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Toxic Effects of the Ballet Industry

By Amber Lau

All around the world, young boys and girls of all ages look up to prima ballerinas and desire the opportunity to live out their dream of leaping through the air in sparkling tutus and pointe shoes – but they don’t know that what is shown on stage is not the same as what happens backstage. Ballet is a style of dance that originated as entertainment during the Italian Renaissance. Compared to other styles of dance, ballet is known for precision and technique rather than abstract movement, as there is always a right and a wrong. However, many often forget that ballet isn’t just about moving your arms and legs, but has a certain discipline and athleticism to it. Ballet is incredibly demanding on a body of any age, and the pressures surrounding the art have detrimental effects on the mental and emotional state of dancers. There are many toxic effects of ballet both physically and mentally because of its connection to distorted body image, its cause for unstable mental health, and the harsh physical demands and injuries related to this art.

Although ballet is seen as a beautiful art form that is proven to teach both discipline and time management starting from a young age and is performed on stages all around the world, there are many flaws in the ballet industry that are not talked about enough. One of the most controversial topics revolving around the ballet community is the effects it has on a dancer’s body image.

Just in society alone, there are already unrealistic standards of what the “perfect” body looks like, but when you add ballet on top of it, the pressure becomes unbearable. Katherine Fulkerson, PH.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in eating disorders, says that “certain sports clearly create environments that foster eating problems. She divides high-risk sports into three categories: sports in which slim body image is part of the performance, including gymnastics, figure skating and ballet…” The pressure of being slim in order to be a better ballet dancer not only comes from teachers and coaches, but also from the individual themselves. Many young people begin to give in to the inner thoughts and start to truly believe that they are not good enough and need to change. Even just one comment made by someone of a superior position in the ballet industry can turn a young dancer down a scary path that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Before it gets to this point, the first step is understanding the warning signs of disordered eating and admitting that they are struggling.

Dave Tanner, an exercise physiologist at Indiana University says, “Most of the effects of caloric deprivation, however, are more subtle than a heart attack. Grumpiness, mental dullness and apathy, lack of energy, difficulty completing workouts and slowing times are all classic signs of overtraining—and under-eating.” It is incredibly difficult to spot an eating disorder in another person, especially in the beginning. Most who are struggling with disordered eating are likely to not notice and comprehend that they have a serious problem, including those in the dance community due to the fact that they don’t want to let their strict and intimidating teachers down by being forced to take a break and recover. However, if these signs appear in someone you know, it is vitally important that it is brought to both their attention and to someone who can help. Body image issues can be shown in various ways, can have different severities, and can be caused by numerous factors. However, the one thing they all have in common is that they often stem from either external or internal voices telling them they aren’t enough.

Another enormous issue related to the ballet community is the topic of everything surrounding mental health. There are various pressures put on dancers, even at an incredibly young age, and many are not able to cope with and handle the stress. It is essential to notice that eating disorders and body image issues are not the only complications that many ballet dancers often face. Other problems like anxiety and depression have a strong presence in the ballet industry, and can be just as harmful and dangerous.

In a TPC Journal article with research on mental health connections to athletes and artists, they use information from a source that says, “performing artists display disproportionately high reporting rates for mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and stress, when compared to the general population.” Ballet dancers are still human and can quickly develop mental health instability because of all the pressures on them to practice and perform the best that they can. The discipline of ballet can sometimes be unbearable on dancers, and comments from intimidating directors causes overthinking and stress. Additionally, once you hit a certain level, it requires numerous hours of training and commitment. It is far from easy for dancers of all ages to balance school, work, personal life, classes, and rehearsals, and the lack of rest they receive can cause so much stress not only on their body, but on their mind. The constant activity of a dancer can easily catch up to them, and unfortunately, can lead to severe issues including anxiety and depression.

In addition to the mental problems that ballet can contribute to, many often forget how physical the art is. Ballet requires incredible athleticism, stamina, strength, flexibility, and what many people don’t realize – pain tolerance. Ballet dancers get injured just as much as athletes of other sports, but the problem is that the mentality of a dancer is just to push through the pain. Many are afraid of disappointing their teachers and directors, so instead of stopping at the first sign of pain, they continue to persevere, worsening their injury. In a HuffPost article, a former dancer states, “Most ballet dancers are completely shot by their mid-20s, and many will suffer lifelong disabilities from the effort.” Ballet is extremely intense on the body, and in many cases, a ballet related injury can not only end a young man or woman’s career, but can be detrimental to their long term health and may cause complications. So many people think that ballet is simple, however, they don’t know the sweat and tears dancers put into their work to make it look easy and graceful on stage. In the same HuffPost article, the dancer says, “They combine that strength with a grace that comes from practicing the same moves over and over and over until it looks as if it's weightless.”

A professional ballet dancer’s job and entire goal is to make their movements look effortless and beautiful to watch. They create the illusion that they are just floating through the air without a struggle. As a result, most non-dancers in the audience underestimate the amount of hard work and determination it takes to perform as well as they do. They are oblivious to the terribly painful injuries (including things as small as ingrown/bruised toenails to larger complications like ankle, knee, and hip injuries) and the intense training that they undergo backstage. Teachers and directors in the ballet industry have extremely high expectations of their dancers, putting an excessive amount of pressure on them to not get injured or even acknowledge pain. However, injury is very common in this community because of its intensity, and will be inevitable in many circumstances.

In order to succeed in the ballet industry, ballet dancers must have so much endurance to overcome both physical and mental obstacles. There are so many unrealistic standards that are encouraged by a superior, which often makes the community unhealthy and toxic to young individuals. Despite the life lessons that you are taught, starting ballet at a young age can be detrimental to health, both proximate and long term. Human instinct is to ignore and run from problems presented in our society, however, it is incredibly important to be aware and understand that these issues do exist.

The desire to have the “perfect ballet body,” maintaining emotional stability, dealing with pressures and expectations, and preventing injury are all daunting but very common in the ballet community. These issues cannot be solved overnight, and not everyone will understand or care about things they can’t control, but these toxicities are affecting dancers of all ages and putting them in an unhealthy environment. This doesn’t just apply to ballet, but the first step towards any type of change is to spread awareness and educate others on overlooked concerns.

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