Thursday, March 6, 2014

She's Too Fat To Dance! Or Is She?

When I was five years old, I wanted to be a ballerina more than anything in the whole world. Me, and probably half the little girls in America. The other half wanted to go horseback riding.

I don't know when or where I got this urge. I grew up in Detroit, and believe me, there was no ballet company in residence. I do remember being taken to see the Kirov when they came through on tour. Or maybe it was the Bolshoi? Russian/Soviet, in any case, and a really big deal.

Alas, my ballerina dreams were shattered not long after my mother enrolled me in a dance class in kindergarten. This was more than half a century ago, but I remember the day of the recital very clearly. My group was dressed as bumble bees, little black leotards and yellow headbands with antennae attached. Through the wispy curtains of time, I still recall the sense of humiliation I felt when I looked at the other little girls. They were slim and reedy. My chubby tummy bulged out. Even at that age, I knew I was too fat to dance.

Several years ago, chief New York Times dance critic Alastair Macauley kicked off a shit storm when he wrote of New York City Ballet principal dancer Jenifer Ringer that, in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night of "The Nutcracker," Ringer appeared to have "eaten one sugar plum too many."

The dance world responded immediately, most defending Ringer and challenging the assumption that a ballerina had to have a particular body type. Macauley defended his original column.

Jenifer Ringer told me that after an initial feeling of horror upon reading Macauley's scathing words, she took a deep breath and relaxed. In 2010, Ringer was self confident in both her dancing and her body. If this had happened twenty years earlier, though, Ringer would have been devastated. It turns out that Ringer suffered debilitating eating disorders at the outset of her professional career. She was hired at NYCB at the age of 16, one of four students from her class at the School of American Ballet who were offered jobs with the company. Ringer was acutely aware that her curvier body type was rounder than those of many of her fellow company members. She stopped eating, then became anorexic. A year or so later, still almost paralyzed by negative self image, Ringer started to binge-eat junk food, balancing out each quart of ice cream with frantic exercise.

Eventually, Jenifer Ringer gained so much weight that, ultimately, NYCB asked her to leave the company. Ringer says she had to hit that bottom to figure out how to gain some control over her mental health and her eating. The story has a happy ending: through her religious faith, and the help of a fellow dancer who she later married, Ringer worked her way back to her professional dance career. In her new memoir "Dancing Through It," Ringer chronicles that period of her life.

Ringer's experience reminds me of a visit I paid last year to All That Dance, a multi-generational dance school in Seattle. Every fall, the school suspends regular classes for "Love Your Body Week." It's a chance for teachers to talk to the students about body image, healthy eating, and potential eating disorders. The large mirrors in the studios are covered with butcher paper; by the end of the week, that paper is covered with dozens of handwritten notes. The students scrawl things they love about their bodies, or what their bodies can do in the dance studio.

All That Dance founder and director Maygan Wurzer doesn't keep data to track what happens after her students leave. She has no proof that making kids, in particular, aware of potential eating and body image issues will prevent crippling disorders like Jenifer Ringer suffered. But Wurzer says over the years she's watched kids who grow up attending her school; she's observed how they behave. Wurzer's convinced they have a healthy awareness of and attitude toward their bodies.

Jenifer Ringer says these days, New York City Ballet actually has counselors available for the dancers. But she's not sure whether people seek out help. Ringer says 20 years ago, she lied when people asked her what was wrong. She thinks that some professional dancers may do the same thing today, despite the availability of help. More to the point, Ringer says as a society, we still value thinness, and we expect it in particular from professional ballet dancers. She doesn't think things will really change until general attitudes about beauty and weight change.

So, will we ever see plump ballerinas in the mix at professional companies, like New York City Ballet or Pacific Northwest Ballet? I can't imagine it, and that's partly because the physical demands of the profession keep dancers fit and lean, for the most part. Might we see a different mix of body types: women with bulkier muscles, for example, more womanly hips and breasts? Part of the change will have to come from those of us who watch dance, and write about dance, and think about what's beautiful onstage.
The ever-beautiful Carla Korbes in Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Swan Lake"

I think back to my five year old self, to my ballet dreams. I know now that I never would have made it as a ballerina, not only because I was too fat. Turns out, I'm a klutz; I'm far more aware of my thoughts than my body's position in space. That was true then, and it's true now. These days, I live vicarious ballet dreams. That's fine with me.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this, Marcie. I'm sure there are many of us with similar stories. You found your way to stay connected to dance by writing about it and talking about it. The dance world needs good dance writers and "talkers" -- reviewers, bloggers -- dance story tellers. Thank you for what you do.

    I, too, wanted to dance when I was young. And I did. I danced for 13 of the first 18 years of my life -- ballet and modern -- and then more sporadically until I found another way to feed that dance craving.

    There are myriad reasons why young dancer-wannabes don't make it in the ballet world. I didn't have the right body type, either. For me it was the "Balanchine body" that I didn't have -- small head and torso, long arms and legs. I have just the opposite -- "normal" (whatever that is) torso and short arms and legs -- and definitely not thin and waif-like enough. When I was young, that just would not fly in ballet. It turns out that I (and probably you -- and many others) could do just fine in modern dance. You see lots of different body types there. But when I was young, modern -- at least the modern dance of Twyla Tharpe and Merce Cunningham -- was still in its infancy -- and only happening in New York. Nothing for a young Seattlite. Even the UW, when I got there, only had beginning ballet classes, held in the PE department.

    For awhile I stopped dancing, and life got way too serious. Then I took a ballet class here, a modern class there, a little tap, a little jazz. And then I found social dancing -- partner dancing -- swing and lindy and waltz and salsa and blues and zydeco and country and dozens more.

    Anybody, can learn to dance socially -- it doesn't matter how tall or short you are, how skinny or fat you are, how old you are, or anything else about you. It doesn't even matter how "klutzy" you are -- there's probably a dance you can learn and have fun with! Everyone is welcome on the social dance floor.

    These dances have the same sense of flying that ballet has, the same connection between rhythm and movement -- often even more connection as they incorporate polyrhythms and polycentric movement -- with the added advantages that while there is a learning curve, they don't require as long a period of study to get "good" (whatever that means). You can start dancing at any age -- way into adulthood and even senior adulthood and have fun with it, and dancing with a partner just takes the experience over the top.

    Lucky for us, Seattle is a mecca of social dancing. There are classes in dozens of dance styles every night of the week and more dances than any one person could hope to cover, all weekend long. Most classes welcome individuals as well as couples and many people go to classes and dances alone, with a friend of any persuasion, and sometimes in groups (carpooling -- how green!).

    I would encourage anyone -- closet dancers, dancer wannabes, dancer scaredy-cats, "two left feet" dancers, "no rhythm" dancers, "klutzy" dancers, "dancing -- yikes!" dancers -- to check out some of the social dance cornucopia that we have in Seattle and give it a try. You just might find your own little dance heaven, and how wonderful would that be?

    Linda Townsend West

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