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.

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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

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