ballet dancer and intend to be for the rest of my life. For the most part I agreed with your article but i do have to disagree with your information about males getting the stronger music to their variations. It all depends on the ballet. The music is based off the character, not their gender.In ballets like Don Quixote the female gets just as much “pounding” music as the male leads do. And, these ballets have been choreographed and have had the music written for them decades ago. You can’t blame them for giving the ballerina (who is known for her ability to seem weightless) for having a less “powerful” or “strong” role. As for the dancer, she perfectly enjoys what she’s doing and sees no harm to it.

    At least that’s from a dancer’s point of view.

  • Jennifer @ at 3:13 pm, September 4th, 2011

    It may be important to note that while the female form dominates the stage in ballet, those that actually rise to power in dance(choreographers, directors, producers, etc), are men. This is true across the board (jazz, modern, musical theater) not just in ballet.

    The reason this tends to be true is that the dance community (dance studios, higher ed., dance companies) tends to reaching out to men because, rightly or wrongly, we believe we need more men in the field.

    The outcome of this action is that male students tend to get more attention in class, receive the scholarship or grant, and/or be promoted. A larger question is why, in one of the few fields that is dominated by women (as far as numbers go) do we give more of the opportunities to our male counter-parts? I believe that this trend has had an adverse effect on the true development of women in dance, and unless it changes we will continue to have yet one more field where women are “upstaged”.

  • Christine @ at 12:14 pm, March 29th, 2013

    Thank you for this piece, although I recognize it was written quit a while ago. I am a feminist mother, with a daughter who is passionate about ballet. I signed her up when she begged (at 3), thinking she would hate it as much as I did when I was little. Wrong – 8 years later, she dances at a very high level. As you said, the discipline, strength – the grit- it takes to seriously train is exciting to see in my daughter. And she is no shrinking violet. But the world she will navigate to be successful (and she is determined) frightens me and her father, who’s sister had fairly serious eating disorders as a young adult. All that said, we keep supporting her to set goals, work hard, and achieve at her passion, while holding up dancers like Whitney Jensen and others who are incredibly strong and athletic, and not stick thin. Who knows, with her “rule the world” personality, maybe my daughter will be one who brings a stronger feminist presence to ballet and breaks through some of the glass ceilings. Regardless, her training has made her physically and mentally strong, and tenacious.

  • Katya @ at 12:44 am, May 22nd, 2013

    Ok, years later but I’d like to comment…

    It’s always been interesting to me to see how ballet is criticized for not being “feminist”. Question: is classical music feminist? is Opera feminist? Is classical theater feminist? In my view, all classical art is completely chauvinistic. Women weren’t even allowed to be composers or actors; in ballet, they were not only allowed to participate but were protagonists of this art form. However, in my opinion, this wonderful art (I was a professional ballet dancer for 10 years and continue to teach) is diminished just for the simple fact that it is considered “feminine”…. unlike “masculine” music or literature, always praised by male-driven societies. People know Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, Verdi. I wonder how many people not related to ballet know Taglioni or Cerrito? They all know Nureyev or Baryshnikov, and there are movies about male superstar dancers, such as Billy Elliot (which I personally despise). It’s as if society wants male figures to continue dominating art and life… In ballet, the woman has the leading role but we can only see Giselles and Sugar Plum Fairies. Look at Forsythe, Preljocaj, look at all the contemporary dance companies who train with ballet (I personally train 2 professional contemporary dance companies with ballet). Ballet technique has evolved incredibly, but ballet is being evaluated only by the choreographies of Petipa et al. from the 1800’s! Could we measure all music, contemporary or other, against Strauss’ music? Of course not!
    Regarding anorexia and other eating disorders, I just think that any activity that makes your body your “instrument” has those risks associated. Sports, such as Gymnastics, modeling, diving, even triathlon and other forms of athleticism have high incidence of eating disorders, both in women and in men as well. I danced professionally for 10 years and studied ballet 10 years before becoming professional. I was skinny but I ate right and I never had any kind of eating disorder.

  • Elizabeth @ at 4:22 pm, July 10th, 2013

    I think your article neglects the idea that femininity does not have to be negative. In fact ballet is feminist in that it celebrates women for being incredibly strong and dedicated, as it was previously stated you cannot be a ballerina without these things.

    To remove ballet from feminism seems unfair, why should women be put down for being strong while appearing delicate and graceful. The problem is that women are people, all very different and the pursuit of something that allows the ability to carry both (traditionally) male and female traits like strength and grace, makes ballet feminist in nature, even if it’s not present in the stories.

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