Is Ballet Humane?

By Leda Meredith

Today one of the young student dancers I rehearsal direct in a Nutcracker production came up to me and pointed to her right foot. A bad blister had bled through her tights and through her pointe shoe. She looked up at me with wide eyes and a well-trained ballet-school smile and asked if it was okay if she did the run-thru on flat. I said yes, the other ballet mistress said no. She kept the shoes on. During the run through, I heard, “Smile, girls, it’s Nutcracker not a tragedy!” shouted at the dancers. I looked at Susan’s foot. Her shoe was red with blood. She was smiling.

This is complicated. There are times when I think a dancer does need to perform despite bleeding blisters and such. When the curtain is going up and there is no understudy, for example. On the other hand, if this were foreign policy rather than ballet I’d say it was utterly inhumane.

I think ballet is beautiful. The ancient Chinese bound women’s feet because they thought small feet were beautiful. What did those women think? My ballet students are willing to put up with real physical and psychological pain in pursuit of beauty. Is it worth it? Is there an alternative way to get to the beauty without the torture? Are we willing to break with tradition to investigate what that way might be?

In a recent dinner conversation with Cynthia Gregory, she mentioned that during her performing career she was very protective of her body. For example, she would let whoever was running the rehearsal know that she could only do one full-out one through. This was not laziness, but a guarded attention to what her instrument could handle. She had no major injuries during her remarkable career.

Sometimes dancers abuse this principle. “I have to mark this run thru because the floor is slippery” (when it isn’t), “I can’t do the lifts today because my back is bad” (when it isn’t). Directors are sometimes right to be skeptical of dancers claiming physical excuses not to perform full out.

But then there is Susan with her bleeding feet at a rehearsal when it won’t make or break the show if she does the run thru on pointe or not. Given enough longevity, professional dancers learn how to make this call for themselves: yes, I can do this and it won’t injure me and it’s necessary vs. no, this would actually injure me and/or isn’t really necessary. But what are we teaching our dance students?

“Smile, girls, smile!” Right. Maybe that needs some rethinking.

Leda Meredith is the author of “Botany, Ballet, & Dinner from Scratch” (Heliotrope Books 2008). She is the winner of the 2007-2008 Teaching Excellence Award from Adelphi University. For more, go to www.ledameredith.com

Photo: Leda Meredith and Jonathan Riseling in Francis Patrelle’s “Macbeth”, Photo Credit: Eduardo Patino

4 Comments

  1. This is really interesting. You probably don’t remember this, but, back in High School, at LaGuardia, I was rehearsing a piece for Senior Concert. I made one move, and subluxed my patella. I was made aware that there wasn’t really the necessity for sitting out from classes and rehearsals, despite a huge amount of swelling and pain. Because my teachers told me I couldn’t afford the time off, I did it. I skipped the doctor, and chugged prescription pain relievers. I found myself painting my knee brace with foundation so it would be less noticeable. Fast forward 10 years, and I found myself unable to walk. An MRI revealed a pretty considerable meniscus tear, degenerative arthritis in my patella from this years old injury, and a massive amount of scar tissue growing across my knee. I was driven to dance through this!! I can’t believe I actually did it. While there are some things that warrant dancing through, we often rely on our teachers and guides to help us decipher what is and isn’t smart, especially as still impressionable kids. Sure, in the short run I was dancing, but had I continued dancing professionally, I would have been up a creek pretty fast.

  2. The story by Leda and the comment by Nicole have been an eye-opener for me.

    Over the years I have watched a few ballets while sitting uncomfortably in theatre seats, and never gave a thought about a dancer becoming injured, while performing these incredible movements. Surely it must be hard to smile with constant pain !
    Currently I watch on television, and happy that I never see a beautiful ballerina, with a tattoo or a ring through the nostril.

  3. Lou,

    If you take a peek at modern ballet, you’ll see plenty of piercings and inkings, so you had better stick to your classical!

  4. All ballet students need to make sacrifices but I believe it is possible to teach pre-professional ballet students and professional ballet dancers in a humane way.

    When it comes to pushing ourselves and our limits, dancers need to be aware of what their bodies can and can’t do. Their bodies are their instruments, after all. Dancers must push themselves however it would be dangerous to overdo it – for example ignoring pain could be dangerous and dancing with a significant injury when it is avoidable is foolish and will make the injury worse.

    Something I would like to remind all those involved with dance (and this advice also applies to non-dancers): take care of your bodies. Take care of your health. Do not ever sacrifice your health for dance. And when it comes to health, think not just in the short run but in the long run too. A risky but seemingly harmless can cause long-term damage or even death. Long-term damage from a risky practice could be debilitating. So make sure your priorities include health, never sacrifice your health for dance, and remember that a seemingly harmless but risky practice could cause long-term damage or even death.

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