Dealing with Curves

August 2, 2009

Dancers aspire to a willowy silhouette to help achieve long lines and a lyrical movement quality. But what if, like Christina Dooling, you find yourself becoming busty? “I was a late bloomer,” says Dooling, a dancer with Complexions Contemporary Ballet. “When I got to college, I started serious ballet training and realized, ‘Oh, wow, I have boobs!’ ”


Dooling’s peers thought she was lucky, especially friends who didn’t aspire to a ballet career. “The grass is always greener,” Dooling says. “But I was training alongside dancers with tiny, ideal ballerina bodies. I didn’t understand why we were developing so differently. I thought I must be doing something wrong.”


She wasn’t. Researchers have discovered that breast size, like height, is largely genetically determined. (Although if you aren’t at your ideal dance weight, getting down to it can help.) Lack of control over their genetic cards, however, doesn’t offer much comfort to teenagers overwhelmed by a growth spurt.


In fact, many professional companies hire based on talent, without preconceived notions about body type. But it helps for dancers to come to terms with their bodies before they start auditioning. Self-consciousness interferes with a dancer’s ability to perform. If you feel inhibited by having larger-than-anticipated breasts, here’s what you need to know.


Dealing with Changes
It’s normal for dancers and athletes to develop later than their classmates. Because of their heavy exercise load, serious dancers don’t even begin to menstruate and develop until as much as two years later than non-dancers, according to Dr. Michelle Warren, MD, Professor of Medicine and Obstetrics & Gynecology at New York’s Columbia University. Intense exercise lowers estrogen levels, sometimes to a dangerous point, and effectively delays the onset of menstruation.


As a dancer’s breasts grow, her center of gravity shifts. Pirouettes and petit allegro suddenly demand more effort. Dancers may slouch, either to make their breasts appear smaller or simply as a result of added weight. Dr. William Hamilton, MD, an orthopedist for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, recommends focusing on core strengthening and shoulder and upper body exercises to help dancers stay aligned. “One of the great things about dance, particularly ballet, is that you learn posture,” says Dr. Hamilton.

Working Solutions
In addition to strengthening muscles, dancers can choose practice clothes that help. For rehearsals, opt for sports bras or leotards with built-in support. Onstage, some dancers wrap ace bandages around their chests or tape themselves into costumes that don’t allow for bras underneath. If a dancer is concerned about a costume, she should speak to the wardrobe mistress. Performance quality will suffer if she fears she will slip out of her tutu.


Some dancers feel so hampered that they opt for breast reduction, a surgical procedure that requires time in the hospital as well as for recovery. Dr. Warren cautions against it until dancers have fully matured. “You could have a reduction and then your breasts could grow more,” she says. Dr. Warren also notes the procedure is expensive and not reversible. “And,” says Dr. Warren, “the surgery leaves very significant scars.”

Most dancers come to terms with their bodies without taking so radical a step. “Talent is the overwhelming factor in dance,” says Dr. Hamilton. Learning to embrace change helps a dancer become a confident performer.


“Everybody has those days where you look in the mirror and wish you could change what you see,” Dooling says. “Your talent speaks volumes, not your shape. I’m thankful for the body I have. Its capabilities are endless.”


Alison Feller is an associate editor at Dance Spirit.