When Words Hurt

When New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote in his review of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker that “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many,” the dance world yelled foul. Ringer, a celebrated principal with NYCB, has graced the cover of Dance Magazine four times (as many as Balanchine great Violette Verdy), and recently starred in a fashion spread in Elle. The event, dubbed “Sugarplumgate,” left dancers all over the country looking at their own reflections wondering, If she’s fat, then what am I? Blogs and message boards on the internet lit up with emotional cries on Ringer’s behalf, but the call to arms was about more than Ringer as an individual. It was an opportunity to discuss the harshness of the criticism of dancers’ bodies every day. Overnight, Ringer became a symbol of poise in the face of criticism. Appearing in interviews on The Today Show and Oprah shortly after Black Swan’s unhinged Nina Sayers was thrust into popular culture, here stood Jenifer Ringer, the picture of class and maturity, to gently place our feet back on the ground.

While body criticism is a daily event in the dance world, it rarely occurs as publicly as it did to Ringer. Most often these statements are made quietly behind the closed door of an artistic director’s office, or within the sacred space of a dance studio, far from the ears of the outside world. It seems every dancer is “too” something—too tall, too short, too fat, too muscular. As participants in a visual art form, most dancers will inevitably be told that there is some aspect of their bodies that isn’t perfect, because whose is?

The language of body criticism in dance is uniquely its own, full of implied meanings and carefully chosen words. When the issue is something unchangeable, the words used are straightforward, like being too “tall” or “short,” but when the issue is weight-related the adjectives become more varied. Teachers and directors will tell dancers they are “too loose,” “soft,” or “thick,” or advise them to “tighten up,” or “get lean.” In each of these instances the dancer hears only one word—fat. As a result, the true meaning often gets lost in translation.

“I’ve been with Washington Ballet 10 years and every year we’ve had a conversation about my body,” says Morgann Rose, whose athletic build has presented challenges in ballet. In conferences with her director, Rose has often had trouble understanding exactly what she needs to change about her body because of the vague word choices used to describe her problems. 

Often told she needs to “lean up” or “lose five pounds,” Rose has found that by asking questions about what specifically she needs to work on, the language barrier can be broken and proactive solutions can be agreed on. Through her questions, she discovered that her director’s concern was that her upper body appeared thicker than the other girls’ onstage because of her muscular build, and that those muscles needed to be lengthened. “Lean and lengthen are different,” Rose points out. “Lean means lose weight; lengthen means lengthen—and I can totally do that. You can do certain exercises and hold your upper body in a way that will help change the look and line of your muscle.”

Unfortunately, not every person on the artistic staff uses “nice” language. Harsh words can be destructive to a fragile ego, especially when solutions aren’t presented. For Jenny Gilmore, at her former company constant criticism left her feeling helpless. She was too ashamed to reach out for help, resulting in her developing bulimia, and ultimately ending her career.

“One thing that was said was that I was a workman’s comp liability because I could potentially hurt the men’s backs trying to lift me,” she says. “It was brutal and embarrassing and there was nothing constructive about it.” On another occasion, shortly after Gilmore had sustained hip surgery and four weeks spent healing in bed that followed, one particular staff member confronted her. She remembers him saying, “Look at your stomach. It’s disgusting.”

Criticism can go far beyond words. In Gilmore’s case, she would be pulled her out of rehearsal in front of the entire company if she didn’t look like she had lost weight. “I would have to wear a white leotard and pink tights so they  could see my hip bones. It just felt constant,” she says.

For Francine E. Ott, a modern dancer in New York City, her weight has been an issue for most of her career. And while comments about her body made by teachers and directors have been hurtful, the most stinging comments often come from peers criticizing themselves. “I mean these are teeny-tiny people and they’re going on about their bodies, saying things like ‘I don’t even want to look at myself in the mirror,’ and I’m thinking in my head, How is that supposed to make me feel?”

Regardless of where the body criticism comes from, it is felt deeply by the person receiving it. Ringer told Ann Curry on The Today Show that she felt “embarrassed” by what Macaulay said, a sentiment Gilmore relates to. “I felt extremely embarrassed, I felt like everybody knew. I was the fat kid,” Gilmore recalls, “I was just so humiliated.”

Rose felt it most intensely during and immediately after puberty when her weight fluctuated most. “The mental strain and the lack of confidence through those bad times really took a toll on my dancing,” she says. “You look in the mirror and you don’t like what you see.” As she matured she began to see that the physicality she is often criticized for is actually what makes her the dependable dancer that gets her contract renewed each season. “When I’m out there I’m the most powerful dancer onstage because I’ve got muscular strength,” she says. “A lot of the parts that I’m cast in are based on that strength. If I lose weight, I’m not going to have that strength. It’s not fair when someone says, ‘You need to lose that.’ ”

Criticism can help improve an artist, but it has to come from a place of genuine good will. “When you label a person, they don’t have any room to get out of the box that you’ve put them in,” says Ott. “But if they are being spoken to with love or because the person really sees more in them, then they will work with them.”

The most dangerous thing about body criticism in dance is the silence that surrounds it. Each of the dancers interviewed longed to have a mentor who could have helped them through those difficult moments. But the subject is still taboo, and very few of those who have received such criticism have the confidence to counter it as Ringer did. Without support networks, they will continue to cope poorly. As long as body issues are regarded with a sense of failure in the dance world, disordered eating will take the place of sound nutritional consumption, embarrassment will squelch the desire to get help, and potentially beautiful careers will go unfulfilled. Macaulay may have been out of line, but he got us talking, and the dialogue needs to continue. 

Kathleen McGuire, a Pittsburgh-based dance writer, was trained as a pre-professional dancer.


Morgann Rose of The Washington Ballet. Photo by Steve Vaccariello, Courtesy TWB.



Dealing with Criticism

Advice from the dancers


Ask questions about the specific changes you need to be making and for resources to help you get there.


Do your homework. “Go to the bookstore and look at books on different diets, nutrition, and different body types,” says Morgann Rose. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Talk to someone about it, whether it’s a friend, a relative, a therapist, or a nutritionist.

Love yourself first. “If you get to the point of saying ‘I want to lose a little weight,’ that process you go through has to be nurturing and healthy,” says Francine Ott. “Otherwise you will just go back to where you were before.”

Every school and company is not perfect for every dancer. Seek out a place where you feel understood and encouraged to succeed.

Keep it in perspective. Jenny Gilmore: “There will probably be a time that you’re going to have a weight talk. So when it happens you can be like, OK I expected this; what do we need to do?”

Make a game plan for yourself with realistic, achievable goals and stick to it.

The Conversation
Dancers Trending
Hamrick rehearsing Port Rouge in St. Petersburg. Photo courtesy Hamrick

Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.

So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.

Keep reading... Show less
Hive by Boston Conservatory student Alyssa Markowitz. Photo by Jim Coleman

The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Photo by freestocks.org/Unsplash

What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?


Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Stephen Mills' Grimm Tales, which premiered last month, is the first ballet funded by the Butler New Choreography Endowment. Photo by Anne Marie Bloodgood, Courtesy Ballet Austin

As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.

So where can companies find the money?

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by McCallum Theatre
Last year's winner: Manuel Vignoulle's EARTH. Jack Hartin Photography, Courtesy McCallum Theatre

It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.

Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance History
Merce Cunningham in his Changeling (1957). Photo courtesy DM Archives

Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.

Courtesy DM Archives

Dance in Pop Culture
Courtesy MPRM Communications

A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.

But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."

Keep reading... Show less
A 1952 photograph of Merce Cunningham in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three. Photo by Gerda Peterich, Courtesy Blake Zidell & Associates

One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.

This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.

The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.

Keep reading... Show less
The Creative Process
George Balanchine's Don Quixote. Photo by Martha Swope ©The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.

Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.

"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."

Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?

Keep reading... Show less
Sarah Lane will perform in one of the "You Are Us" benefit concerts. Photo by Erin Baiano, Courtesy ABT

After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.

Keep reading... Show less
Malpaso Dance Company in Cunningham's Fielding Sixes. Photo by Nir Ariel, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.

Keep reading... Show less
Career Advice
Tan Li Min working with Queensland Ballet dancer Lou Spichtig. Photo by Jovian Lim, Courtesy Cloud & Victory

Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.

Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.

She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.

Keep reading... Show less
Alia Kache in rehearsal with Ballet Memphis. Photo by Louis Tucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis

The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Maddie Ziegler will play one of the Jets. (photo by Lucas Chilczuk)

This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:

We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.

Keep reading... Show less
Cover Story
Courtesy Khoreva

The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?

Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.

Keep reading... Show less
25 to Watch
Photo credits, clockwise from bottom left: Peter Mueller, Courtesy Cincinnati Ballet; Jayme Thornton; Jochen Viehoff, Courtesy Stephanie Troyak; Karolina Kuras, Courtesy National Ballet of Canada; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet; Jim Lafferty; Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Altin Kaftira, Courtesy Dutch National Ballet; Scott Shaw, Courtesy Shamar Wayne Watt

What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.

Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.

Keep reading... Show less
Youth America Grand Prix alumna Michaela DePrince. Photo by VAM, Courtesy YAGP

Since its inception in 1999, Youth America Grand Prix has grown to have an outsize impact on the ballet world, with more than 450 alumni now dancing with 80 companies across the globe.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
Jesse Obremski captivates as a freelancer for many NYC–based troupes. Photo by Roi Lemayh, Courtesy Gibney Dance Company

At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.

Keep reading... Show less
Photo by @FullOutCreative

Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.

In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.

Keep reading... Show less
Advice for Dancers
Getty Images

I've been on a crying jag since I sprained my ankle for the third time. It kills me that I can't dance my favorite roles. I'm also disgusted with myself for being a crybaby.

—Maggy, Philadelphia, PA

Keep reading... Show less
Dance in Pop Culture
Michael Parmalee/FX

It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.

But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.

"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."

Keep reading... Show less


Get Dance Magazine in your inbox