An open letter to ballet companies and schools – stop weighing your dancers!

Currently I have a handful of clients who have gotten the direct feedback to lose weight. Their ages range from 15-24. In addition to those dancers, there’s another group who have been told more indirectly that they should trim down. Whether you conduct “weigh-ins” or not (one would really hope this is not a modern practice but I can say it surely is) telling a dancer she needs to lose weight is 9 times out of 10 more damaging than productive.

Making a general comment to an entire class is at times just as bad. Most dancers will assume you’re speaking directly to them.

I received a message just today on instagram from a dancer who is concerned that her roommate is purging and she doesn’t know if she should do something about it. Rather than being part of the problem as teachers and artistic staff, wouldn’t it be nice to be a part of the solution?

Dancers will go to extremes.

A dancer can easily get it in her head that the only thing holding her back from the next career step is her weight. Dancers are more prone to eating disorders than the average female. Tutu Thin author, Dawn Smith – Theodore shared the stat that 1 in 5 dancers has an eating disorder while 1 in 100 non-dancers has one.

When you weigh your dancers in and expect them to hit a certain number, you’re creating an environment where they’re constantly on edge and living in fear. They’re not going to create a positive relationship with food and their bodies and that damage can last a lifetime.

If a weigh-in determines roles and compensation, dancers adopt such practices that we might only attribute to wrestlers or jockey’s who have a specific weight they must meet to compete. These practices result in temporary loss of water weight, dehydration and can damage digestion and blood sugar.

Wouldn’t it be better to have dancers who are at a healthy weight that they can maintain? Vs. dancers who are struggling to keep their bodies at a number you desire…

It’s interesting to me that Artistic Staff assume that the public wouldn’t be open to seeing greater diversity on stage. I think in fact, they might be happy to see that. When people bring young girls to the ballet wouldn’t it be nice if they saw role models of various sizes?

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I understand the argument for the sake of the men who partner female dancers that they should be a weight that can be lifted without great strain which is why I advocate for a healthy weight. Dancers will likely not be performing at their best if they are indeed overweight but where’s the line?

When it comes to partnering, shouldn’t there be some responsibility put on the men to be stronger? Perhaps focus on working with your men on weight training to enhance their partnering skills. Asking a man to work on strength is a much more reasonable request that asking a woman to drop to a weight that might not be healthy for her body.

I reached out to Ballet Theatre of Indiana Artistic Director, Stirling Matheson for some partnering perspective on female weight and the responsibility of men in partnering. He said…

“The first thing I’d say is that of you can only lift an underweight dancer, you are too weak. A male dancer isn’t a powerlifter, so the entire gamut of human is obviously not something one can or should train for, but lifting a variety of athletic body types is the job.

The type of lift also changes how I’d think about that. It can be easier to do an up-down lift like a entrechat six or a saut de chat with a larger partner that has more power than a smaller one with the ‘lift me, I’m tiny’ attitude.

Casting has to be decided by comparing the strength of the men with the weight of the women if it’s going to work. When it comes to weight in general, I think it’s a lot like a car. Performance comes from the power-to-weight ratio. Adding or subtracting weight can be good (depending on situation) as long as it creates a more complete package.

I think the same hold true for dancers: if you’re losing weight and getting weaker you’re not improving anything. If you’re gaining weight and not gaining strength you’re not improving anything.”

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When dancers are trying to lose weight rapidly in order to meet some deadline or goal you’ve set for them, they’re getting weaker.

There’s a way to approach dancers about their bodies without focusing on weight or weight loss, I shared my ideas on that in Dance Teacher Magazine. Mental health is not addressed enough in dance and the focus on weight and physical appearance can be big factors in the damage done to the psyche of a dancer.

As tempting as it is for me to name the names of some of the schools and companies who are contributing to this problem, I’ll refrain. You know who you are. I hope that with the downfall of prominent ballet heads for their abuses, we’ll start to recognize the abuse that is body shaming in ballet.

When you threaten a dancers role or a performance opportunity due to her weight you are inviting her to crash diet to an unhealthy extreme. If a dancer is starving herself to meet your aim she is not going to have energy to perform well on stage.

If you insist on making body suggestions, withholding pay until a dancer reachesĀ  your goal for her is unreasonable. Even though this seems like it should be illegal and it sounds shocking and sensational, companies do it.

I can’t help but think about the capacity for growth and power dancers would have in their performances if they were fully supported and empowered by the higher ups. Things are shifting. Lets add the way we approach weight in dance to the list of things that needs to shift.

For clarity, I later made this video:

To ballet companies and schools – stop weighing your dancers!

Jess Spinner

Jess is a former professional ballet dancer turned Holistic Health, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Coach for high level dancers. She founded The Whole Dancer in 2015 after identifying a greater need for balance, wellness and support in the dance world. Since The Whole Dancer was founded, Jess has worked with 100's of dancers worldwide at top companies and schools. She has been featured in or written for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Pointe Magazine, and Dance Spirit Magazine.

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