Ginormous torso alert! Not the for the squeamish (note: the torso's image may be too big for your computer screen)
A little girl’s parents were recently told by a prominent person at a professional ballet school that she should give up all hope of ever becoming a classical ballet dancer. Her crime? Her torso is considered too long and according to the source, she should try to explore other forms of dance instead, where there is not as much emphasis on a specific body type.
An interesting message to give about a 9-year old who hasn’t finished growing yet and coincidentally, has been told by other ballet professionals that she has exactly the body type that is well-suited to ballet. An interesting message also to give at the same time that it is said that she is a gifted dancer – a fast learner who moves gracefully and exudes personality when performing. She has no physical challenges to dancing ballet – no issues with insufficient turnout or lack of hamstring flexibility – in fact, nothing at all to indicate that she wouldn’t otherwise become a phenomenal dancer. Other than that dreaded torso.
The source also mentioned that the theater needs extras from time to time (indeed the little girl has danced in 9 professional performances at this very theater) and that they would be interested in using her again if the need should arise for additional dancers of her age and height. So much for that monstrous torso ruling out any possibilities of ever gracing the stage for a classical ballet performance.
Her parents are justifiably baffled by the explanation. They are also puzzled by the fact that, on the one hand, there’s the finality of the declaration that classical ballet is out of the question for the girl (the Royal Danish Ballet School’s equivalent to Hollywood’s “You’ll never work in this town again!”) and on the other hand, an invitation is extended to perform at the theater as a guest dancer if needed. Which could lead one to conclude that the issue is not whether or not her body is suitable for any classical ballet company in the world, but whether or not it fits in at this particular theater’s professional school. Or more accurately, whether her body shape is appealing specifically to the head of the school, who is the one who made the decision to deny her admission and to discourage her parents from ever letting her apply again. Mind you, for having what he considers a few extra centimeters in length between her waist and her shoulders.
Elite ballet schools are known for being more strict in their selection of body types than professional ballet companies, who tend to look at the whole package and focus primarily on the talent and the overall expression of the dancer. They can be willing to forgive perceived imperfections such as a longer torso, shorter legs or height differences of a gifted dancer even when she deviates from what is typical of the rest of the company. Dance schools should be more lenient than companies in their selection of students, not less. They should be in the business of training many more students than companies will need, because that way, there will be a greater variety of dancers to choose from and there is also a need for dancers for less prestigious companies, choreographers extras for productions and indeed, the next generation of ballet teachers.
Thankfully, some top ballet schools have been willing to overlook physical disadvantages when selecting students. Rashna Homji formerly of the Royal Ballet School in the UK has been quoted as saying that the school looks more at dancerly qualities than physical aspects such as height, for example. Which is as it should be when considering young, talented children who may have every chance of developing into the enchanting dancer, but who would miss the opportunity if they are not offered a position early enough, with the intensity of training needed to mold their bodies into ballerinas.
What if as she goes through puberty, her proportions adjust and she ends up being every bit the ideal? She can’t possibly be too far off now, otherwise others wouldn’t have come to the opposite conclusion that she is quite suited for ballet. Starting to train professionally at age fourteen is too late but it may take until then for her growth to stop and her final proportions to be known. The school is not willing to take a chance on her future body shape, despite her obvious talent. That is a pity when the child is both motivated, has the gift of rhythm and musical sense and also happens to be drop-dead gorgeous. But don’t take my word for it – none other than the casting director of Gaps Kids in the US spotted her in a cafe in Manhattan on a recent holiday and invited her to a casting. In short, the kid’s got it all (and apparently, more than needed at her midriff – give me a break!).
Of course, being a girl doesn’t help the matter. Imagine the outcry if the male candidates for Denmark’s Under 21 football team were disqualified from the team for not having washboard abs or because they didn’t look enough like David Beckham. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? That’s because while it is customary to discriminate against women based on physical appearance, for men it is largely unacceptable.
The issue is not that the little girl was declined a spot at the school. The issue is (in this blogger’s opinion) the lame explanation, especially in light of the fact that the girl could do quite a bit of growing and her body adjusting in the coming years. To deny a talented aspiring dancer a spot at a publicly-funded ballet school because of the personal tastes of one man who seems to be the Karl Lagerfeld of the Danish dancing community is quite frankly, a travesty. It should be in the interest of this country to train as many excellent dancers as possible, even knowing full well that many, if not most of them will end up dancing abroad in foreign companies. It only brings more attention to the Danish ballet tradition to have dancers out in the world, making a name for themselves and for the country’s ballet expertise, by performing in cities with more prominent ballet institutions and where there is interest in ballet from more than just a miniscule cultural elite. That is not really the case in Copenhagen where attendance at the national theater is plummeting at the same time as significant budget cuts are threatening the quality of its repertoire.
It is the case in places like New York, London, Paris, Moscow, San Francisco, where ballet appeals to a broader segment of the population and where the upper echelons of society are in proportionally greater numbers to begin with, thus providing the basis for a solid theater-going public, also in the future. There is currently a debate raging in Denmark about whether or not the state should continue to fund this theater at the same level or if even more funding should be diverted to more inclusive art forms. Especially ballet and opera are considered “elitist” here and unfortunately, the selection process at the ballet school does not do much to dispel this view. Quite the opposite, I would say that it confirms it.
The taxpayer and government-funded Danish People’s Church is required to develop and begin performing a marriage ritual that can also encompass the joining of homosexual couples in matrimony. Although it may seem odd to outsiders that the state would meddle in a religion’s ceremonies and rituals, it does make sense in light of the fact that as a publicly funded institution, the Danish Church must not discriminate. Of course, this would appear to further a specific political agenda of the current government (more tolerance and greater equality for homosexuals). And in fact there could be other options to settle the dilemma of a public entity (in this case, the state church) engaging in wholesale discrimination by denying homosexuals a service that is afforded to hetero couples. Nonetheless, the current Church Minister has chosen this most direct and symbolic path and it is not without its share of controversy. It is after all, challenging the established norms and ecclesiastical practices that have been centuries in the making – albeit for the admirable cause of equality and human rights as well as protection of a recognized minority.
Similarly, more scrutiny into the selection process at the state-funded ballet school could determine whether or not the body type selection criteria are too narrow – thus promoting another political agenda, one that is more liberating for women, freeing them from the narrow definition of “beauty” that ballet schools and companies subscribe to. It is a definition that not only hurts women in general, it could be responsible for destroying the future careers of otherwise talented dancers who could have changed the ballet world for the better.
Tastes in ballet dancer bodies have not been static; they have evolved through the centuries and will continue to evolve along with society’s preferences and in keeping with standards for performance and athleticism. If the government of Denmark can take on Lutheranism by enforcing a sexual orientation-neutral marriage ceremony, it can certainly take on the world of neo-classical ballet by demanding admission guidelines that allow for talented dancers of a variety of proportions to be given an opportunity to demonstrate their ability to the international dancing community. In so doing, to give them the chance to compete on their merits, instead of being denied access to the ballet world on the whim of a narrow-minded head of school.
The Alastair Macauly-Jennifer Ringer controversy illustrates that there is a lot less tolerance today for the restrictive body standards of the contemporary ballet community and just as in the world of fashion, if ballet is to remain relevant to coming generations, it must renew itself in the same way that fashion is on the brink of renewing itself at this point in time.
While this girl will suffer a temporary setback from this ludicrous decision, she is more fortunate than most. She has parents with the financial strength and the social resources to support her in any way necessary to realize her dreams. If she continues to aspire to being a ballet dancer, money won’t be an issue, as they can afford to send her to summer intensives and professional programs abroad. Unfortunately, other less privileged girls in the same situation may have to give up on ballet altogether.
If ballet is what she really wants to do, then I have no doubt that she will become an internationally-recognized dancer and one that any company would be privileged to count among their ranks. When she takes the stage in New York or London for the first time after being named Principal Dancer, the poor sods back in Denmark will rue the day they let this little angel get away. And it will be without the support and encouragement of the ballet elite in her country of birth that she rises to the top.
It’s a shame that Denmark isn’t able to nurture more of its homegrown talent. A shame, but not all that surprising.
Well somewhere else in the world, there’s a more deserving ballet company who in the future will capitalize on this sad and disturbing fact.