Backstage at the Ballet
The pas de deux is arguably the centerpiece of classical ballet. Traditionally, it features a man and a woman dancing together, each performing solos, and then coming together once more for a coda. When the two are dancing on stage together, the job of the man is to support and present the ballerina, because “Ballet is woman,” as George Balanchine famously (or perhaps notoriously) said. While this may be true, there is much to be questioned about the role of gender in ballet.
Classical ballet contains extremely strict gender roles, with men and women performing different types of movements and dancing very different roles. In schools, though everyone takes barre and center together, the boys will then leave for a separate “men’s class” while the girls focus on pointework. Dress codes are gendered as well — pink tights and black leotards for the girls, black tights and white shirts for the boys. This rigid divide leaves little room for flexibility or the inclusion of those whose gender identity don’t fit within the traditional cisgender roles on which ballet is built.
When the #MeToo movement began to sweep the world, the ballet industry, just like many other professional spheres, was rocked with overdue discoveries of abuse. Alexandra Waterbury’s case against Chase Finlay continues (though charges against other defendants have been dropped), and Troy Powell of Alvin Ailey was fired this summer following allegations of sexual harassment. Toxic work cultures that allow higher-ups to abuse their power are no longer unfamiliar stories. The kinds of allegations that have come up in the ballet community, however, seem to unveil an underlying, industry-specific issue regarding power dynamics. In other words, those at the top hold seemingly unchecked influence, while the masses of dancers are mostly powerless, at the mercy of directors.
Part of this is likely due to the fact that the industry is so saturated with dancers all vying for the very small pool of contracts available in any given year. There simply aren’t enough jobs to go around — and not enough money to support more artists, when contracted professionals are already underpaid. As a result, dancers are sometimes seen as disposable and are subject to mistreatment, leading many to feel as though they aren’t respected or valued as artists in their companies. Directors might not be straightforward in communications regarding things like contracts, or they might overwork their dancers, and yet dancers are expected to be grateful that they’re dancing at all.
As an artist, I sometimes feel like a sellout.
Choosing to come to Harvard was, for me, the easy choice: Going to college is what the world expects of its youth. College is the road most traveled, the societal norm, the path of least resistance. If I were a true artist, comfortable with sacrifice, shouldn’t I have been strong enough to stray from the norm and follow my heart? And though I love being a college student — my classes, my peers, and everything else — dance captures me in a way that academia never could. The pandemic, which moved us to online classes, granted me a second chance to attend a pre-professional ballet program and devote most of my days to training. But this experience — with one foot still in college and the other in the ballet world — has only reminded me of how difficult it is to pursue art.
I’m back in the studio for the first time in six months — the longest I’ve gone without stepping inside one since I was 8 or 9 years old. The feeling is nothing short of euphoric: to hold a real barre and not my dining room table, to travel across an open space, to turn on real marley. There’s just one thing that mars this bliss — I can’t look at myself in the mirror.
This is nothing new or unique to my experience: Dancers so often hyperfocus on their bodies because they are the tools with which they create their art. In ballet especially, being extremely thin is the aesthetic standard, something that developed over time similarly to the industries of fashion and modeling, and was perhaps concretized by the advent of the Balanchine aesthetic. Thinner lines, better art. Staring into mirrors all day critiquing positions and movements, too, contributes to an obsessive focus on one’s body, all of which is incredibly damaging both physically and mentally. Ballet typically requires that one start training at a very young age. Thus comments from teachers about how “I can see your lunch sticking out!” (a line I’ve heard countless times) as well as the general pressure of the industry and the world come during formative years and shape our thoughts and perceptions. Those kinds of thought processes are difficult to break; friends who have long since quit dancing still tell me how much they struggle with their body image, unable to escape the mentality drilled into them.
Dance is physical in a way no other art forms, and not many jobs, are. In a world that demands that everything be done virtually, dancing became virtually impossible in the ways that it has existed before. When dancers can’t share space in studios, training is limited to what can be accomplished in living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms — on unsuitable floors with obstacles in every direction. Without peers, coaches, or the promise of performance, it is easy for a dancer’s motivation to falter.
As dancers’ primary purpose — to perform, to tell stories, to bring joy — has been almost entirely stripped away, we have, alongside the rest of the world, found ways to evolve. Like those of many other industries in the COVID-19 pandemic, some of these adaptations have turned out to be positive developments that we should carry forward. One of the most beneficial shifts has been increased accessibility for students and audience members alike.