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 ()
Viral Videos
Bucharest National Ballet's 2013 trailer for "La Sylphide,' via YouTube

Few things are more powerful for promoting ballet performances than captivating trailers—especially in today's visually-focused, digitally-connected world.

We've rounded up some eye-catching ads from seasons past and present that not only make us wish we could have seen the show, but also stand alone as short films.

Bucharest National Opera's La Sylphide

Magnifying the scarf which—spoiler alert—brings about the ballet's tragic conclusion, this 2013 Bucharest National Opera's trailer turns that fateful fabric into a beautiful, deadly web. Its windswept movements form a dance of its own.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

Looking for your next audition shoe? Shot at and in collaboration with Broadway Dance Center, Só Dança has launched a new collection of shoes working with some pretty famous faces of the musical theater world! Offered in two different styles and either 2.5" or 3" heels, top industry professionals are loving how versatile and supportive these shoes are! Pro tip: The heel is centered under the body so you can feel confident and stable!

popular
Boston Ballet in Bournonville's "La Sylphide." Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Wonder what's going on in ballet this week? We've pulled together some highlights.


Wayne McGregor Makes His ABT Choreographic Debut

Ever since Vaslav Nijinsky shocked Paris audiences in 1913 with his Rite of Spring for the Ballets Russes, dancemakers from Sir Kenneth MacMillan to Pina Bausch have tried their hands at choreographing to Igor Stravinsky's infamous score. This spring, Wayne McGregor will be added to that list. The Royal Ballet resident choreographer's first work for American Ballet Theatre, titled AFTERITE, will premiere at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City on May 21. Known for his grounded and experimental movement style, McGregor's work will feature video designs by innovative filmmaker Ravi Deepres and sets and costumes by designer Vicki Mortimer, both longtime collaborators. Alessandra Ferri, who has collaborated with McGregor in the past, will join ABT as a guest artist.

Keep reading... Show less
via Instagram

The wait for Alexei Ratmansky's restaging of Petipa's Harlequinade is almost over! But if you can't wait until American Ballet Theatre officially debuts the ballet at the Metropolitan Opera House on June 6, we've got you covered. ABT brought the Harlequinade characters to life (and to the Alder Mansion in Yonkers, NY) in a short film by Ezra Hurwitz, and it's a guaranteed to make you laugh.

Keep reading at dancemagazine.com.

Ballet Stars
DePrince soars in English National Ballet's "Giselle." Photo by Laurent Liotardo, Courtesy ENB.

As told to Amy Brandt.

Myrtha is a role I've always loved to watch, but when Tamara Rojo asked me to dance it for English National Ballet's Giselle last year as a guest artist, I thought she was crazy. The role is usually for a tall, strong dancer. I'm strong, but I'm also very petite. I thought people might criticize me for that. I also wore brown tights onstage, since I'm a brown dancer, and I was nervous people wouldn't understand that—but I got great comments on it.

Keep reading... Show less
Viral Videos
Josephine Lee on the road. Photo Courtesy Lee.

Master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop is taking her wares on a tour of the West Coast: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah and Nevada. Lee is visiting dance schools along the way in her mobile pointe shoe van to fit ballet students. Check out her first five vlogs from the road, filled with picturesque scenery, fun facts and fitting tips—and stay tuned for the next round.

Jeanne Robinson Dance Arts in Salinas, CA

Among the attractions in Salinas that Lee points out is the childhood home of famous novelist John Steinbeck.

Keep reading... Show less
popular

If diamonds are a girl's best friend, it's safe to say that faux-diamond earrings are a dancer's best friend. A fixture onstage at just about every competition weekend, these blinged-out baubles are also the surest sign that recital season is upon us again. And what better way to get into the sparkly spirit than by drooling over these 5 diamonds in the rough? (Sorry not sorry!)

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Pointe Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!