Professional Ballerinas and the Media

Shannon Dunlop
Feb. 19, 2015
Popular Culture SINQ
Daneen Bergland

Professional Ballerinas and the Media

      In the past decade, there has been a very large spike of fascination of the female baller dancer in popular culture media. We are starting to see a lot of ballet influences on the fashion runway, music videos, and in everyday television and movies. By looking at some of these examples in popular culture media, you start to see a lot of common traits on how we portray professional female ballerinas. If you asked one person to describe what a ballerina looks like to them they would probably use a description using entities of some of these words: elegant, thin, tall, pale, woman. I believe that in popular culture media we are making a very narrow stereotype about female professional ballerinas. Through looking at three different pieces in popular media such as the film “Black Swan”, the reality television series “Breaking Pointe”, and the film “Step Up” we will further see how we create an image around ballerina’s that is about drama and poor healthy among many other things.
One of the most popular pieces of media that has been released in the past ten years with female ballerinas as the spotlight is, “Black Swan” (2010) directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman. The film is a psychological thriller about a professional ballet dancer who wins the lead in “Swan Lake” and starts to mirror the Black Swan role of “Swan Lake” and loses her mind because of multiple pressures from the ballet world.
In the film, Natalie Portman’s character, among others such as Mila Kunis’ character are portrayed as very thin. In reading about the production of the film, Kunis said that she dropped 20 pounds (from her already extremely slender frame) to 95 pounds. Kunis said, “I was muscle, like a little brick house, but skin and bones” (Mapes) in an article about how extreme weight diets warp your body. Kunis came out and spoke about all the negative side effects that she went through when gaining the weight back after finishing the film. As a dancer, what I can appreciate from this is the fact that they really wanted to be authentic when trying to portray the role of ballet dancer. Ballet dancers put their body through a lot of work and pain to get into the form they need to. What I can’t appreciate is how they forced a very scary diet and body weight on Kunis who is not actually a professional ballet dancer. Not even a professional ballet dancer should weight 95 at 5’4”. Coming from a medical standpoint, that’s extremely unhealthy. In a research study done by a group of educators in Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California they studied body imagery of dancers in Los Angeles and what they call “the cult of slenderness”. In there they state that “for a dancer, thin is ‘15% below your ideal weight for height, which is basically anorexic weight” (Loyola Marymount University, 257).

This film adds substance to the argument that all female professional dancers have eating disorders or strive to push their body past healthy limits. I know for a fact, that there are professional dancers that practice healthy and clean eating. Although, I haven’t met a dancer that won’t admit to have not having body image issues. “Dancers’ identities are not constructed as a whole person, but as a physical body” (Loyola Marymount University, 259). Having said this and this being true, Black Swan really pushed this belief. A lot of the film became about how Natalie Portman’s character went crazy (among other reasons) over controlling her weight. What’s upsetting is that although this is a very strong concern of the ballet world, they felt the need to include multiple scenes referring to her eating disorder. While there are multiple things that drive her to go insane, I felt that they way over shot scenes with examples of her eating disorder.
In 2012, the network CW premiered a reality television series called Breaking Pointe that goes behind the stage curtain for an extremely competitive Ballet Company called Ballet West located in Salt Lake City, Utah. The television series focuses a lot on the athleticism, dedication, hard work, and pressures of the ballet world. The series has been well received as it’s gone through two seasons and is scheduled for a third.
The level of talent that comes from these dancers is ¬immense; it really takes your breath away. You get to see the true dedication that it takes to be a dancer of that caliber. All of the dancers give almost 110% to their art. The series focuses a lot of the individuals and the relationships of the people in the through all their hard work. In the first season one of the woman was broken up with and her ex-partner’s reasoning was that he believed that “she loved dance more than him”. Those examples right their shows you how much these people are willing to give everything they have to their company. The negative that comes from this is that in the series, you feel the pressure that the show puts to create the drama between all these relationships. They hone in too much on the relationships and not on the dancing and this really hassles me. The show isn’t about showcasing the dancing as much as it’s about the relationships. You can feel the pressure that the producers are putting on the show to create these rivalries and love stories between dancers rather than focusing on their amazing talents. Much like the director’s decisions in Black Swan. In Black Swan, there is a scary rivalry between Mila Kunis’ character and Natalie Portman’s to be the lead in the “Swan Lake” performance. Whenever ballet is put in the spotlight, it’s either about eating disorders or this frightening thought that all dancers hate each other when really a healthy dancing community can be the best support system you could ask for. As a dancer myself, I couldn’t imagine going through my awkward teenage years without the love and support of the amazing dancers that I chose to surround myself with everyday.

Another interesting point to look at in the series Breaking Point is in the beginning of the series where a young dancer brings up the topic of dieting so that she can look “tiny” in a costume that she is supposed to preform in. At first, you are appalled by how someone with such a tiny frame could ever want to be any tinier. In a following episode, they make a strategic point to have the dancers having an open discussion about diet and having good eating habits, emphasis on the actually eating part. This, I thought, shined positively for ballerina’s in this case. In a New York Times article written in 1997 by Jennifer Dunning, she said some things that I believe are still extremely interesting and relevant more than a decade later. It reads, “…the average incidence of eating disorders in the white middle-class population in 1 in 100. In classical ballet, it is one in five” (Dunning). I believe that is a statistic that still applies to our society today and is why it’s so important that during that episode, they shined a more positive light on ballerinas and eating disorders.

In 2006, director Anne Fletcher released a movie called “Step Up”; a movie that shines a spotlight on female dancer who ends up with a male partner of very little dance practice for her senior show out of desperation. I think that this movie shines more positive light on ballerinas than negative. Although Nora, the female lead, is not directly portrayed as a ballerina, she is a dancer that comes from a practice of ballet and could be referenced as one. Whereas, Tyler, the main male role does not have any formal ballet training.
In this film, they create a very strong image that Nora is young woman and therefore, she must only practice jazz and ballet, whereas, Tyler, being a man, must do the masculine thing and reject all ballet practice. This creates the stigma that men can’t be ballerina’s, especially heterosexual men. In the movie, Tyler takes a very long time to warm up to the idea of practicing a traditional elegant style like ballet.
I think that popular culture media makes ballet dancers portrayed as people with eating disorders, who hate each other, and are strictly woman. In many cases, all of that isn’t true but what we see in media loves to make us think that it is. By comparing all these series and films you start to develop your own thoughts on which ballerina’s are and you get a very skewed image of them.

Citations

Black Swan. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Screenplay by Mark Heyman. 20 Century Fox, 2010. Film.
Bonsall, Lindsay, prod. Breaking Pointe. CW. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2012. Television.
Step up. Dir. Anne Fletcher and Duane Adler. Universal, 2006. Film.
Dunning, Jennifer. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 July 1997. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
Mapes, Diane. “Mila Kunis, ‘Black Swan’ and How Extreme Diets Warp Your Body.” TODAY. Today.com, 7 Mar. 2012. Web. 09 Mar. 2015.
Heiland, Teresa L., Darrin S. Murray, and Paige P. Edley. “Body Image of Dancers in Los Angeles: The Cult of Slenderness and Media Influence among Dance Students.” Research in Dance Education 9.3 (2008): 257-75. Nov. 2008. Web.

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6 thoughts on “Professional Ballerinas and the Media

  1. Hi there, Shannon!
    I really enjoyed reading your essay because I have been a dancer over 17 years. Although I don’t do it as heavily as I did during my teen years anymore, it was a HUGE part of my life. I danced 18 hours a week in high school, attending a pre-professional studio, studying all types of dance. I loved going to conventions and competitions. I have seen many different dancers and their body types through out the years. I really think it is interesting that there is a such a stereotype for dancers with body image issues. The dancers at my studio for the most part, were incredibly muscular and at healthy body weights. We achieved this because my instructor put so much emphasis on eating healthy and conditioning your body the correct way. That being said, a lot of them still wished things were different about their own bodies. None of them were ‘anorexic’ though. From my experience being in the commercial dance world, I don’t think that anorexia or bulimia is all that common. I couldn’t imagine dancing without any nutrition to fuel the long and already exhausting hours. Obviously some dancers do suffer from anorexia, otherwise there wouldn’t be this stereotype that exists, but I just don’t think it is as common as the media makes it out to be. I thought you included some good sources in your essay. ‘Black Swan’ is a really great movie to use as an example. I also thought the article you used was helpful to getting your point across.

  2. Hi Shannon!

    I’m a dancer (not ballet) but I could really relate to what you said about the value of having a dance community that understands your struggles and that offers support when you need it. I had never considered popular media’s portrayal of ballet until your paper. Your examples are great and true, because unfortunately a lot of what I know about ballet stems from what I have seen in media. I have witnessed an emphasis on body image and eating disorders like you said, but also this idea of solitude, individual determination, isolation, etc like ballet is a lonely world of cutthroat competition. I’m also reminded of the film Billy Elliot, in which a young boy discovers ballet, but has a hard time finding his place in the world of dance.

  3. Hi Shannon. It was very interesting to read your essay and a great insight to ballet. Last year one of my architectural studios focused on the human body and we used ballet as the lens to view it. We were able to attend a few of the Oregon ballet practices, one at their place on the East side, and once down town for a dress rehearsal. We brought sketch books and spent time observing the dancers. Afterwards we all talked about what we saw. The initial reaction was that we were impressed with the dedication to dance. The rests between stage times were spent on stretching, foot work, and medical maintenance. The rhythm of the entire experience was great. The next thing we noticed was the body types. The women were mostly very thin and the men were very cut. After this experience I decided to look into ballet and one of the most common threads was the eating disorder angle. It was really disappointing because the most interesting thing to me was the craft of dance and the dedication needed to get to the stage. I wish this was the focus of pop culture’s representation of ballet dancers, and not the eating disorders. Eating disorders create more drama though so It’s probably why producers decide to sensationalize it so much.

  4. Hello Shannon!

    I chose to read your essay because it was different and its not something I know much about but would love to learn about it. I found your essay to be very interesting and well written. It gave me an idea of how people portray ballerina dancers because since I never put into much thought about ballerina dancers but if you ask me what I think about them, I would say they are very thin, strong and poised. I really like the example you gave about Mila Kunis how she had to lose 20 pounds to play in a movie. I think that is crazy! however, I understand she is trying to portray a character but I think that is going to far. I also like the example of the movie “Step Up” I personally seen that movie and I think the girl character sets a good example of what a ballerina dancer should be. Great paper! I learned something new today.

  5. Hi Shannon,
    I really enjoyed reading your essay. I myself am not a dancer, but find ballet to be a very beautiful form of dance. I like the references that you choose to use to support you claim of how media portrays ballerinas. Black Sawn is one of my favorite movies because of how eerie it is, and its ability to present what a mental disorder might feel like. Most movies I have seen about ballerinas has shaped my perception of them having body issues and possible eating disorders due to the demanding pressure. What I found was interesting in your essay was that you state 1/100 girls have experience an eating disorder while 1/5 ballerinas experience an eating disorder. This fact seems to support the stereotype places on ballet dancers, and makes me wonder what the effect these media stereotypes have on women in ballet. Great job on your essay! I found it very interesting.
    -Reanna

  6. Shannon,
    Your essay was fascinating. I learned a lot about the negative stereotypes and also enjoyed reading about your positive experiences. I’d only seen “Black Swan,” but it was good to read about other examples. You set up the premise quite well, so I still understood what was going on.

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