Ballet’s Roman Emperor

BY DR. STEPHANIE POTRECK

Note: This article was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2024 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

Right before sitting down to write this, I was invited to talk about the science of nutrition in dance, and shared two Instagram videos with the participants that caused a lot of uproar and outrage.

In these videos, the (male) director of one of the major European ballet companies had been invited to teach in Asia, and he is shown talking to young and aspiring dancers in the studio afterwards. He can be heard saying that with a company of 82 dancers, “I have really the possibility of making choices upon the sizes.” No, it’s not a joke, it’s not a problem of language, it did happen. In 2023. And worse than that,  he continues: “… because we just mentioned about the weight situation; it comes from America, and most of the directors in Europe are not allowed to talk about kilograms and weight; no matter if you are able to speak about it or not, in my particular situation, I am not a choreographer, I’m a director, curator, and every time we have a new production, it’s the choreographer coming in, or a stager, and they basically –   even though they’re not allowed to say that -– they’re not going to cast someone who is overweight. It’s just not gonna happen.”’

You think it can’t get worse. It does. Beware, your blood pressure may rise:

I grew up in the old-fashioned generation where the girls were sleeping in pointe shoes; and the Royal Ballet School, until recently, they’ve been measuring their dancers every week. And being director, I also have to take a responsibility for my dancers, in fact. You know it, there are some difficult ballets that the male dancers have to carry every single day, females, and it has been measured, it can sometimes be up to three thousand kilos per day; so every kilogram counts. And you don’t wanna end up having your career and being in a wheelchair.”

Alright, shall we look at a few of these aspects mentioned in this utter nonsense that is rife with entirely displaced entitlement? Or do you need a minute to calm down? It is absolutely fine if you need the time, for these videos -– still available on Instagram -– are not only upsetting but also deeply disturbing.

How come someone in his position and with his influence gets away with it? The account on which these videos are posted has removed any critical comments. When I posted about it on my own Instagram account, I was inundated with messages from dancers in his company, many of them saying that those words cited above were almost harmless compared to what he tells his dancers back home.

Hold on, you may want to say -– and I hear you! With just a smidgen of common sense, how is that possible? After all, it’s 2024! Someone in his position, with his influence, spreading so much misinformation to vulnerable audiences, and even acknowledging that he’s bypassing rules and regulations back home, must be fired with immediate effect, mustn’t he? Well, it’s not happening. And in a (dance) world that is still so profoundly based on patriarchal and hierarchical structures, we’re not even surprised, or are we?

I was wondering -– making use of that trend on TikTok that went viral -– whether we’re confronted here with a case of white, possibly cisgender, masculinity thinking about the Roman Empire frequently? With classical ballet being his Roman Empire within the dance world? The Romans were known for their desire for power as well as using violence to gain that power. Women had many roles but lacked any voice (and also lacked a voice in history). Does that sound familiar? If you’ve grown up in the world of classical ballet, it may indeed sound (and feel) familiar.

But what do I mean by using violence? Let’s look at the definition (as per Cambridge Dictionary) of violence first: “Actions or words that are intended to hurt people.” Pretty damn close as you will see below.

A dancer breaking into pieces. Watercolour by @janoimages (via Canva app)

  1. Choices upon sizes.”

What does the dancer hear? Casting according to weight.

Many dancers get ridiculed for the belief that in order to be cast in significant roles, they need to have the lowest weight possible. It’s not a belief though; it is something that very obviously still happens in real life, in front of our eyes, in 2020, in 2023, and it will continue in 2024. A study published in 2020 (Keay et al.) and another one published in 2023 (Nicholas & Grafenauer) both found that 71 percent and 62 percent of female dancers, respectively, firmly believe that in order to be cast for significant roles they must lose weight. Furthermore, control over weight as well as food intake are closely linked with dancers’ self-esteem and self-worth.

These should never be linked in the first place. Every dancer should have the possibility to develop a healthy self that has nothing to do with weight. That belief feeds the diet culture industry that capitalizes on people not being educated about their bodies. And in a profession where the body is not only the dancer’s home but the only instrument they have, this education should not be withheld from anyone pursuing this career. Yet it is being withheld. Australia has just removed all nutrition education from national dance curricula. The reason? “Feedback from the industry.”[1]  The dance world’s obsession with weight -– and if we’re being honest, the weight obsession of many societies at large -– obscures that weight does not equal artistry, or health, for that matter. It does not equal technical abilities. In fact, the dancers trying to lose weight at any cost are those ending up with (more) injuries, constant fatigue, inability to focus, irritability, inability to feel emotions properly, brittle bones (osteopenia/osteoporosis) and an array of other physical and mental health issues (Mountjoy et al., 2023 IOC consensus statement), ultimately putting a huge strain on healthcare systems.

Scales. Weight is only one measure to assess health,and must not be used without context (i.e. multiple other measures to assess a person’s health). It most definitely is not a tool to suppress or bully an employee. @africaimages (via Canva app)

  1. “It comes from America.”

What do viewers on Instagram hear? That there’s someone who simply does not care if any new trend, recommendation, or guideline has a reason. Or is it rather badly masked and outdated European elitism? Additionally, he says that they’re not allowed to speak about weight in Europe either, but that he’s above that because he knows better. He is better. He has a responsibility. It may be advisable to go back to his dictionary and look up responsibility, as he has definitely stretched the definition far beyond its meaning: “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” (Mason Meier B, 2017). How do dancers then enjoy that highest attainable standard of health if a person, entirely unqualified to assess their health, but one they’re dependent on, prevents them from being healthy in the first place? Someone who says he has responsibility for these human beings, yet someone who believes he is above everything and everyone – including healthcare professionals -– hinders dancers to access a fundamental human right.

Let’s make a quick gedankenexperiment: Assuming this director may be diagnosed with a serious illness, e.g. cancer, in the future, do you think he’s going to renounce state-of-the-art medical care to treat his illness? In a sense, doesn’t he have the responsibility (to use his own argument)to renounce treatment, as he is asking his dancers to do just that by ignoring medical advice? Doesn’t a director need to act as a role model?

  1. “Every kilogram counts.”

The message that the dancers hear is to be the tiniest version of yourself and you’ll have a chance of being cast. As with every obsession, there are many recurring themes, so no surprise we touch on it again, although from a slightly different point of view. The studies by Keay et al. (2020) and Nicholas & Grafenauer (2023) showed that 83 percent and 81 percent, respectively, of dancers included felt that social media was a constant influence to lose weight. Let’s just remember where these videos were posted. It could be common knowledge by now that the dance world has much higher numbers of disordered eating and eating disorders than the general population (Arcelus et al., 2014; Fostervold Mathisen et al., 2021), and that the numbers in the general population have been skyrocketing ever since the pandemic (Doria N, Numer M, 2020). However, on a physiological level, it makes perfect sense how that serves to keep the dance world stuck in the century before the last, or at least in the 1960s. The undernourishment of the brain -– by trying to get to that weight that will see you be cast for the role you so want to be dancing, or maybe because you’ve been threatened that you will be fired if you don’t lose weight -– not only affects physiological functions like our metabolism or our hormones but also affects our ability to act and react, to think, and to feel (Potterton R et al., 2020; Henje Blom et al., 20103x literature from post; Frank et al., 2019). It affects the sense of self as well as the sense of coherence (resilience) and theory of mind (understanding others and their intentions or desires). If a director is faced with a population of dancers that can’t really see the situation in the company for what it is, not to mention the bigger picture, his life is going to be exactly how he had mapped it out for himself: He’s the emperor, the director of his very own empire; an empire where he is in charge of the rules, whether they make sense or not, whether they harm human beings or not.

Dancer with measuring tape: The dance world’s obsession with weight and a ’body ideal’ has led to an unacceptable high number of dancers suffering from mental and physical health issues that put a strain on healthcare systems. @elenavagengeim (via Canva app)

Discussions are what keep art alive (and humans in this case as well), instead of clinging to outdated standards. Discussions that are held with people with suitable and appropriate qualifications. Discussions where qualifications are acknowledged and respected. Not monologues by people that want to rule their empire under the veil of “responsibility.”

We cannot protect or conserve an art form if we hurt the people within it. That’s not preservation, it’s violence. We have sufficient conflicts and wars on this planet, there is no need whatsoever to add to them. There is no need for dance directors in 2023 to pursue their very own conquest of a Roman Empire that may have been powerful and violent in the past, yet is based upon oppression, a voracious appetite of power, exploitation, and elitism.

~~

Stephanie Potreck was trained in both the Vaganova method and the RAD syllabus, before discovering her passion for musical theatre. A fractured vertebra ended her career early, sparked her interest in medicine, and she became a doctor. After a couple of years in global health and human genetics, she returned to her dancing roots and set up AusDancersOverseas, soon realising that most issues dancers were consulting her for had to do with nutrition. She decided to add a postgraduate diploma in sports nutrition in order to provide better healthcare and a more holistic understanding of body and mind.

References:

Instagram @unblanche-ballet

https://www.instagram.com/p/CtER-Cqvy-l/?igsh=MWRrMnI1aDNyZ3c4Yg%3D%3D&img_index=5 (last accessed Feb 13, 2024)

Cambridge Dictionary definition of violence:

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/violence (last accessed Feb 9, 2024)

Keay N, AusDancersOverseas, Francis G (2020). Indicators and correlates of low energy availability in male and female dancers. BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. Nov 26;6(1):e000906. doi: 10.1136/bmjsem-2020-000906

Nicholas J, Grafenauer S (2023). Investigating pre-professional dancer health status and preventative health knowledge. Front Nutr. Dec 7:10:1271362. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2023.1271362

Mountjoy M, Ackerman KE, Bailey DM, et al. (2023). 2023 International Olympic Committee’s (IOC)  consensus statement on Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports (RED-S). Br J Sports Med. 57(17):1073-1097. doi:10.1136/ bjsports-2023-106994

Mason Meier B (2017). Human Rights in the World Health Organization. Health Hum Rights. 19(1): 293-298

Arcelus J, Witcomb GL, Mitchell A (2014). Prevalence of eating disorders among dancers: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur Eat Discord Rev. 22(2):92-101. doi: 10.1002/erv.2271

Fostervold Mathisen TF, Sundgot-Borgen C et al. (2022). Mental health, eating behavior and injuries in professional dance students. Research in Dance Education. 23(1): 108-125. https://doi.org/10.1080/14647893.2021.1993171

Doria N, Numer M (2022). Dancing in a culture of disordered eating: A feminist poststructural analysis of body and body image among young girls in the world of dance. PLoS One. 17(1):e0247851. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0247651

Potterton R, Richards K et al. (2020). Eating disorders during emerging adulthood: A systematic scoping review. Front Psychol. 10:3062. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03062

Henje Blom EC, Serlachius E et al. (2010). Low sense of coherence (SOC) is a mirror of general anxiety and persistent depressive symptoms in adolescent girls – a cross-sectional study of a clinical and a non-clinical cohort. Health Qual Life Outcomes. 8:58. doi: 10.1186/1477-7525-8-58

Frank GKW, Shott ME, DeGuzman MC (2019). Recent advances in understanding anorexia nervosa. F1000Res. 17:8:F1000 Faculty Rev-504. doi: 10.12688/f1000research.17789.1

[1]A group of sports dietitians and nutritionists (myself included) has started to investigate this issue and has contacted all institutions involved in the process. It’s a painstakingly slow process and the answer we get repeatedly is, “It was removed due to feedback from the industry.”

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