How SFB's Tina LeBlanc learned to accept her body

June 22, 2008

For the past 16 years San Francisco Ballet audiences have delighted in Tina LeBlanc’s vibrant, scintillating dancing in a variety of roles. She began her professional career 26 years ago with the Joffrey Ballet to almost immediate acclaim. But she’s quick to point out that she wasn’t born with the ideal ballet body. Rather than dwell on what she doesn’t have, she highlights what she does. Here she tells
Dance Magazine‘s Khara Hanlon how her body image has challenged her and how she’s moved beyond her own obsessions.

My first teacher was very matter of fact. If somebody got too heavy she would tell them. She didn’t soften the blow at all. Even if it wasn’t directed to me then, I was very aware of that issue from a young age.

When I was 14 or 15, I auditioned for the SAB summer course. On the bottom of my acceptance letter there was a little handwritten note saying that I should watch my weight. It made me feel horrible. I also didn’t have a really good idea of what that meant. Young girls don’t always know enough about nutrition. They don’t know how to lose weight well and stay healthy. I’d grown up on junk food: potato chips, pretzels, Fritos, Ring Dings, donuts, ice cream.

Mr. Joffrey was always on me to lose weight. He’d say, “Tina, five pounds! Just five pounds!” I’d think, I’m trying. Believe me, on a 5’1″ body five pounds makes a huge difference. I became a little bit like, Oh, I can’t eat. I’d give it a half-hearted effort. I would be good for a couple of days and then would lose control and binge eat. Occasionally I would starve myself or try other methods. Thank God I never became bulimic or anorexic. It totally messes up your body later in life.

When you’re a teenager your hormones are raging; your body is fuller. It was around 21 or 22 that my body started to regulate itself and I could eat a little bit more without gaining weight. I started to lose the baby fat. I was more aware of nutrition. I started eating more healthily, but it was also just the fact that my body was ready.

It wasn’t only a weight thing. It was the way I was built. I’m short and my back is broad. I don’t have a waist and have always complained about it. I’m proportionate but don’t have long legs.

My height has been both good and bad. It’s gotten me certain roles. Being smaller I can look younger from a distance. I can dance with a lot of different guys. It’s also worked against me, especially with the Balanchine people. A lot of them get hooked into, “This is a tall girl part because the girl who originally did it was tall.” Or, even in a totally abstract ballet, it’s, “Oh, you’re too small for that part.” I get a little miffed. But I’ve done some amazing roles so I can’t complain.

I wouldn’t mind if my feet were a little bit longer because the arch would show better. At the same time, if my feet weren’t this small they probably wouldn’t be as fast. I’ve been known for my fast footwork and it’s something I take pride in. It comes naturally—not that I don’t work at it. The ability to move quickly is probably my favorite thing about my body. The rest of it I’ve had a love/hate relationship with—the length of my legs, my extension, my arms, my neck. There are days when it’s great, and there are days when I just can’t look at it.

I know there is no such thing as perfect but that doesn’t stop me from trying to achieve it. I’m a perfectionist. Even if I do a really good show and I’m really pleased, the next time around it’s, “Let’s see where it can be better. Let’s go for it again. Let’s hit it full force.”

In 1996 I was attempting to dance the white swan for the first time. It’s all about being slow and controlled. I was working on the solo with Irina Jacobson, a former SFB ballet mistress, and had hit a wall. It wasn’t getting any better. I was so incredibly frustrated with not being able to make the shapes I wanted to that I just lost it and started crying. Irina gently told me that everybody cried when they did that role. I was trying to stretch past where I was comfortable—which is a good thing. That’s how you grow.

There are beautiful dancers who don’t have the perfect body. Internally they might have their own issues but when they’re performing they’re working for something else. If you do have hyperextension and gorgeous feet, a lot of times you can’t jump or it’s harder to control your pointe work. Sylvie Guillem is the only person I can think of who has what might be considered the perfect body and can still jump and turn and move.

Even now I admire the long-legged girls or the ones with extreme feet and extreme extension. I think that I would like to be in their body for a day just to see what that feels like. Maybe if I knew what it was supposed to feel like I could find it in mine. Of course, that’s wishful thinking.

To grow as an artist you have to keep learning about your body and how you can make it better. Some people hit the professional level and think that’s it. But I’ve discovered more about how to make my extension work at this late stage of the game than I did when I was more limber in my young years. I think my turnout is better now too.

I never stop trying to look long and dance big. Cheating things here and there to make the most of the line is something that any dancer should learn. There are tricks to increase the illusion of length, things like trying to keep your side arm lower than your shoulder when the other is up; keeping the shoulders down (which I’m still struggling with); the angle that you’re at to make your leg look the longest.

I can’t say that my body issues have gone away. I give them less importance. I perfect what I can technically, but artistry is more interesting to me now. There comes a point when you just have to accept what you have and make the most of it. Everybody has something to offer. It might not be what the next person has but that’s OK. It’s you.