Will a New Law Combatting Height and Weight Discrimination Affect Hiring Practices in Dance?

August 9, 2023

At a very early age, most dancers are taught to frequently examine their bodies in the mirror. Identifying unique physical traits and strengths often takes a backseat to recognizing “weaknesses”; areas of improvement that, if not addressed, can prevent a young dancer from becoming the moldable instrument choreographers crave. All of this often contributes to a young artist’s first impression of what a “dancer body” ought to be, establishing a mentality that can be frightening and dangerous and that has held many—myself included—back from pursuing a professional dance career.

Weight and height discrimination have been cemented within the very building blocks of the dance world for decades. Overt or sly, targeted comments about the body have the ability to cause long-lasting pain, insecurity, and doubt. And dancers are no stranger to body policing; it’s what’s turned many away from the art form all together. All of this reaches a new level, however, when size discrimination becomes a norm in casting, as has heavily been discussed in recent years thanks to the growing body-positivity movement.

A recent win for size inclusivity has even cemented itself legally: On May 26, 2023, New York City mayor Eric Adams signed new legislation to prohibit height or weight discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations, adding these two physical characteristics to the list of those protected, which includes race, gender, age, religion, and sexual orientation. New York City is not the first to do so: Michigan—notably, since 1976—and Washington State have similar laws, as do cities including Washington, DC, and San Francisco. Such legislation has also been introduced in New Jersey and Massachusetts.

While not net-new, New York City’s ordinance, which is slated to go into effect on November 22, certainly feels like a step in the right direction given the employment opportunities for dancers in the city that’s home to Broadway and is also the largest hub for ballet and modern. The most immediate response could be the removal of all size-disqualifying terminology from casting calls and contracts. Preferences for certain body types—whether in written form or expressed verbally—should now be expunged. And any instance of such can be reported to the city’s Commission on Human Rights for further investigation into whether or not size discrimination has taken place.

However, the exact extent of the ordinance’s implications on the dance world are cloudy. It does state that certain exceptions are allowed when it comes to seeking certain weight/height requirements in employment should those qualities be necessary to perform the job. Could this be used as a loophole to continue casting the same thin and tall body types season after season? Could the need to fit premade costumes prevent replacement dancers of varying body types from being cast? The answers are unclear.

Similar questions arise when it comes to contracts: Over the years, some performers have shared contract clauses that indicate they must stay within a 5-to-10-pound range of their hiring weight or risk termination. Tragic tales of weigh-ins at colleges and professional dance jobs have also made their rounds throughout the industry.

When I began my dance training in high school, I was dumbfounded to hear that a close friend—who had starred in a popular youth-centric Broadway musical for several years—had her weight monitored regularly in accordance with her contract’s stipulations, stating she had to remain within a certain range. All of this took place while she entered puberty and her body began to naturally grow.

Her story was not the first one I’d been made aware of, nor would it be the last. Throughout adolescence and early adulthood, I’d experience my own. My entry point into the art form came through musical theater. I pivoted to dance—zeroing in on tap, jazz, and contemporary—in early high school, always feeling out of place when I stepped into what felt like thin-only studios. Because of this, a lot of my early training was done privately: taught by friends during our lunch period or via YouTube each evening.

Still, staying away from studios didn’t completely prevent this stigma from reaching me: Numerous times throughout my teenage years, I was told by fellow performers that my body was an instant disqualifier when it came to booking gigs. Even recently, after swinging into a production of 9 to 5: The Musical in Mesa, Arizona, a week before opening, I overheard an audience member’s pointed words mid-show: “Why did they cast a fat guy as the love interest?”

While New York City’s new ordinance will certainly alleviate a base level of the issue of discrimination based on weight and height, the problem is far too pervasive to be solved with a single piece of legislation. Size discrimination is rooted in intergenerational stigma, and that stigma is saturated throughout society as a whole. In the professional realm—ballet in particular—it’s conventional wisdom that dancers are often cut from auditions due to their body type, though not directly told such, allowing this quiet discrimination to occur unchecked. Young dancers of various heights and weights are turned away so early in life that they may never even feel the impact of this ordinance. This occurs in major ways, like being rejected from prestigious training programs or company schools, or in minor slights, like dancers having to figure out their own recital costume when those being ordered aren’t available in their size.

Much of this weeding out begins in small dance studios, where the comments of teachers can sting and prevent opportunities from reaching a more diverse pool of young artists. If local studios throughout the country refuse to embrace size inclusivity, the talent pool of professional dancers may never match the inclusive majority who have dreams of performing onstage.

Throughout my handful of years living in New York City and during frequent visits now, I’ve yet to take a dance class where I was not the only plus-size performer in the room. Are others like me not out there? Or were they turned away by the stigmas that have inundated them since childhood, as I once was and had to fight past? Now that I live in Arizona, where I kicked off my choreography career over the past year, I’ve noticed the issue is still as prevalent here as it was back in New York, though I’m taking every action within my control to fight against it.

Inclusivity is a “We’re all in this together” journey. Lawmakers are beginning to do their part—and that is commendable. But the work extends beyond that. To every small-town dance teacher who holds the hearts of hundreds of young ballerinas in their hand; to every Steps on Broadway instructor who helps to mold this generation’s top talent; to every ballet director whose obsession with clean lines and uniformity runs deep: The responsibility now lies with you—on how you speak, how you act, and how you evaluate dance.

We all play a central role in making dance size-inclusive. No change is stronger than the one we can accomplish together.