Early in Carrie Imler's 22-year career with Pacific Northwest Ballet, she was excited to be cast in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments. But immediately following dress rehearsal, she was removed from her role in "Melancholic." "My artistic director at the time pulled me aside and said, 'We can't put you out there,' " she remembers. "My weight fluctuated my entire career. Just when I felt like I had figured it out, I would gain it back and have to start all over again." Despite becoming one of PNB's most celebrated principal dancers, Imler never shook the fear of what might happen when a leotard ballet was in the repertoire.

Ballet prides itself on high standards, and the classical ballet physique is not the least of those expectations. Fear of the "fat talk" still lurks in studios, but, as Imler points out, weight is a challenge that many dancers face, while others may struggle with the arches of their feet or turnout. If you are confronted about your weight, know that many talented dancers have been there. Having "the talk" doesn't mean you can't become a professional, but if you take a mindful approach to the conversation, it will show your maturity and ultimately your ability to navigate a career.

Has Something Changed?


If your teacher or director has approached you about your weight, you're likely left feeling emotional, vulnerable and overwhelmed. Once you have a chance to think clearly, ask yourself what factors, like puberty, may be contributing to changes in your body. Nadine Kaslow, resident psychologist at Atlanta Ballet, says, "There is this huge focus on weight and body at a time when even non-dancers are struggling with body issues and everything else that is happening as an adolescent."

External factors often play a role as well. PNB's consulting nutritionist, Peggy Swistak, says that she often sees dancers struggle with weight early in the season as they adjust to living on their own and sharing a kitchen with a roommate. "One may have really bad eating habits and doesn't have to watch her weight at all, and the other is gaining weight. There is a conflict in managing their food together," she says. Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween adds that financial stress can create barriers for eating nutritiously. "The one-dollar piece of pizza costs a lot less than eating organic," he says. "You have to make the best choices possible with what you have." Other changes, like a new schedule, layoffs or even emotional setbacks, will present the need to reevaluate your food habits and exercise routines throughout your career.

If you are confronted with criticism of your weight or physical fitness, Kaslow also suggests that you remind yourself what you do like about your body. "Dancers can all tell you what they don't like about themselves, but very rarely can they tell you what is good about their body."


Imler in one of Balanchine's famous leotard ballets, "Apollo." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Having the Conversation

These discussions go best when there is mutual trust between the dancer and artistic staff. "It is important that the dancer understands that whatever I am saying is in their best interest and in the best interest of the organization," says McSween. As long as the conversation is approached respectfully, listen to what is being said. Then, focus on how you'd like to move forward. "There needs to be an understanding on how to come to an agreement," says McSween. If you don't agree with what is being asked of you or you recognize unhealthy advice, you may be in a harmful dance environment.

While you probably feel embarrassed, it's important to not let those feelings consume you. "Seventy-five percent of my career was spent in a T-shirt," says Imler. "Whether I was skinny or not, I always felt like I was being judged. Every time I got those talks, I felt like everybody knew what I got called into the office for." Kaslow says that teachers and administrators need to help break this stigma. "Create forums to discuss feelings about their bodies and the stresses," she says, "because there are people in the dressing room that are really struggling and hating their bodies."

Get the Right Guidance

If weight conversations are approached too casually—a quick mention from a teacher, and then not followed up with a plan laid out by professionals—Swistak says you should be concerned. "The dancer loses a little weight and then they just keep going because they get compliments," she says. The toxic mentality of "some is good and more is better" can lead to eating disorders, like anorexia or bulimia, she warns.

If your teacher or a member of the artistic staff gives you advice about how to address your weight, that's another red flag. "I shouldn't offer suggestions on things that I am not an expert on," says McSween. At Ballet Memphis, dancers are referred to the company's consulting medical staff to figure out what support is needed. "It's not just about nutrition," he adds. "It could be the way you are exercising or many other things." PNB provides its dancers and students with direct access to both a psychologist and a nutritionist in addition to its physical therapy and medical staff.

Swistak warns that the internet and TV programs are not the place to find advice for managing your weight. "Anyone can say that they are a nutritionist," she says. "Dr. Oz is out there giving nutrition advice and he is a surgeon." Fad diets that populate Google searches and ads on social media are unlikely to serve the nutritional needs of an athlete. If your studio or town does not have access to nutritional, psychological or athletic training staff who are well versed in ballet, look for professionals who work with athletes. If they are open to learning more about the unique challenges of dancers, they can become a great resource for you.

It is important to remember that the world of ballet is also evolving—everyone interviewed agreed that there are more and more places for dancers with diverse body types. If you are at an impasse with your director and do not think what they are asking for is safe or possible, there is a better place for you. Imler, who became known for her athletic body, says, "I was lucky to find a company that didn't need a dancer to be rail-thin and dance the way I did. I was never going to get rid of my butt and my thighs. But I was lucky to have artistic directors that accepted me for who I was."

Is This Toxic?

If you've experienced any of these situations, you may be in an abusive or unsafe environment.

  • You are given a goal weight. "I don't talk about weight. I talk about physical conditioning," says Ballet Memphis ballet master Brian McSween. "There are plenty of dancers that, maybe on the scale by context to the world, are in fantastic shape but lack muscle definition," he says. Psychologist Nadine Kaslow adds that a weight range (that is more than a few pounds apart) can be helpful, but you should never aspire to an exact number.
  • You are body-shamed or receive harsh comments in front of others. If a teacher has concerns about your body, they should talk to you privately and help you create an appropriate plan.
  • Your teacher creates competition by comparing dancers' bodies. "Dancers can look good in all kinds of bodies," says Kaslow, who warns of this red flag: "Teachers who say, 'You don't look like a dancer,' as if there is only one."
  • It's implied that your weight is connected to how much you love dance. "The person at the front of the room shouldn't dictate whether or not you really love what you're doing," says McSween. Your relationship to your art should not be determined by an outside source.

Advice for Teachers

  • Create a policy with your staff and enforce it. At PNB School, teachers are not allowed to discuss weight with students, says nutritionist Peggy Swistak. Instead, concerns are taken to the school administrator or artistic director. The policy protects the student-teacher relationship while allowing teachers to focus on the dancing.
  • Be prepared with resources. "How are dancers going to find these people on their own?" asks psychologist Nadine Kaslow. "You're not always going to find someone that was once a dancer and is now a nutritionist or a psychologist, but you can find professionals who are used to working with athletes."
  • Remind students that they are athletes. "Dancers need to weigh less than the person on the street that is the same height," says Swistak, "but they are athletes and have to be healthy."
  • Break the stigma. Have group conversations with students about the pressures to be thin. "It helps to have everybody be able to talk about it together," says Kaslow. "It is about switching the culture."
Show Comments ()
popular
Peter Martins. Photo by Adam Shankbone, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The New York Times reports that a two-month long internal investigation into sexual harassment and physical abuse allegations against Peter Martins, New York City Ballet's former ballet master in chief, has found that the accusations could not be corroborated. In December, an anonymous letter sent to NYCB and its affiliated School of American Ballet accused Martins of sexual harassment, although the claims were non-specific. Afterwards, several former dancers and one current company member came forward to the press accusing him of physical assault and verbal abuse. Martins, who directed the company for 35 years and has denied the accusations, retired on New Year's Day after taking a leave of absence. An interim team led by ballet master Jonathan Stafford has been overseeing the company in the meantime.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Anna Isaeva as Karina in "Bolshoi." Photo Courtesy TriCoast.

If you are in need of a feel-good ballet movie night, check this out: Bolshoi, a 2017 Russian coming-of-age drama starring real dancers and filmed on location at the Bolshoi Theater, is now available on multiple VOD platforms. The film follows Yulia Olshanskaya, a scrappy working class kid, as she navigates life at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy and eventually, the company. Like most dance movies á la Center Stage, it's full of the usual ballet clichés. But, like Center Stage, it's also fun, beautifully shot and full of gorgeous dancing (including a mean fouétte turn contest). Polish National Ballet coryphée Margarita Simonova stars as as Yulia, while Anna Isaeva, a former Kremlin Ballet dancer, plays Karina, Yulia's wealthy best friend and biggest competition. Ekaterinberg Ballet principal Andrei Sorokin and former Paris Opéra Ballet étoile Nicholas Le Riche also star.

The film centers on the friendship and rivalry of Yulia and Karina. Discovered by a washed-up Bolshoi star in her industrial town, the rebellious Yulia struggles to fit in once she enters the prestigious Moscow school. But a strict and influential teacher (played by Alisa Freyndlikh) takes her under her wing, and defends her when other school officials want her out. Soon Yulia and Karina are up for the role of Aurora for the school's graduation performance—and the result affects their futures once they enter the company. Flashbacks to Yulia's childhood flesh out her defiant nature, and help make her ultimate sacrifice towards the end especially touching.


Photo Courtesy TriCoast.

One scene that may raise American eyebrows is during the audition, in which young Yulia must wear her underwear. This is typical of Russian ballet academy auditions in order for teachers to evaluate the dancers' lines and proportions (although Yulia's actual audition is pretty far-fetched).The two-hour Bolshoi, in Russian with English subtitles, is now available on iTunes, Fandango, Vudu, FlixFling, Hoopla, In Demand, GooglePlay, Dish, Sony Playstation, Direct TV and Microsoft Xbox.

Ballet Training
Berdo with Charlotte Ballet apprentice Elisabeth Baehman. Photo Courtesy Charlotte Ballet.

Many dancers struggle with brisé, says Laszlo Berdo, associate director of the Charlotte Ballet Academy. "But once you've mastered it, it's not that difficult." Here's how he helps his students beat the brisé blues.

Hold your turnout: Laszlo Berdo says a common mistake is stepping forward on a turned-in leg in anticipation of the brisé. "You lose the support of that standing leg. Then you have no power to jump," he says. "That plié is your saving grace and control."

Create a line: Berdo notices that some dancers dégagé à la seconde instead of effacé. "It's really difficult to chase that leg into second when you're trying to move forward." He teaches brisé with an open shoulder blade. "The back arm's extension is a reference to the front leg's dégagé. Keep that energy stretching out."

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
via Instagram

Every ballerina grows up aspiring to nail the fouetté turns in the coda of Swan Lake's Black Swan Pas de Deux. From classic primas like Natalia Makarova to current pros like Gillian Murphy, the 32-fouetté sequence has become so iconic that even our non-dancer friends know about the tricky turns. But yesterday, American Ballet Theatre principal Christine Shevchenko introduced us to a totally new take on the fouettés that we've been watching on a loop, in awe.


Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Photo by Kyle Froman for Pointe.

Much of what Ballet West soloist Katlyn Addison carries around in her (two) dance bags has been repurposed. She wraps her toes in black hockey tape which her brother, a National Hockey League player in their home country of Canada, ships to her, and she keeps her bobby pins in an old glass salsa jar. "I like to reuse things," says Addison. She totes everything around in shopping bags (one for pointe shoes and sewing tools, one for everything else) from the clothing store Free People.



Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Stars
Alicia Graf Mack in Robert Garlan'ds "Return." Photo by Robert Garland, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Alicia Graf Mack has consistently defied just about every limitation and expectation throughout her dance career. She was a leading performer with three incredible companies: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, from which she retired in 2016, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Complexions Contemporary Ballet. She also earned two college degrees in the midst of her performing career (from Columbia University and Washington University in St. Louis, no less) and has even written for Pointe, including our June/July 2014 cover story on Misty Copeland, Ebony Williams and Ashley Murphy. This week we're throwing it back to this wonder woman's 2004 performance of Robert Garland's Return with Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!