For more than half a millennium it has been the most beautiful art form; that little girls all over the world dream about, with streams of young hopefuls throwing themselves at the feet of schools every year. Yet in recent months, a series of accusations seemed to undermine ballet’s image. More than 50 former dancers from the Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham told the BBC’s Panorama in September about a “toxic” culture that left them with mental health problems and eating disorders. Dozens more came forward in December, with one former student claiming that a third institution, the London Vocational Ballet School (LVBS, formerly the Young Dancers Academy), almost drove her to suicide.
In January, tabloids made headlines claiming that “daily weigh-ins” were being halted at the most illustrious institutions. The reports were false – such weighings do not happen and have therefore not been “stopped” – but have reignited speculation about the way ballet schools treat their students.
The schools flatly denied the allegations at the time, with the Royal Ballet School saying: “Nothing is more important to us than the happiness and continued well-being of our hugely talented and dedicated young students.” Elmhurst called “the promotion of good physical and mental health” an “absolute priority,” adding that “we will always act promptly when issues are identified.” Meanwhile, LVBS denied multiple reports of negligence and said no complaints had been filed by the student who claimed to have suicidal thoughts. “The details presented to us by the BBC simply do not match our own data,” the BBC said in a statement. “The well-being of our students is our top priority.”
There is little doubt that training to become a dancer is a grueling experience. Tara-Brigitte Bhavnani, who was a principal artist at the RB until last year and now teaches workshops there and privately, recalls a training in Paris in the early 2000s where things were “very honest and very blunt: if you thought you were too big, you sat in the canteen at lunchtime, [and] you would get the diet meal. There was no hiding.”
Royal Ballet School graduate Martin Howland recalls students who, determined to achieve waif-like status, ended up making “dangerous decisions to look a certain way.” And that of course has a terrible effect on your health – both physically and mentally.” (A 2013 study confirmed that ballet dancers are at greater risk for eating disorders.)
Howland, who now runs Project Resurgence, a nonprofit dance organization, “can’t say” whether the “skinny at any cost” mentality is endorsed by anyone. [within the schools]. What I can say is that as dancers we are quite insecure and vulnerable. We just see: what should we be? And how do I get there?”
Few hopefuls make it to graduation, let alone the corps de ballet and beyond. Bhavnani was one of only two from her year to reach the end of training. Most students drop out along the way, or are ‘outed’. To get through the training and into a company, she says: “You already have to have a thick skin. But even then, it’s the schedule you have to deal with, both mentally and physically,” that can be exhausting even for the most talented dancers. “It is tiring. It’s brutal.”
At other times, when no dancers have been cast for upcoming shows, “sometimes you almost feel forgotten.” Some see it as an opportunity to focus on rehabilitation, says Bhavnani, “but for others that can often be the case when doubts arise… it’s a combination of periods of feeling ‘I have no life’ . and other times when you feel like ‘I’m not good enough’.” The care and management teams “do their best, but it is impossible to please everyone. And in the end, the show must go on.”
Annette Buvoli, a first-time artist at RB, is in her eleventh season and says ballet is “more than just dancing on our toes and tiaras.” During her time at the company, change was “slow, but steady.” In recent years, dancers have been allowed to wear sneakers during rehearsals (which on show days involve about six hours of rehearsals before a performance), she says, which relieves some of the pressure on their feet. There is also more research being done into injury prevention and more attention is being paid to managing dancers’ workloads. Others report the arrival of intimacy coordinators and strictly enforced break times. “Ballet is an old-fashioned art form, and there is a lot of good in it – and its routines are…” Buvoli disappears. “I’m not going to say it’s bad, but it’s nice to know we can start to change.”
Others are less convinced. Chloe Angyal, journalist and author of Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself, says the uncertainty that so many dancers live with – on short contracts, under enormous financial and physical pressure – means that “I don’t talk to a single dancer [for her book] who felt that the reward matched the amount of work… both literally and psychologically, that they were being asked to do.”
She remains skeptical about whether the ballet has cleaned up its act. “Everyone knows the horror stories from the seventies and eighties; the drug abuse, the smoking; the bulimia, the anorexia,” says Angyal. “There has now been a shift among dance leaders to talk about health and wellness and strength and fitness” – but “that all leads to the same outcome… there is a look that needs to be maintained.”
Dancers are “workers who work in very harsh power dynamics.” This schism is even “wider for female dancers,” Angyal adds, and Howland “absolutely” agrees, recalling his training, when men were outnumbered two to one. (Figures suggest that about 78 percent of dancers are women, and that in ballet schools, girls can outnumber boys 20 to 1.) “When I trained, it was definitely a simpler process [for boys] than it was for the girls, because statistically you can see those numbers, what they’re fighting against. They are trying to keep their place.”
At ballet school, girls are prepared to be as light as possible, and boys are taught to focus on developing muscles. “My training was much more strength-based, especially in the younger years,” says Howland. “I’m not entirely sure that weight has ever really been an issue in boys.” The intense competition between girls, who desperately competed for fewer places, with the intention of assimilating, allowed boys’ personalities to expand as well. “The girls were probably not told to conform, [but] I think they were under more pressure to keep their place… We probably didn’t feel as observed.”
For today’s wannabe ballerinas, it’s become even more intense, says Bhavnani, as their social media feeds are flooded with videos showing “how many good dancers there are… it can also be daunting, and you compare yourself to them “.
Alice Robb trained as a dancer until she was fifteen and has since written a book about ballet, Don’t Think, Dear. “Who is really motivated to change the system if it works reasonably well for some people?” she asks. You only have to look at today’s dancers versus those of the 1990s, Robb says, to see how little has changed. And “until that changes at the top, I don’t see that changing at the student level.”
Angyal believes that a series of revisions need to be made: first, acceptance of the fact that “many talented people with beautiful technique don’t fit well into that vision. [of what a dancer should look like], and that’s such a huge waste of talent and work. And it’s a loss for the art form. It is a loss for the public.” There also needs to be a diverse teacher workforce at ballet schools, she adds, more affordable classes, cross-gender casting and the expectation that teachers ask to touch dancers before making corrections to level the playing field and demonstrate real commitment to change. to show.
Although change is slow, there are a select few people who are trying to make the industry better, Robb believes. She’s heard of some teachers taking class with everyone’s backs to the mirrors. “So I do think there will be changes, that those people will eventually be in charge. But I think it could take another generation.”