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The Romanticization of Ballet

The Romanticization of Ballet

Photographed by Quinn McCaffrey of Brynn Beauchamp, Marina Froehlich and Kennedy Bolda
Styled by Marina Froelich

By Brynn Beauchamp

Balletcore is a fashion aesthetic that has taken the internet by storm, and has become one of the most popular new style trends. Essentially, balletcore is defined by soft, graceful, and feminine fashion that originates from the activewear worn by professional ballet dancers. From Edward Degas’ impressionist paintings in the 1800s to the 2010 psychological thriller Black Swan, ballet has been an object of cultural fascination for centuries. Seeing this trend in fashion is only the latest development of this concept. A positive aspect of balletcore is the inclusivity of people of all sizes wearing these looks who have been left out of traditional ballet aesthetics because the world refuses to see them as soft, feminine, and graceful. The conventional body type of a ballet dancer is tall, skinny, with long legs and little to no excess muscle, curves or body fat. This trend is helping to reject these inaccurate body standards which have contaminated the mindset of those hoping to enter the dance world.

One of the brands hopping on this balletcore craze is Urban Outfitters, who released a balletcore line of clothing back in January. Their adaptation of this style includes tulle skirts, leg warmers, ballet flats, hair bows, flowy dresses, sheer tights and wrap sweaters. There have been mixed reviews of this line, with some critiquing its accuracy to original ballet attire. However, the objective of balletcore is to simply have fun with the perception of the style of ballet that is seen from an outside perspective. Without a doubt, balletcore is certainly an aesthetic that has gained admiration and popularity by many over the past few months, but is this trend over-romanticizing the strenuous art of ballet? As a person who has practiced ballet for many years, I have an insight on the dedication and physical, as well as mental, strength that this artistry requires.

If you have ever seen a professional ballet company performance, or have even watched a video of ballet dancers on social media, then you know how effortless and graceful dancers make it seem. When in reality, this activity causes a tremendous amount of effort and stress, not just on the body, but also on the mind. Ballet, in the professional world, is extremely intense and competitive, and puts very high expectations onto those who choose to pursue it. Instead of seeing fellow dancers as friends or peers, ballet dancers are eventually taught to see them as competition, and as a threat. As a dancer, if someone in your own company has more talent or skill than you, they can easily get chosen over you for a part in a piece. This can lead to unrealistic expectations and an unhealthy self-image, which can easily turn into mental health issues, including eating disorders, self harm, body dysmorphia, and more. Sadly, this is not uncommon in the world of ballet, in fact, it is much more common than you may think.

An estimate of twelve percent of overall dancers suffer from an eating disorder, and this statistic jumps to an alarming sixteen percent among ballet dancers. Multiple studies have shown that body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) is more prevalent in dancers than the general population. Dancers spend hours everyday scrutinizing their bodies in mirrors, trying to perfect their image and body movement for the sake of improvement. The standard ballet attire of tights and leotards increase the likelihood of fixating on “imperfect” body features. Ballet instructors are notorious for contributing to these issues, in failing to acknowledge body positivity and mental health in this industry.

The issue of BDD stems from a long lived cycle of silencing dancers in the name of art. Instead of acknowledging the harmful practices of companies and teachers pushing dancers to the brink, the dance industry continues to reinforce its problems by promoting unattainable standards. Although I, personally, have not experienced BDD, I have dealt with eating disorders and negative self image that comes from this athletic standard. My intense passion for dance is what keeps drawing me back in, and I can never seem to stay away from it for long. I tend to over-romanticize dancing when I am away from it, and I forget the demanding and negative aspects of the sport. When I enter back into the ballet scene, I immediately begin to question and doubt my abilities and I can’t help but to compare myself to others.

There was a time during a contemporary ballet master class, when I was struggling to keep up with the choreography, and everyone else seemed to be performing the movements with ease and grace. I quickly became frustrated and emotional, and my eyes began to fill with tears. I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “stop crying, you sensitive little f***, this is supposed to be fun”. It should have been.

Contemporary ballet has always been my preferred form of dance, but I had put so much pressure and unrealistic expectations on myself that it turned my passion into self-doubt and insecurity. Almost everyday I struggle with the thought, “do I really have the talent and strength that it takes to do this professionally?” No matter how much time and energy I put into my skill, there's always a voice in the back of my head convincing me that I’m not good enough, and never will be.

I was recently introduced to the term “core beliefs”, which are the very essence of how we see ourselves, other people, the world, and the future. These often derive from personal experiences or childhood memories that have taught us to believe these ideas. I realized that a core belief of mine is that I will never be good enough when it comes to dance. This is a very common belief in this field, with the impossible standards that the industry demands. In the past few years, more and more professional dancers have opened up about their own struggles with mental health and the ballet world. Misty Copeland is the first black woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), and is the author of Life in Motion, a memoir that goes into detail about her journey of making it to a world-class ballet company.

She first began to experience symptoms of her eating disorder when she sustained a back injury while dancing, and was instructed by her doctor to go on birth control pills, so that she would begin menstruating which would create hormones to help strengthen her bones. By the time she returned to dancing, she had gained ten pounds and her breasts grew from a B cup to a double D. The artistic staff at ABT told her in a polite way to lose weight. In an interview with Fox news, Copeland revealed, “After that meeting, I became so ashamed of my body that I started wearing T-shirts and shorts over my leotard and tights during practice. For the first time, I made myself exercise at the gym just to burn calories, which was awful and didn't help. And I'd duck down hallways to avoid the artistic staff, afraid they'd tell me to "lengthen" again. I didn't even want to be seen in ballet class, which I'd always loved. I realized that binging wasn't a logical reaction, but at night, when I was alone, I got so angry: Who do they think they're talking to? I have so much talent. I'll eat what I want. But I knew ABT saw my once "perfect" body as a problem, so I resented them. And I hated myself for not being able to fix it. My perverse form of rebellion (and comfort) was doughnuts.”

Copeland began to make friends outside of the closely knit dance company, who helped her realize that most people didn’t have the same rigid expectations about how their bodies should look, and she began to feel more comfortable in her body. “I'd always believed that what mattered was how I looked, how well I embodied certain standards of perfection. But now I started to understand that my body's natural evolution into womanhood had validity, too. Dancing had always made me happy, and I wanted that back. So my priority became simply accepting my new self. I focused on what I wanted: to feel good, to be confident in my skin again, to dance.”
Misty Copeland has been an inspiration to me ever since reading her wise words of wisdom as a young girl. She helped me to accept and own every part of myself, and to realize that no standard image of what a ballerina is “supposed” to look like defines me as a dancer. “My body was still different than it had been; I couldn't go back to being a little girl. But now I owned it. My curves became an integral part of who I am as a dancer, not something I needed to lose to become one. I started dancing with confidence and joy, and soon the staff at ABT began giving me positive feedback again. And I think I changed everyone's mind about what a perfect dancer is supposed to look like.”

As a fan of the balletcore trend myself, I am in no way belittling the aesthetic. But, the next time you put on your sheer tights and ballet flats, think about the origins of this trend, and give credit to the immeasurable efforts of ballet dancers and their struggles.

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