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Off Balance: The Real World Of Ballet By Suzanne Gorden Essay, Research Paper

Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet

By Suzanne Gordon

Ballet in the United States thrived in the 1970’s. Ballet dancers like Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova were household names. People knew the stories of their defection and the beauty of their performances. Families could watch performances of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) on television, and if you had enough money you could attend the yearly Nutcracker Ball and socialize with the dancers. In 1979, after ABT’s management locked the dancers out of their studios, Suzanne Gordon was asked by Geo magazine to do a story on the changes going on in the world of ballet. Gordon approached the story as a labor problem, but realized that long hours and low wages are only part of the problem. As she discovered the harsh conditions suffered not only by professional dancers, but also by students at the most exclusive ballet schools, she decided to write the book, Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet. While some of the observations made by Gordon are still true today, she, unfortunately, viewed anorexia as an independent problem within the ballet world, rather than a product of the lifestyle. Additionally, Gordon seemed to stereotype and ignore the male dancer in ballet.

Gordon has written articles for the New York Times Magazine, Village Voice, Psychology Today, and in 1979 she was working for Geo magazine. She had never wanted to be a professional ballet dancer, but had taken ballet on and off since she was a child. Her editors at Geo magazine knew this, and offered her the opportunity to do an article about the changing world of ballet. Once she started, she became excited about the project, and was intrigued by the dancer’s technical skill and grace combined with their timidness and lack of confidence. She spent the next two years interviewing hundreds of dancers, students, teachers, choreographers, and doctors. While she is not a professional dancer, psychologist, or sociologist, she received information and advice from each.

Suzanne Gordon’s backstage look at dancers and ballet was the first book to examine the hard realities that lie beneath the glamour of dancers’ lives. Over the last twenty years, not much has changed. Many of the problems experienced by students of the top ballet schools are the same as those experienced by professional dancers. The body aesthetics required by top companies has become even more extreme, while the steps have become increasingly acrobatic. Ballet dancers continue to be paid less than orchestra and stagehands that accompany them, yet their career is one to two decades shorter.

The first part of the audition for the School of American Ballet (SAB), the United States most prestigious ballet school, consists of pointing one foot, doing a Grande plie in second position, and having your leg picked up and pushed by a teacher’s hand to the limit of the student’s flexibility. Following these three examinations, which show the limits of a dancers body, the majority of the auditioners are excused. This is one of the first lessons given to a young student: your body, not your talent, is the most important factor. The idealized ballet body has a high arch in the foot, long thin legs, a small waist, a short torso, a long neck, and a small head. When students receive admission into SAB, averaging between 14 to 18 years of age (online interview), they are probably the best in their local ballet school. After standing out for years, they now must deal with being one of many dancers with a great body for ballet.

Suzanne Gordon heard remarks from girls at SAB such as “I saw her mother, she’ll be out of here in a year”. (Gordon 54) She then noticed that the majority of the girls looked like they had not reached puberty. Very few women actually have a body that remains similar to that which they had before puberty; as a woman’s body reaches sexual maturity, breasts develop, hips widen, and the buttocks get some extra padding. Gordon realized that there is a serious problem when a sixteen year old girl is crying because her breast are developing, but more disconcerting is the fact that there are students who are 18 to 20 years old that have extremely irregular menstruation cycles, and a few that have not even started. Anorexia nervosa and Bulimia, she discovered, were widespread in the ballet world. Eating disorders were not only eating away at the young dancers bodies, but actually stopping the body’s proper development.

Gordon compiled data from a group of doctors that studied anorexia in student ballerinas and found that “as many as 15 percent suffer from true anorexia nervosa syndrome, and many more were borderline cases” (Gordon 147). SAB did not offer any information as to how widespread the problem is today, but considering that the ideal ballet body and other conditions in the ballet world have not changed, one can assume there is little change in the habits of the students.

Current research suggests that approximately one percent of female adolescents and four percent of college age women suffer from anorexia (ANRED). Can the strong correlation between ballet and anorexia be caused purely by the desire for the perfect ballet body? Gordon gives this as the only reason for anorexia in ballet, even though the ballet world she studied seems to be a perfect recipe for eating disorders, with not one but many ingredients. Gordon failed to realize that there are many factors that contribute to ballet’s epidemic of anorexia, and instead thought that the many faults of the ballet world were independent of each other.

The actual cause of anorexia is not known, but there are common traits among anorexics. Research suggests that some possible triggers are “critical comments from a respected authority figure and family problems” (ANRED). It is also noted that those who are experiencing relationship problems, loneliness in particular, are more vulnerable to anorexia. People with eating disorders tend to be perfectionists and have unrealistic expectations of themselves. Many lack a sense of identity, and try to define themselves by manufacturing a “socially approved and admired exterior” (ANRED). All of these factors can contribute to anorexia in the ballet world.

The teachers at the top academies come from all over the world and usually have danced with top companies internationally. They teach the way they were taught, focusing only on the negative. Students compete for this negative attention, and the rare positive remark is dismissed. Dancers believe they can always be skinnier, more turned-out, more flexible, and more technically precise, but most of all they can always work harder. From pre-professional to professional, the life of a dancer changes very little. Students leave their family and join their new ballet family. The patriarch (or, in some cases, the matriarch) of the ballet family is the artistic director, and dancers constantly look for his approval. The artistic director chooses which students get into the company and which company members get the treasured roles. Dancers are constantly trying to mold themselves to fit the artistic director’s personal preferences.

The transition to professional dancer is not a “rite of passage into adulthood” (Gordon 111). There are no graduation ceremonies to mark one’s entrance into a company. In fact, this is a way of letting the dancer’s know that their training is unending. For dancers, the notion of continuous learning is an indefinite continuation of childhood. While dancers are expected to act like adults, be disciplined enough to work vigorously, and to give up outside pleasures, most go through their entire careers without autonomy, independence, or self-determination. Dancers develop into tools, rather than becoming artists.

Close friends are hard to find and keep in the world of ballet. What would be the popular students in a normal high school are generally the best dancers in the school. Most socialize only with those who can dance at the same level as them. This leads to problems when it is time to audition and you are now competing with your friends for the few jobs that are available. To make it easier on themselves, many dancers keep themselves at an emotionally safe distance from their best friends. With class, rehearsals and performances, a student’s schedule can last from 9am to 11pm at night, up to six days a week. Loneliness is inevitable when you never get a chance to go out and meet new people and you can’t get too close to those you spend all your time with.

Gordon’s book, Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet, not only lacks research on male dancers, but the information provided on males in ballet is questionable. She considers male dancers to be immune from many of the problems that are experienced by female dancers, due to the fact that there are a smaller number of male dancers, which leads a less competition. Her book also suggests that homosexual males are responsible for the idealized ballet body.

At any local ballet school, you will probably find around a twenty to one ratio of girls to boys, but this changes as you start looking at the top ballet schools. SAB has about a hundred female and fifty male dancers in their most advance classes, and on a good year, New York City Ballet may have six to seven openings for female dancers, and even less for men (online interview). Gordon compared the amount of female and male dancers without looking at the number of jobs available for each.

Gordon sites that fact that most directors and choreographers are men, but also states that the majority of them are homosexual. She then goes on to say: “Even if they claim to love women, homosexuals often have very ambivalent feelings about them. And a dislike of the normal female form might easily lead to the desire to distort it.” (Gordon 154). There is no information available that gives the percentage of directors and choreographers that are homosexual, but we do know who had the greatest influence on ballet’s anorexic look: George Balanchine.

George Balanchine is responsible for ballet in America. He started the School of American Ballet, which led to the creation of New York City Ballet. Every dancer has heard the stories of him tapping on a female dancer chest and saying, “I want to see bone”. He is also known for his baby ballerinas; girls he promoted to principle (premier) dancers at the age of fifteen or sixteen. These young pre-pubescent girls became the symbols for the Balanchine look, and in a world in which he was treated like a god, all tried to fit this image. The dancers he trained now run most major and regional ballet companies in America. Barishnikov took this excruciatingly thin image and brought it to American Ballet Theatre. The Balanchine look was now the requirement for the country’s two top companies. Balanchine and Barishnikov were heterosexual, and rather than homosexuals creating the normative, it was more likely to have come from male chauvinism.

Other than Balanchine, the two most influential choreographers of the 70’s and 80’s were Jerome Robbins and Choo San Goh, both homosexuals. These choreographers were revolutionary in that they created ballets in which men had to dance as much as their female counterparts. Now male dancers have to do more than just support the ballerina, they are often the featured attractions and need to have nice feet, long legs, a trim torso and nice lines. Homosexuality may have influenced the ballet look, but those affected are male, not female as Gordon suggested.

Male dancers have the same issues to deal with as their female counterparts: an ideal body image, competition, constant negative criticism and loneliness. While less common and less talked about, many male dancers also suffer from eating disorders.

Gordon dismisses the idea that males have any problems due to their life in the ballet, and actually sends the message that if male dancers do suffer, it is due to a their homosexual lifestyle. Twenty years ago, homosexuality was less talked about and less accepted. Her view seems to reflect a lack of understanding about homosexuality, and she overstates the roles of homosexuals in ballet. Then and now, the majority of males in the world of ballet are heterosexual. The ballet world was a relatively comfortable place for homosexuals, and so, for Gordon, the number of gay male dancers in ballet could have seemed greater than it was.

Gordon gives an honest view of the world of ballet, at least the world of ballet for women. She locates many of its serious problems, but views each problem as independent from the others, not allowing the possibility that the problems identified in the ballet world all contribute to anorexia in male and female dancers. Not only did she ignore the shared problems of the male and female dancers, but she also stereotyped the male dancer. Despite its somewhat dated research and stereotypes, the book was important in that it was the first book to demystify ballet.


Work Cited:

Gordon, Suzanne. Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983

Burgess, Annette. School of American Ballet. “Re: Ballet Paper.” E-mail to Gregory

Hughes. 18 Oct. 2000.

Anorexia Nervosa and Related Eating Disorders, Inc. 11 Nov. 2000.


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