Plus-Size Dancer Colleen Werner Is Challenging Ballet to Celebrate All Body Shapes

September 2, 2021

In an industry with strict physique expectations, Colleen Werner is forging an alternate path—an adult dance experience that celebrates body diversity. While studying to become a clinical mental health counselor in Nashville, she’s simultaneously dancing with Black Sheep Ballet, a virtual company that aims to bring ballet to more diverse audiences. Meanwhile on Instagram, she’s amassed more than 65K followers through her body-positive posts, and become an ambassador for Gaynor Minden and Discount Dance Supply.

Why she’s training to be a therapist: 

I started struggling with body image at around 8, started dieting at 10, and was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 16. After I began recovery at 19, I became a psychology major, and later realized I wanted to create an eating-disorder treatment program for dancers. My goals have since broadened, but I hope to work primarily with dancers.”

“Dance can be a great tool for moving through anxiety and depression, but it can also be harmful because it isn’t a space that represents different kinds of bodies.”

How she gained a following: 

The first time I talked publicly about ballet inclusivity was on my Instagram in 2017. I created the hashtag #BopoBallerina [Body Positive Ballerina], and it ended up skyrocketing me from 2,000 to 10,000 followers in a month.

“I started posting more dance photos, and people would comment that they wished they had someone like me to follow when they were young. Parents reached out to tell me their child didn’t fit the ballet norm, but my photos made them feel like they belonged.”

What it’s like being a plus-size ambassador:

“I’m the first plus-sized dancer to ever be a Gaynor Girl. From the beginning they were very up-front that while I wear their pointe shoes and use their training tools, they didn’t have dancewear in my size. It’s great to be in a position like this because I can talk to them about having different sizes and making dancewear more inclusive. They are working on it.”

Why she believes more education could make a difference: 

A lot of teachers and companies don’t know how damaging language can be, or realize the value of being anatomically correct. For example, telling someone to ‘use your abdominal muscles’ rather than ‘suck in your tummy,’ or using the word ‘rotation’ (active) versus ‘turnout’ (stagnant—you either have it or you don’t). We will never be able to eliminate all the issues in the industry, but through therapy and education, we can make a difference.”

Her dance trajectory: 

Near the end of 2020, New England Ballet Theatre dancer Brian Syms reached out to tell me he was creating a virtual company for dancers who have been pushed out of the ballet world. Black Sheep Ballet has dancers with a range of backgrounds who are extremely talented but haven’t found their place. Our first performance was a pre-recorded fundraiser in which I danced a variation from Mother Goose.

“I used to think that if I didn’t become a professional in a major company, I wasn’t valuable, or worthy of dance. That’s not true. Dance is just one part of who I am, and that’s okay.”