Women make up the vast majority of the dance world. Yet it’s no secret that they’re routinely passed over for leadership positions and choreography commissions, confronted with sexism in the studio and stymied by expectations of how female artists should look and behave. Here, 10 industry leaders open up, candidly sharing their stories, and offering ideas for how we can do better.
Q: What makes you a feminist?
“This spring, I decided that if an organization wanted me to do a piece, I would only say yes if they included a woman choreographer on the program. When I look at some of the playbills of programs I have going up, it’s just like, Really? Only men again? The disparity is kind of insane. If someone chooses not to use me because I’ve insulted them by saying that, I still think it’s worth saying and having that in their ear.” —Kyle Abraham, artistic director and choreographer, Abraham.In.Motion
Q: Do female choreographers make different work than men?
“Definitely. We experience life fundamentally differently, and that affects our physicality and our sensitivity. In The Virgin Suicides, there’s this line that says, ‘We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.’ That’s a really poetic way of talking about the unique humanity of women. There’s a quiet power and also a bubbling revolt, a delicateness and a fierceness that’s a negotiation of pleasing people and not. Men have a freedom we don’t have. As a woman, and as a Latina, I feel like every piece I make is somehow supposed to represent my entire culture. I don’t think white men have that kind of baggage.” —Rosie Herrera, artistic director and choreographer, Rosie Herrera Dance Theatre
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Gibney
Q: What have you noticed as a female entrepreneur?
“When I opened Gibney Dance Center, there was a huge difference in the way women and men reacted. A lot of women came up to me and said, ‘The space is beautiful and I can’t wait to make work in it.’ Men said, ‘I’d like to show my work in your performance space.’ There was a very different attitude about the plans and programs men wanted. They were making deals. I didn’t get a single business proposition from a woman in that way. It’s up to women to take the reins, and take risks.” —Gina Gibney, CEO and artistic director, Gibney Dance
Rose Eichenbaum for Dance Teacher
Q: How can we help young women in ballet build the confidence to become leaders?
“We have to train leaders. A lot of it is about helping students with their priorities. So many just want to get their leg up, want to be insta-famous. And many are myopically focused on ballet. At Colburn, we expose them to other kinds of dance, and to museums. We offer a unit of drama. It’s so hard for ballet students to talk, to get out there and advocate for themselves. The culture is to be silent and to receive. I have to keep reminding them to find their voice and keep expressing themselves.” —Jenifer Ringer, director, Colburn Dance Academy
Rachel Soh, Courtesy Goebel
Q: What has it been like to rise in the male-dominated world of hip hop?
“I never felt there were different standards for men and women, but a different value placed on what women’s work is worth. But there are a lot of amazing female choreographers making their mark today. My movement style, polyswagg, allows us to use all our woman qualities that the boys don’t have, and at the same time be able to hit as hard as the boys.” —Parris Goebel, choreographer for Justin Bieber, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj
Sylvain Guenot, Courtesy Dendy
Q: Why does the dance world trail behind pop culture as far as trans inclusion?
“It’s a private thing to watch on your television. There’s a safety, and that gets taken away when you’re sitting in a theater experiencing a live performance. There are some gender-fluid characters in dance today, but I don’t think you’re going to see a trans person walk out in Esplanade anytime soon.” —Mark Dendy, experimental choreographer who recently created Whistleblower, about transgender soldier Chelsea Manning
Whitney Browne, Courtesy Camille A. Brown
Q: Why is empowering young black women so important to you?
“One time on tour, we asked a high school audience, ‘What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “black girl”?’ Everything was negative and the way they were saying things really made me uncomfortable. I saw people mimicking the gestures that they associated with black girls—snapping their hands, rolling their neck, putting their hands on their hips—and they were pointing to the few black girls in the audience.
That’s why I do the initiative. Black girls need to know that they are valued and they are more than a stereotype. How often are we able to see a black girl’s story through her gaze? We need to talk about the issues, but we also need to show the full spectrum of who black girls are.” —Camille A. Brown, choreographer and founder of Black Girl Spectrum
James Jin, Courtesy Latarro
Q: What is it like to be part of the first all-female creative team on Broadway, for Waitress?
“I’m usually hyperaware of my tone—as a woman, there’s a fine line between speaking too softly and kindly and speaking too harshly. But when you’re in a team that you trust, you can be direct. You just say what you need to say.
Also, we’re women writing about a woman. It feels different when you’re watching because it’s a point of view that we’re not used to. In many other Broadway shows, even if there’s a female protagonist, she still behaves the way a male writer might see her.” —Lorin Latarro, choreographer for Waitress
Julie Mack, THEY Bklyn, Courtesy Pyle
Q: Do outmoded gender stereotypes hold ballet back?
“In my training, I was really discouraged from being strong. There was always the expectation that I would be 15 percent below the typical body weight for my height. Eating disorders come along with that, and then not being able to menstruate—that affects your hormones and emotions and development and your brain. When I stopped ballet, I could think more clearly because I stopped being anorexic. I got a message from my teachers, whether explicitly or implicitly, that I should appear smaller, more fragile, more vulnerable. The archetypes that were presented to me were of women who needed to be saved.
Ballet appears as a very elitist, white, male-run form that will just reproduce the same ideas and images over and over and over again until there is a bigger disruption in terms of types of bodies, genders, race, backgrounds—there’s so much! Having transgender people in ballet companies is what I’m interested in. Bringing in people who have more diverse relationships to their own gender is going to shift the work.”
—Katy Pyle, artistic director of Ballez, an organization and company that explores story ballets with lesbian, queer and transgender people
Jade Young, Courtesy Bond
Q: Do you feel you’re treated differently as a female choreographer?
“I struggle with not being taken as seriously. I look young and I’m in the corps de ballet: I was 16 when I started, and now I’m 33, and I’m still treated as a girl—even when I’m choreographing. I’m not seen as a woman. It’s like I’m pigeon-holed into a box. If I want to do anything I have to initiate it myself.” —Gemma Bond, choreographer and American Ballet Theatre dancer
Interviews by Suzannah Friscia, Marina Harss, Gia Kourlas, Madeline Schrock, Kristin Schwab, Jennifer Stahl and Lauren Wingenroth.
Despite calls for change, ballet’s obsession with extreme thinness persists.
During a recent performance of Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, a corps member at a prominent company complained that she was so hungry she thought she’d faint. The dancer next to her started to worry that she herself wasn’t hungry enough. “In shape for us is being hungry,” she said later on. “Eat nothing and see how far you can go.”
Although most professional ballet dancers are naturally slender, having been selected at a young age for advanced training partly for their physique, even those with genetics on their side can be made to feel their bodies aren’t good enough. Dancers interviewed on the condition of anonymity confide that weight gain can get them fired while thinness can help them advance. Even though the field has made progress, and has become more aware of the health risks of dieting, directors having “fat chats” to tell dancers to slim down remains routine.
Roots of the Trend
Ballet has long idealized a sylphlike physique. The fixation on thin became amplified in the 1960s when Balanchine’s preference for long and lean ballerinas promoted a thin aesthetic that influenced other companies worldwide. Often, those who perpetuate unrealistic body standards today are former dancers who came of age during his reign.
Calling Out The Problem
At ballet’s first-ever international conference on eating disorders, hosted by Dance UK in London in 2012, former Royal Ballet artistic director Monica Mason spoke out against ballet’s emphasis on thin dancers. “Any director of a company who said they have never had an anorexic dancer would have to have been lying,” she stated.
Since then, ballet companies around the world, admittedly some quicker than others, have begun to heed the call for change. Spanish ballerina Tamara Rojo declared her determination to instill a healthy body image among her dancers when she took the reins of English National Ballet in 2012. The following year, The Royal Ballet created the Mason Healthcare Suite, where health and well-being programs ensure that no dancer feels a need to starve themselves to succeed.
Scientific evidence shows that emaciated dancers are unable to sustain the demands of today’s athletic choreography. “Extreme thinness often leads to individuals cannibalizing their protein stores, which results in losses in strength and power, and, in my experience, increases their chances of injury, particularly stress fractures,” says American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Peter Marshall.
One dancer fired for her curves says that while dieting, she lost focus, endurance and emotional stability. For many, slimming down means resorting to dangerous behaviors, including starvation, purging and addictions to appetite suppressants like tobacco or other substances. In 1997, Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther, dealing with an eating disorder, died at age 22; in 2012, Italian dancer Mariafrancesca Garritano publicly accused La Scala and its academy of turning a blind eye to the culture of eating disorders causing infertility among her fellow dancers.
By some accounts, these efforts appear to be working. A 2014 study found that multifaceted wellness programs adopted by ballet companies in Britain and elsewhere actively support the physical and mental health of dancers.
Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that not all companies follow the guidelines the same way. One dancer reports that her company’s on-site nutritionist counsels her how to get thin by giving her recipes for meals with less than 300 calories. Although we’re giving dancers tools for so-called safe weight-loss, the emphasis is still on conforming to an unnaturally skinny ideal.
Fortunately, artistic directors are declaring themselves more open to different body types. Current Royal Ballet director Kevin O’Hare, for example, says his company values individuality and stage presence over any set shape. “Being a dancer is not about denial but about strength and vigor,” he says.
National Ballet of Canada artistic director Karen Kain refutes the suggestion that her company is skinny-obsessed. “I do not hire overly thin dancers or those with eating disorders,” she says. “The dancers of the NBoC are highly trained elite athletes who would never be able to perform every night after training and rehearsing during the day if they weren’t the most powerful and fit that they could be. These dancers have plenty of rippling muscles, which they would not have if they were overly thin.”
Emily Molnar of Ballet BC also emphasizes her dancers’ strength. “Don’t get me wrong. Ballet is a visual art form, so we’re not talking about anything goes here,” she says. “But exciting to me is to witness a woman onstage, as opposed to a girl, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has a confident voice, displaying the virtuosity of her training and the full expression of her artistry.”
Ballet still has a long way to go, but it’s encouraging that so many in the field are calling for change. “Dance should celebrate our humanity,” says Alberta Ballet artistic director Jean Grand-Maître, “and not be an artificial ideal imposed upon us by individuals frightened by what constitutes the natural shapes of the feminine physique.”
Jenifer Ringer with Jared Angle in The Nutcracker. Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
How Do We Move Forward?
Former New York City Ballet principal Jenifer Ringer wrote about her battle with eating disorders in her 2014 book, Dancing Through It. We asked her why ballet continues to insist on an unnatural aesthetic for women, and she shared her thoughts:
Unfortunately, our entire culture right now glorifies extreme thinness. As a mother, I dread the day when my children learn that people will judge them on their appearance. Art can be a critical commentary on culture, but it can also display a culture at its extreme, and I think in ballet we see the continuation of today’s radically low weight-standard of beauty for women. Look at any television pilot episode and if the series gets picked up, all of the actresses come back 10 pounds lighter. Look at almost every ad in magazines or on bus stops and you see impossible examples of skinniness as beauty.
Ballet is a visual, voiceless art form where the line of the body is crucial and under a great deal of constant scrutiny, not only from the audience and the artistic powers-that-be, but also from the dancers themselves. In order to change the unnatural thinness in ballet, the entire field would need to buy into the change. While I have heard many stories of directors demanding lower weights from their dancers, I have also heard countless dancers criticizing themselves and their colleagues for being “overweight.” Balletomanes in the audience can often, sadly, be just as damagingly critical. I used to have complete strangers approach me on the street to talk about my weight fluctuations, whether up or down, as if they thought what they said would not hurt me deeply. They saw me as an object, not a person.
There are dancers out there “breaking the mold,” but I can pretty much guarantee that they did not set out to challenge the ballet world on its weight standards; the daily struggle for these dancers to succeed and maintain positive self-confidence is a battle they probably would have preferred not to fight.
Yes, ballet is elite and often ethereal. Of course ballet dancers have to be fit, have to be lean and honed with the precision of training to be able execute athletically physical feats. The dancer’s body is her instrument and it needs to be kept in top condition not only for strength but also for appearance. And that appearance does require a certain thinness in the ballet world, a uniform of sorts. But thin for one body type is emaciated for another, and different body types should be equally appreciated as each dancer finds a level of fitness and leanness that is healthy for her. This can happen when dancers are seen as empowered individuals whose movement quality and artistry are given more value than their weight.
Ballet dancers are not collections of bones and muscles moving from one beautiful pose to the next. Dancers move because they need to, and they move to bring an audience out of themselves and to show people what music looks like. Ballet should display the best that any human body—no matter its type—can do: huge physical acts of strength and stamina linked together and combined with artistry to create a moment of art. This moment exists while that beautiful human body is dancing, then ends when both the music and the body are finally still.
And then the applause can begin. — Jenifer Ringer