Ballerinas: Why does Hollywood make them look so crazy?
When you imagine a ballerina what is the first thing that comes to mind? Do you see a pink tutu, a leotard and some tights. What does the dancer themselves look like? Does the image of a young, white female come into mind? This is the generic image that comes into everyone’s mind. There are not many negative annotations of specifically being a white ballerina it is their behavior that gets the bad image in the media. As a ballerina myself it is somewhat uncomfortable to be looped into these negative stereotypes that are usually displayed in the media. Stereotypes that are shown in the media about ballerinas are: eating disorders, jealousy and extreme competitiveness, all of these are incredibly damaging to ballet and it’s image and they are misrepresentations of what it is really like to be a ballerina.
These stereotypes have not always been the main focus when it comes to ballet. The main focus used to be that ballet was not only a form of dance but also an art form. It is still considered an art form today but that is not usually the focal point when a movie or television show is made about a ballet dancer or ballet company. In our society today we love drama. Just turn on the TV for five minutes, American television is filled with reality TV drama and that is just the starting point. To add jealousy and eating disorders to a movie or TV show about ballet tends to draw in more viewers.
A very controversial movie came out about five years ago called Black Swan. This film had every kind of negative stereotype that can be thought of when it comes to ballet. The main character Nina is in a New York Ballet Company. The movie is about her descent into madness after she gets the main roll in an upcoming performance, (i.e. she sees things that are not there, “sprouts” wings on her final performance). The movie shows her struggling with anorexia and bulimia. For the role of Nina, Natalie Portman had to go through extensive training and excessive exercise to achieve the body image expected of a ballerina. As a matter of fact in an interview with Vogue magazine the actress explains what she did to prepare physically for the role. Here was her routine for preparation for the movie, “The dance training for Black Swan started a year before the film, with two hours a day. Six months later we ramped it up to five hours a day, and the last two months it was eight hours a day, because we added choreography and cross training, so I was also swimming a mile a day”. All of this work to help her appear like an anorexic dancer.
The other negative aspect of this movie is that it shows the other dancers back talking and expressing snide comments to her after she earned the main role. Only a few scenes show the other dancers in the company dancing, other than that the creators chose to show a darker side to ballet. One where there is no loyalty or kindness. The danger in this is now people start to form opinions that this behavior is real and all ballet dancers must be like this. Unfortunately this personality type is consistently shown in movies and television shows about ballet.
After the release of the movie Black Swan a Victoria Aheam for the Canadian Press interviewed several professional ballet dancers about their feelings toward the movie. One dancer named Rachel Prince states. “I’m sure every dancer struggles with little things here and there but for one girl to struggle with every single problem out there, it just makes us look crazy.” This is precisely how the other dancers in the interview felt as well. Another dancer says that this movie could be really damaging for the image of ballet because over the last twenty years these negative stereotypes have been fading away. Hollywood has a way of accentuating the negative aspect of many things in order to make a more interesting movie or television show.
The stereotype that ballet dancers are white and female is also supported in this movie. There is a broad shot at one point of the room of dancers and it is a sea of white female faces. There are only two male dancers that appear in this film and they are merely shown in the background or briefly coming into a shot to lift Nina while dancing. The male dancers in this film are basically a side note.
An interview from NPR’s Rachel Martin with American Ballet Theaters Misty Copeland sheds light on what it is like to not be a white ballet dancer and the difficulties of breaking stereotypes. One of Martins opening statements says, “Misty Copeland had to bust a lot of stereotypes to get where she is today. Copeland is one of only a handful of African-Americans to have ever danced as a soloist with the American Ballet Theater, also known as the ABT”. Copeland goes on to say in the interview that about 2-3 years into her professional career is when she looked around the studio of 80 dancers and realized she was the only African American dancer. It appears then that this stereotype is not only true in the movie Black Swan but in real life.
Another much lighter show called Bunheads also follows what life is like in a ballet studio. Again in this television show the ballerinas are young, white and female. Some of them are also struggling with body image. In Bunheads the dancers are younger and have fuller bodies than the ones seen in Black Swan. This I consider a good thing because it is promoting a healthier body size. The fact that the girls struggle with their weight contrast this positive message and young viewers are then influenced to cast doubt on their own bodies. Body image is perhaps such a big focal point in shows and movies because in our society we are obsessed with the “perfect body”. This obsession starts with Hollywood and celebrities. Everyday people then try to reflect this perfection in our their own lives. It is true that in ballet there is a certain body size that is strived for, however with the influence of Hollywood this issue is highly exaggerated.
For all these shows and movies that cast a dark or unflattering light on ballet and it’s dancers, there are still some out there that try to show a more realistic point of view. One such show is called Breaking Pointe. There are two seasons of Breaking Pointe and it follows the Ballet West Company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Reading the episode summaries and seeing the pictures from the show it is very clear this is a very different view of a ballet company. The creators of this show chose to go a different route and show what it is really like to be a part of a ballet company. There are more male ballet dancers, not equal to the amount of females but there are more. There clearly is a race barrier; both the men and women featured in the show are all white with a very small amount of other ethnicities.
Although this show chooses to take a different path and show a better side to the dance form and its dancers, it still shows a little bit of drama. In comparison to other shows/movies it is very tame. After the third episode the center of the show is their preparation for the big performance. The added drama could have been to draw in more viewers as the show had just premiered.
Being a ballet dancer is difficult, to be a professional ballet dancer is unimaginable to me. The sacrifices and physical pain that is endured is incredible. I know there are dancers that fit the stereotypes given to ballerinas. For the majority of what I have experienced ballerinas in general are normal people. It is a shame to be lumped into these traits that make ballet dancers look less than admirable. This image of what a ballerina is like through cinema and television is so cemented into our American psyche that it will be very difficult to remove the stigma. It will take many years and many films showing ballet in a positive light to change this image. If ballet were represented well in the media would it draw in the same amount of viewers? This has not been the case for the latter two examples discussed. Both shows were canceled after two seasons. Black Swan however was hugely popular, winning many awards, earning $329 million dollars worldwide and was talked about for months.
Does this show a trend in our society? Are we only satisfied watching anything about ballet when it is highly dramatized and unrealistic? This is probably going to be the trend for many years to come. There will be a show coming out this fall on Starz called Flesh and Bone that is going to follow a ballerina as she joins a ballet company. The commercials alone are extremely dramatic. It appears showing ballet and its dancers in negative stereotypes are a trend that is here to stay until someone decides it is time for change. Hopefully someone in the future will show the true beauty of ballet and the art that it really is. Until then I suspect that our society will continue to obsess over what has always been shown, the skinny, white, jealous, and competitive ballerina that is constantly striving for perfection.
Black Swan. Dir. Darren Aronofsky. Perf. Natalie Portman. Fox Searchlight Films, 2010. Film.
Bunheads. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, Lamar Damon. Disney-ABC Domestic Television. 2012-2013. Television.
Breaking Pointe. Created by Allison DeBona. The CW broadcast television network. 2013-2013. Television.
Copeland, Misty. Interview by Rachel Martin. NPR.org. Busting Stereotypes To Become A Prima Ballerina, 2014. Web. 09, Mar. 2014.
Prince Rachel. Smida, Peter. Interview by Victoria Aheam. Cbs.ca. Dancers object to Black Swan’s stereotypes. Canadian Press. 2010. Web. 26, Dec. 2010.
Portman, Natalies. Interview with Joan Juliette Buck. Natalie Portman: Spreading her wings. Vogue Magazine. 13, Dec. 2010.