More Than a Pretty Picture on Pointe?
Understanding the Effects of Ballet on Dancers’ Health and Wellbeing
Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders
Is ballet really that healthy for you? Well, it depends. When speaking of physical health, people quickly affirm the belief that ballet is healthy for you. It is, of course, hard to disagree.
Ballet is known for its variety of health benefits, including building strength, stamina, and flexibility along with improving coordination, balance, and posture. Not only limited to physical health, ballet can improve memory skills and concentration as well.
Looking at the list of benefits, it seems clear that ballet is physically healthy for you. On top of that, this exercise is correlated with better mental health. So, what’s the problem?
Even if ballet is healthy for you, people will tell a different story about the industry. Rumors circulate about the behind the scenes of ballet—grueling training, painful injuries, and cutthroat competition. Though dramatized TV shows and movies may exaggerate some elements, there is still a bit of truth in these rumored statements. Ballet itself may be healthy, but the environment is not always friendly to people. We too often hear about ballet dancers suffering from various mental health issues. Can we really say that ballet is healthy for you then? Let’s take a look.
Perfectionism and Mental Health in Ballet
It is normal in the dance world to “strive for perfection.” Some hear this phrase and take it in a positive way, believing it to motivate dancers to be the best versions of themselves. After all, a level of perfectionism in dancers is not just common, but it is expected.
The corps de ballet, the dancers in a ballet who perform together in group pieces, relies on its members to perfect choreography and perform in complete synchronicity. Principals and soloists spend hours perfecting their solos to ensure impeccable timing and technique during the highlights of the show. Perfection on a stage is pleasing to the eye, but it looks far different in the lives of dancers.
A survey conducted on dance students (a majority of which have reportedly come from a ballet background) at the University of South Carolina – Columbia showed that 87.1% of respondents either somewhat agreed, agreed, or strongly agreed with the following statement: “When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect.” Furthermore, 100% of the surveyed students agreed to an extent with the statement: “I set very high standards for myself.”
The problem with perfectionism is that it often fails to serve as positive motivation for dancers. At a certain point, the goal of perfection gets carried away, and this obsession with perfection can lead to worsened mental health. A study on students who studied ballet at three different universities showed that perfectionism was correlated with depression, anxiety, and other negative mental states. Fueled by an insatiable perfectionism, ballet dancers can develop a negative perspective towards their dancing, leading to a worsened self-image.
There is a difference between an individual best and an objective perfect. It is no longer about improving one’s own steps when someone else in the room can perform it better. When the conversations surrounding improvement always focus on better, best, and perfect, it becomes more challenging to view oneself with anything other than a critical eye. This perfectionism combined with other mental health issues unfortunately only opens the door for other problems for ballet dancers—most notably, eating disorders.
Eating Disorders and the Aesthetics of Ballet
Eating disorders have been a point of concern in the ballet world for a long time. A study from 2013 showed that the prevalence of eating disorders among ballet dancers was 14.6%, higher than the 12% for dancers in general. The study also concluded that dancers were three times more at risk of suffering from eating disorders than the general population. Moreover, a separate study conducted with participants in jazz and contemporary dance showed that 12% of dancers had been diagnosed with an eating disorder by a professional, but 20% exhibited symptoms regardless of diagnosis. Meanwhile 52% practiced driven exercise, which is exercise motivated by the fear of gaining weight.
It’s true that perfectionism can play a factor in fueling body dysmorphia and eating disorders, but this is not necessarily the main reason why these statistics for ballet dancers are dramatically higher than the public.
Ballet displays the wonder of the human body and showcases the beauty that can be combined with strength and stamina. Dancers wear leotards or t-shirts and tights to class to understand the shapes, lines, and movements created by the body. Although there is nothing wrong with this inherently, this constant focus on the body can make dancers hyper-cognizant of their own figures and what they feel they should or should not look like. This only gets worse when dancers realize that their bodies can make or break their careers.
In a fiercely competitive field, dancers may feel pressured to try to look “better” than their peers in both their dancing and their figure. With dancers starting their careers at such young ages, ranging from teens to early 20s, the “ideal” body type starts to feel more out of reach as dancers’ bodies change.
Furthermore, dancers may sometimes be suggested or even requested to lose weight by teachers or peers. Even without this type of explicit statement, dancers may feel anxiety about their bodies because of the well acknowledged fact that many ballet companies factor in body type during auditions and casting.
Professional ballet dancer Kathryn Morgan, who has advocated for mental health support in the ballet world, shared her experiences of being refused a role because of her body when working at a ballet company. She said that while trying to meet the company’s expectations for her figure, her body and mental state started to deteriorate at a rapid rate, and this further affected her autoimmune condition. She reflected on how easily she slipped back into her old unhealthy habits after a 9-year hiatus from professional dancing simply because she was pushing herself to meet their expectations.
Ultimately, it seems clear that the ballet world has deviated from the desire to maintain a healthy, athletic body for the sake of dancing and instead focuses on achieving “thinness” even at the possible expense of a dancer’s own health. Even if dancers find themselves in poor health, mental or physical, the role of the ballet community should be to support dancers back to health.
How to Bring Health Back to Ballet
Many have already paved the way for these conversations to happen. Teachers and dancers alike have attempted to create a healthier ballet environment. Ballet has long been known for its competitive atmosphere, but it’s time for us to work together to address some of these concerning challenges to wellbeing.
In ballet class, dancers focus much of their attention on finding and maintaining their physical balance, but the balance in ballet can become far more than that.
A balance between wanting the perfect pirouette and accepting every part of the journey to get there. A balance of friendly competition and cooperation inside and outside the studio. A balance of wanting to showcase the aesthetics of ballet and embracing what a healthy ballet body looks like for each person. Only then can ballet truly be “healthy,” both physically and mentally.
Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G.L., & Mitchell, A. (2014). Prevalence of Eating Disorders amongst Dancers: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22(2), 92-101. https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.2271
Desai, K. (2021). The psychology of dance medicine: self-perception of dancers. [Unpublished senior thesis]. University of South Carolina - Columbia.
Fostervold Mathisen, T. F., Sundgot-Borgen, C., Anstensrud, B., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2022). Mental health, eating behaviour and injuries in professional dance students. Research in Dance Education, 23(1), 108-125. https://doi.org/10.1080/14647893.2021.1993171
Won, H. (2023). Relationship between Dance Performance Anxiety, Perfectionism Propensity, and Body Image of the Ballet Class Participants Since 2020. Asia-pacific Journal of Convergent Research Interchange, 9(4), 385-398. http://dx.doi.org/10.47116/apjcri.2023.04.31