Defending Ballet and Beyond

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

I’m not usually one to disrupt a class.

It was a Monday morning in my first-period freshman health seminar. The lights were low, half the class was already asleep, and the 20-year-old television was slowly gearing up to play some low-budget video filmed in the ’80s.

My health class covered topics that would make new high schoolers giggle, like contraception or diagrams of a uterus. While we spent most days watching birthing videos or debating which was the most dangerous hallucinogenic (what we considered “the fun stuff”), our curriculum also covered mental illness, including eating disorders. We watched this video, which aimed to show the consequences and the realities of anorexia. What struck me was that all of the main characters in the film, all of the girls struggling with their self-image and starving themselves, were ballet dancers.

I was dumbstruck. I had been a ballerina for eleven years, and this wasn’t the reality of what I saw every day. My fellow dancers are strong athletes; all of us were—and still are—extremely healthy. Dancers can have eating disorders, and, surely, that happens, but why did anyone have to make ballerinas the focus? It is just as likely that a normal girl or boy who plays basketball or takes art classes can have an eating disorder; in fact, over one-third of teenage boys develop habits related to eating disorders, and not a single male was featured in the film. By pigeonholing ballet dancers into a tiny, sick box, they were putting non-ballet dancers (who might be actually affected by eating disorders) outside of it. If a problem like this is identified primarily with ballerinas, many of those who do have an eating disorder may not question their habits. Using this stereotype as the film’s subject was irresponsible.

I went to my teacher, distraught, and told him how angry I was. Somehow I ended up in front of my entire class, loudly telling them that the stereotypes portrayed in the film were not a reflection of the reality of a ballet dancer, and that our sport is one that pushes us to be healthy and strong, not fragile bags of bones. I probably made a fool of myself, but I was so angry that an art form that has brought me joy and has kept me healthy could be seen as something linked to mental illness.

This experience is where I developed my opposition to typecasting. I often find myself responding with “please don’t say that” to those who assume that because I—or any other persons—have a trait, it leads to a definitive conclusion about our character or lifestyle. Being a woman doesn’t make me weak or emotional; being a ballet dancer does not make me anorexic.

I am slowly unlearning the stereotypes that I have grown up with. I am questioning why my brother never learned how to fold laundry and why girls’ football is treated as a joke (the name “powder-puff” doesn’t exactly garner respect). I have to teach myself to fight the subconscious push to categorize others or myself. Stereotypes cloud who we are as people, and I do not want to be judged because of a conclusion based on my exterior. In the words of Nicki Minaj (perhaps the last person you’d expect a ballet dancer to quote): You will not tell me who I am; I will tell you who I am. I am not a stereotype; I am a tapestry of different, but wonderful, traits, thoughts, and feelings. Only I can tell you who I am.

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