For many years there have been whispered stories about the health and body image of ballet dancers. Of dieting, eating disorders and of young girls subjected to intimidating and invasive “body checks” . This is clearly not an issue for every ballet dancer and by no means are we suggesting that here. But recently, Mamamia reader Georgia Canning, a former ballet dancer with The Australian Ballet School, contacted us about sharing her story.
Her aim, she insists, is not to berate the ballet world but to educate girls – and their parents – about the realities of ballet at a professional level. Georgia writes…
“I was never the kind of child that changed their career path every week. My sister went from school teacher, to vet and spent a month convinced she would become a dolphin trainer, whilst my brother tossed up between Doctor or President of America. I however, always knew my calling. I was going to become a ballerina.
Now I know that becoming a dancer is almost every little girl’s dream growing up, but I actually came close – too close. Mothers ask me all the time, what ballet school they should send their children to or ‘why did you give up when ballet is so beautiful?’ To the first question I want to yell, ‘Please just don’t enrol them anywhere period! The only good thing she will get out of it is good posture!’ And to the latter I crumble inside and watch their startled faces when I attempt to explain it’s not all harmless tutus and tiaras.
I was 15 when I was accepted into the Australian Ballet School’s full time program. It was by far the most exciting period of my life. I was moving to Melbourne, had achieved a life long dream and was going to study alongside the crème of the crop and have the Australian Ballet Company stretching just down the hall. It was every young ballet dancers dream. So with great hesitation from both my parents they let me go. Now when I ask my mother why she let me go, her answer is simple, ‘If I had made you stay home, you would have never forgiven me when you were older and besides you’re such a stubborn little thing’.
So I set off to my new life in Melbourne, so proud of myself and full of enthusiasm. I couldn’t believe that The Australian Ballet Company (my idols at the time) would be using the same studio’s as me and at my fingertips was all the equipment and facilities a dancer could dream of. Everything was peachy – for the first few months.
All of a sudden they began holding weigh ins which were disguised as ‘Health Assessments’. There was nothing healthy about them as they encouraged my level of 20 girls to quietly compete and become obsessed with their bodies. Now any adult with half a head screwed on could predict that such an action as these weigh ins (oh woops I mean ‘Health Assessments’) could become quite harmful to the dynamics of an already very competitive bunch of young women who have to stare at themselves all day in the mirror, wearing only a leotard and tights!
After a while I was called in for a ‘progress’ meeting with the school board of directors. At 49kg, standing about 159cm high I was told I was fat. Legally they can’t actually say ‘You’re fat, lose some weight’, but what they did say was ‘Perhaps you could tighten your muscles up a little and watch that buttocks and thighs as we don’t want them to overdevelop’. Now an average 15/16 year old weighs 57kgs so you can only imagine the severity of hinting to a young woman that she is a little heavier than the other girls.
I did have a more athletic build than most of the girls in my class. But the explanation is simple. About 3% of them would have been the ‘lucky’ ones who were naturally born with fine bones and found it difficult to put weight on, whilst the rest starved, exercised like crazy and turned to extremely un-healthy and damaging habits. I on the other hand, believed that in order to even get through my day (usually 7am until 7pm) I would have to eat – and eat well. However, the pressure of my classmates competitiveness and the comment from the heads of staff was too much and I eventually delved into some very unhealthy habits of my own.
After listening to some classmates discussing the best way to drop weight extremely fast (consisted of basically not eating) and deciding that maybe if I drink just green tea for a few days I might be skinny enough for them, I knew enough was enough and that I had reached my limits. It finally clicked when I realized that my cohort and myself concentrated more on our weight than the actual dancing.
The last straw(s) was when my Mum saw three red scratches down the inside of my thigh from a teacher scraping them and telling me they were not good enough. Also, the day I walked into the cafeteria to hear my classmates discussing whether they had tried throwing up their meals and how they did it. And finally when the Head’s of the School told my good friend that her chest was too ‘swollen’. Umm they’re called boobs people! In fact, I even remember seeing a classmate bandage her breasts every morning before class to stop them from developing. I knew then that my world I for so long wanted to be a part of was not for me.
It’s incredibly appalling how that school can crush a young woman’s dreams over the difference between being skinny and bulimic! The sad thing is the ballet world does not see these extreme cases of skinny as such. And disturbingly neither did any of my other classmates. What makes me angrier than anything is that I was a fifteen-year-old girl, away from home, absent from a close-knit family and immediate support when I was made to feel completely inadequate. Now that I am 20 and studying at University and doing much better, I can step back and look at this senseless world of fanatics with an understanding that what they did was – 1. Unacceptable, 2. Extremely mentally and physically dangerous, and 3. Disappointing (to say the least).
It’s important to note that not all teachers and people in the Ballet World share the same views. Luckily I had one amazing, supportive Contemporary teacher who made leaving the Australian Ballet School so much harder. She believed in athletic, strong, and striking women who danced with some vigor. However these people are few and far between. I find this extremely sad. Obviously the general public want to see women dancing so I don’t understand why the School want them to look like starved, pre-pubescent, little boys.
So my final answer? No – do not let your daughter do ballet for fear she becomes incredibly charmed by the Tutu’s like I was and will do anything to be a part of it. The sad truth is that in reality The Australian Ballet School and other Dance Schools may say they don’t focus on dieting and the stick thin physique when in fact they do. I completely understand that you have to be thin to dance but you also have to be fit. Institutions like this are bordering on child abuse when they mess with a developing young woman who is vulnerable, impressionable, maturing and far from home. It’s inexcusable. Hopefully voicing my opinion on this issue will lead the way to a much needed attitude adjustment in the Ballet Community.”
Have you ever done ballet? Do you know anyone in the ballet world and would you consider sending your daughter to ballet lessons. Perhaps you already do – what has your experience been like