I LOVE this photo of Agrippina Vaganova. I love it so much I made a T shirt out of it:
I love ballet, and I love ballet history. I never get tired of learning little details, like that George Balanchine tried to run away his first year at the Imperial Russian School, or that a ballerina dancing the role of someone who has died do not wear any jewelry. Did you know that Preobrajenska had to overcome a crooked back in her training? I love this stuff.
Studying the history of a particular art form is fascinating because of the things that change and their contrast with the things that don’t change. Ballet was invented by and for royalty. While there are ballets now that are about peasants, common people and mundane things, the stylized movement can’t be disconnected from the courtly gestures of fifteenth century France. Even something as outrageous as the step vocabulary in “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” or the revolutionary movement methods of the little ballet school run away have their foundation in body angles calculated to honor the Royal Presence.
Something that has changed drastically how ever is shown in this and many early photos of great dancers from around the world.
Because these are so beautiful, and because I want to talk about this change, here are some for you to enjoy:
Here is Olga Preobrajenska, my ballet great-great-great-great- grandmother. Look at her neck, arms and calves.
This is Vera Trefilova, costumed to premier Coppelia in 1870. Look at her legs and upper arms. And that amazing tutu.
Pierina Legnani in Raymonda
Carlotta Brianza, the first Aurora
They all have tiny waists, but you and I both know they are heavily corseted, which is something that has only slightly changed, dancers are still taught to hold their bodies straight and tight. We train precisely to look and hold our bodies as if we were wearing a corset! I would argue this is not a change, but an advancement. We can hold our bodies without the apparatus and with much more freedom of expression, because we can bend and arc this previously stiff part of the body.
I’m sure by now you know where I’m going. Here’s a final hint:
Tiny ankles. Upper arms that are smaller than the elbow joint. Clearly visible neck and chest muscles. You can do your own image search and see that her thighs are the same circumference as her (admittedly large) calf muscles.
If you’ve studied ballet in America at all you’ll know George Balanchine, who was for better or worse returned to his ballet school, is usually held responsible for the thinner than thin dancers coming into vogue. If you are like me, you’ve read several of his ballerinas’ biographies. Gelsey who lived on an apple a day, Suzanne who was happy that the news papers said both that she danced well and was thin, and who’s collar bones Mr. B appreciatively tapped when she returned from summer break; Allegra who wrote of eating nothing for days then having a binge with her roommate’s food. Balanchine expected his muses to be daring, curious, willing, generous, and resilient, but also thin, thin, thin.
I ask because, he’s not alone. And this trend, though already found to be destructive, seems only to be more pronounced.
(A Russian company came through Salt Lake and put up signs for auditions. They asked that women be around 5’6″, which I am exactly, and between 105 and 115 pounds. My height was invited but my legs and bum were not.)
I have a few questions.
Are these thin dancers better dancers than our ballerina ancestors?
Are they better athletes? Does this explain the thinness?
Are they more pleasing to look at?
(I recently read a book about an Idaho boy’s experiences in Tonga in the 1950s. The Tongans were excited to watch an American film with a famous beautiful actress. They were disappointed because she was slim. To them fleshy is beautiful, so we know from nearly modern accounts that thinness is not a biological necessity for attraction. Finding pleasure in looking at a thin woman is arguable learned through cultural conditioning)
Are their lines better because they are thin?
Their lines are certainly better in that they are more turned out and their legs are higher, but are the increased angles of these line more pleasing because they are placed on longer and thinner limbs?
There are some ideas that say yes; the idea that simple lines and curves are easier for the eye to see and appreciate. This may also be why in some productions, costuming and sets have become simpler, to explore this idea. The mind likes clean clear shapes. My floppy inner thighs just ruin the otherwise nice angle of my arabesque.
There is certainly something breathtaking about this position on this body:
How much of that beauty is because of her tiny arms and thighs and hips? How much is from her high leg, squared body and lifted chin? She may be this thin because she dances for 9 hours a day 6 days a week, but if the only difference were that she were ten pound heavier (or lighter) change the effect?
I do know that weight effects actual movement. I have been fifteen pounds heavier and fifteen pounds lighter while currently being in the best ballet shape of my life. And I can tell you, jumping is SO much easier when my legs aren’t so big! This definitely effects the quality of my jumps and other movements. Ease of movement is also pleasing to watch, in dance or in sport and on any animal. So maybe that is why thin is better.
Of course this only works if the training is there. This mistake is made a lot. Nearly every dancer you talk to will have a story of being passed over for someone thinner who didn’t have technique or stamina, or they know someone who has been. When thin is so celebrated and so prevalent in the higher tiered companies, it is easy for directors to choose those who look the part, hoping that a wispy pelvis will cover lack of strength or poo musicality. They are inadvertently training their audience to value the tiny thighs over technique.
There are a lot of problems I’ve approached in this post and many more that I haven’t even touched, like the similar issues male dancers deal with, and how perhaps the privilege that is part of ballet’s very fabric has been transferred from the wealth of kings to the thin obsession of the world’s upper classes.
But I want to return to my 1800’s beauties from above. I love these photos. They show our beginnings. They show ballet’s pioneers and trail blazers. I love looking at and reading about these women. I love these images.
I also love these images because they look like me.
Large, strong ankles.
beefy thighs (and low legs)
Waists that are clearly being held in with whale bone, not just muscle.
Upper arms that probably ripple a little when these dancers jump.
But still, artistry, passion, great smiles, classic facial beauty, and a fierceness I hope I can someday bring to my own amateur dancing.
I don’t know the answer to the thin question. If I did, you’d hear about it here among with all my other pots on the weird diets and fasting and whatnot. Maybe you’d see more of my modeling my own dance wear. Maybe I’d have more opportunities as a dancer in my area; i wouldn’t be looked over before I even danced because my sternocleidomastoid doesn’t stick out like a 14 year old’s.
For now, I want to be one more voice that asks to keep the conversation open. It’s been decided thin is right for ballet. But is fat or normal wrong?