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Balancing Act

The Struggle to Save Ballet From Itself

A former dancer reckons with the rigors and ordeals of life in ballet.

Ernst Haas/Getty Images
George Balanchine, co-founder and artistic director of the New York City Ballet, working on a scene with dancers in 1962

I recently went to look at the pointe shoes of the ballerina Emma Livry, who danced at the Paris Opera from 1858 to 1862. Today’s pointe shoes are constructed around a box cushioning the toes. But Livry was dancing before this invention. Her shoes were in fact satin slippers, which she sewed around the sole with hundreds of stitches fanning outward in concentric circles; nothing else protected her. When I saw them, my toes curled under in instinctive pain.

Passed down from a time that allowed women few professional options (sewing would have been one of them), Livry’s shoes not only reveal the discipline she imposed on herself but an ambition—a determination to do and be more, a refusal to accept the givens of society and her allotted place within it.

Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet
by Alice Robb
Mariner Books, 304 pp., $29.99

In Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, Alice Robb, a former staff writer at The New Republic, shows how intensely a ballerina’s training revolves around antiquated ideals of femininity—a femininity for which she is expected to suffer in silence. She draws from a breathtaking range of sources to build her case, looking to the writings and anecdotes of dancers past and present (Megan Fairchild, Sophie Flack, and her old coach, Carol Sumner), medical and sociological studies, and pop-culture depictions of the art form.

Most important, Robb writes as a former ballet dancer. As a child, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet, or SAB, the most prestigious ballet conservatory in the United States, linked to New York City Ballet and George Balanchine’s distinctive model of artistry and training. Unlike most other ballet memoirists, Robb never “made it.” SAB let her go when she was 12, and she kept training for three more years in less competitive schools. “How did we reconcile our past, and our residual love for ballet,” she asks herself, and her former SAB classmates, “with the feminist consciousness we eventually developed?”

As much as Robb’s book is a reflection on the way young dancers can be abused within the hierarchies of ballet institutions, it’s also an attempt to recover the promise of dance. “Even as the trappings of ballet—the competition, the impossible physical standards, the punishing hours—can be a source of profound anxiety and distress,” Robb writes, “ballet itself—the movement, the music, the choreography—is simultaneously a salve for these emotions.”

In the first few chapters, Robb lays out the evidence of ballet’s institutionalized backwardness. Strict fidelity to the methods of Balanchine (who died in 1983) makes her wonder whether she spent her adolescence “in thrall to a deceased cult leader.” Several of Balanchine’s former dancers state their unequivocal faith in his commands and pronouncements—and how they themselves were never good enough, no matter how much of themselves they gave. Maria Tallchief, one of Balanchine’s stars (and wives) exclaimed over “the first time I’ve ever heard George say anything nice about my dancing”—and this was decades after her retirement.

Other dancers, even those who defend his reputation, admit that he would squeeze and point to various body parts (fingers, stomach, collarbone), while telling them that they were overweight. Gelsey Kirkland whittled herself down to 90 pounds after he tapped her sternum and rib cage, telling her that he “must see the bones.” In order to lose 10 of her 110 pounds, Allegra Kent put herself on a diet of 500 calories a day, as she outlines in her 1984 diet manual, The Dancer’s Body Book. This body type was not the norm before Balanchine. Through the early twentieth century, critics complained that female dancers were too thin; Robb notes that dancers pictured in the early days of SAB wouldn’t make it through the front door today.

I’ve always resisted the use of the word cult applied to ballet companies and schools, but when Robb details the defining features of a cult, it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched: Dancers’ diets as documented in the 1970s and ’80s serve as uncanny precedents for the starvation regimes maintained by members of groups like NXIVM.

The emphasis on thinness has persisted. The teachers in Robb’s youth tell students they need to “lengthen”—a euphemism for losing weight. She recounts how one of her classmates, who landed a professional contract with a company, was let go because she was “in terrible condition,” according to the director—and this was after a season of heroically stepping in for other injured dancers, picking up choreography 30 minutes before the curtain rose, and dancing up to three roles a night. Robb references the work of Dr. Michelle Warren, who in 1997 estimated that dancers’ rates of eating disorders were 20 times higher than the general population’s. (When Warren set out to make a long-term study of SAB students, she had to abandon the project because so many of the subjects stopped cooperating.)

As in Balanchine’s time, when Robb was at SAB, the company was dominated by one man. She remembers Peter Martins, the former director of NYCB, as a silent, dictatorial figure in her classes whose very presence made the atmosphere “shift” and “darken” as teachers scrambled to keep his temper in check. Her classmate Meiying recalls that in rehearsal as a child, Martins marked her placement on the stage while gripping the back of her neck. (In an interview with The New York Times, Robb cites the accusations of assault, abuse, and harassment made against Martins in 1992 and 2017 as one of the initial reasons she returned to this subject.)

While literally embodying the art form and sacrificing almost everything else to do so, the most gifted and dedicated female artists are simultaneously excluded from institutional power. Robb traces the postretirement trajectories of several of Balanchine’s female dancers, including the muses (a term used unironically in the ballet world) who best understood his creative process and vision, such as Suzanne Farrell. They end up as vessels of his technique and ballets—in teaching positions outside of his former company. After leading one of the most successful careers of the twentieth century at the Royal Ballet, Margot Fonteyn left London to care for her abusive husband, following him to an isolated farm in Panama—where he spent all the money she had earned. When friends went to pay their respects after her death, no one could find her grave; her name was misspelled in the cemetery’s records.

I know the stories of these dancers, along with many of the sources Robb cites. But taking them in together disproves the common dismissal of these narratives as isolated cases. The discrimination is systemic. “Our bodies were instruments and they belonged to other people: to choreographers and partners and directors—to men,” she writes. According to a study by Dance Data Project, men choreographed 80 percent of the work performed by America’s 50 largest companies from 2018 to 2020. As recently as 2016, all 58 of the ballets danced by NYCB were made by men. It’s enough to make one throw in the towel, as Robb admits doing repeatedly, and conclude that ballet is just too much. Maybe the discipline and hierarchies embedded in its technique are incompatible with twenty-first-century ideals of justice.

Yet rather than seeing ballet as a relic of outdated patriarchy—as many feminists do—Robb understands it as “a laboratory of femaleness.” Ballet is a particularly stark example of a broader system that conditions women to be obedient, to suffer for perfection, and never complain about any of it. Dancers race against the clock to reach professional standards as teenagers, only to retire before the age of 30—if injury doesn’t cut their dancing short. But this sense of an hourglass rapidly emptying, Robb notes, is much like the pressure on thirtysomething women to have kids in the brief window between establishing a career and declining fertility. And a sylphlike physique is a trend that’s hardly limited to ballet: She recalls dating a man who delighted in her waifish thinness, pressing into her ribs beneath her shirt. As a writer, Robb believes that she has escaped judgment of her looks only to be berated for her “bubbly” appearance and vocal fry when giving interviews online.

Ballet dancers give body to their art form—but this lack of separation between performer and performance has been used to justify a more explicit, heightened version of their objectification. “I imagined critical eyes surrounding me all the time,” Robb writes of her ballet teachers’ warnings that dancers could be photographed from any angle. “I internalized the mirror, and constructed more mirrors in my head.” Leaving the studio did not mean Robb could get rid of them. Instead, with the girl-power spirit of the 2000s and early 2010s, it meant covering up that she was looking—that she still cared how she looked.

For those who give up ballet, it can be too painful to watch old concert videos or go back to class, let alone reflect on old memories. Ballet was the all-consuming flame, and quitting often leads to heartbreak that makes most romantic breakups seem like child’s play. Many former dancers and dance students can’t talk about what they used to do—as Robb acknowledges, citing classmates who refused to participate in her book. In a podcast about Balanchine’s legacy released earlier this year, The Turning: Room of Mirrors, journalist Erika Lantz, usually poised and precise in her line of questioning, breaks down as she recalls the day she walked out of the studio for the last time at age 15. She asks herself why she starts crying. “Um, I think I just miss it,” she finally manages to say.

Robb goes where few former dancers have been willing, excavating her childhood bedroom in order to unearth old diaries, leotards, and audition photos. She lists the many iterations of a recurring dream in which she dances on stage—only to wake up and remember that she gave it up 15 years ago. I first read Don’t Think, Dear in one sitting, but this is why I kept picking it up and rereading it as I wrote this review. Ballet history has been written by the victors—by the dancers who became stars or, more often than not, the men who choreographed works or evaluated these works as worthy of artistic merit.

Robb’s decision to write about her own past throws a radical challenge to the premises of authority otherwise tightly controlling the art form’s narratives. No matter that she and most of her classmates never graduated as apprentices, never performed as flowers or snowflakes in The Nutcracker, never caught the director’s or critic’s eye. Their experience with ballet from childhood and adolescence—it changed them. It matters. If you ever dreamed of dancing, Robb’s book will allow you to unpack your own past, undoing the self-censorship learned in a culture that rarely takes the aspirations and ambitions of girlhood seriously.

Thirteen years ago, ballet historian Jennifer Homans—who has just published a biography of Balanchine, in what appears to be a collective reckoning with his legacy—declared that ballet was dying, pointing to the dearth of artistry on contemporary stages. Yet in its everyday practice by an estimated 3.5 million children in close to 100,000 studios in the U.S. alone, ballet is very much alive. Perhaps this is not the age of the all-powerful choreographer, but that of dancers finally being allowed to claim their voices for themselves.

Writer and former NYCB dancer Toni Bentley has decried the effects of social media on ballet, lamenting that “ballerinas now tweet from the wings about their injuries and vegan muffins.” But the glimpses backstage into the unglamorous physical and psychological conditions of the profession also insist that the ephemeral performance is made by real people, with real bodies, real lives, real pain. As Chloe Angyal argues in her 2021 book, Turning Pointe, if ballet is to survive, it will be thanks to its practitioners and the willingness of institutions to listen to them. (And to let them talk. In my own reporting on ballet for The New York Times, I have found that my requests for interviews with dancers about how they think and feel about their art form are often denied by major companies’ publicists, including NYCB’s.)

Robb believes that change is afoot. After watching a performance of Pacific Northwest Ballet, she is hopeful for the dancers onstage: “I don’t think they will end up with all the same scars.” Many reviewers have emphasized Robb’s critiques of ballet culture, concluding that the women who still engage with it must harbor self-destructive impulses as inscrutable as those that drive lemmings off a cliff. I see her book as doing something more complicated, trying to hold up the good along with the bad. Yes, Robb never lets us forget the perverse expectations surrounding female dancers’ health and agency. We learn how Farrell’s mother discouraged her teenage daughter from dating so that Balanchine could “court” her. (He was 40 years her senior.) How he deliberately kept his dancers poor. How he selected a perfume for his star female dancers so he could track their whereabouts in the theater at all times.

But Robb also quotes Eva Alt, who says that Balanchine style let her “be a wild woman when I danced.” When I first learned the Balanchine technique in open adult classes (this was 14 years after I too gave up on the pre-professional track), it felt like taking off the training wheels. With its broad arcs and rhythmic play, I felt myself moving bigger, faster, stronger; it undid the fixed image I had of myself. In February, I went to see the Paris Opera perform Balanchine’s Who Cares?—his ode to the New York City skyline—and the company’s sometimes overwrought perfectionism melted away in the pleasure of the movement he created more than 50 years ago. I attended with a group of North American college students in their early twenties who train in various dance styles (contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, etc.). They shouted and whistled in applause. “It’s fun to watch because the dancers are having fun, and we can participate in that,” one of them said.

If ballet was all self-effacing torture, there would be no need to wrestle with it. But despite the inhumanity of its current training methods, Robb also makes it clear that it gave her so much. “At ballet, I had learned not only to think about how my body looked from the outside, but to fully inhabit it from the inside,” she writes. “As much as I obsessed about my reflection in the mirror, I thought even more about how my body felt.”

Robb works through studies that prove how ballet training transforms its practitioners: the bones of their legs and feet thicken, their resistance to and awareness of pain becomes more acute, their neurological perception of space more refined. This too is learned in the ballet classroom, where Robb was taught to imagine her environment in different shades and feelings—the floor like a friend, the air like water—while discovering how she could move through space and sense her classmates moving along with her. As a dancer, she experienced her body “through luscious metaphors of food and nature and everyday life”—from an inner eye, rather than anatomical labels or approbation of her beauty in the eyes of men.

Her vivid descriptions of internal sensation reminded me of Audre Lorde’s call to identify the erotic outside of the bedroom, as “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” Most people struggle to establish this sense of wholeness and connection between mind and body. This is why the love of ballet runs so deep—and why the institutions passing on its traditions must change. Balanchine, who was committed to renewing the art form so it could both reflect and inspire the contemporary age, probably would have agreed.