Feature

Swan Lake or Cinderella: Is ballet really as psychologically tough as it’s made out to be?

By Helena Uhl

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Ballet dancers are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than the average person./Carl Thorborg Kungliga Operan – Wikimedia

A young girl woke up early every morning full of excitement to do her hair, make-up and go to the ballet studio. She was looking forward to doing something she loved.

Ten years later, she’s had enough of her teacher browbeating her to be better. There was too much pressure to perform, to practice six days a week alongside school, to eat less, to wake up earlier and be thinner.

This is the story of 21-year-old Júlia Moraes, who started doing ballet when she was just three years old and is one of many ballet dancers who quit in their teens because the stress became overwhelming. She quit ballet at 13 and is now studying biotechnology.

Someone who regularly goes to the ballet and enjoys the beautiful and graceful movements of the dancers might be shocked to learn what is going on behind the curtain.

The first ever ballet performed in Britain was The Loves of Mars and Venus and premiered at the Drury Lane Theatre in London on 2 March 1717. On its 300th anniversary this month, it is important to remember that ballet is very demanding and can have significant psychological costs.

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The first ballet in Britain was performed at Drury Lane Theatre in 1717.  /David Blaikie – Flickr

Statistics from the European Eating Disorders Review show that ballet dancers are three times more likely to suffer from eating disorders than the average population.

Portrayal of ballet in film

Natalie Portman embodied this in the 2010 film Black Swan, which showcased the burden of the perfectionism on ballet dancers. Her prima ballerina character slowly loses her mind after being put under extreme pressure while playing the lead role in Swan Lake.

Jerry Kokich, dance teacher at RC Dance Center and a former ballet dancer at the Joffrey Ballet company, says: “I absolutely detested Black Swan because it had virtually every cliché about ballet possible and it portrayed ballet in a horribly negative light. Most of the people who hated Black Swan were dancers who had professional careers and those who found it fascinating were people who hadn’t.”

But this film wasn’t the only one that portrayed ballet negatively. A WMN study of 44 films about ballet revealed that many show it in a bad light with 43 per cent depicting cruel teachers, 75 per cent negative relationships, and 29 per cent painful injuries.

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The Red Shoes is one of the 44 films that portray ballet negatively showing unhealthy relationships. / Ballerinailina – Wikimedia

Not everything that is shown in films about ballet is fiction. Moraes says: “I felt so pressured and my teacher said everything I did wasn’t good enough. My posture wasn’t right and my foot wasn’t in the right position. I needed to wake up earlier than I did and I needed to eat a little less. It started with little pressures from every side and finally it made me want to quit.”

“I felt so pressured and my teacher said everything I did wasn’t good enough. My posture wasn’t right and my foot wasn’t in the right position. I needed to wake up earlier than I did and I needed to eat a little less. It started with little pressures from every side and finally it made me want to quit”

She started dancing when she was just a toddler, as it’s in her blood. “My grandmother is a dancer. My whole family had this culture, so my mum and dad just decided for me,” she adds.

When she went through puberty, she came to the conclusion that she didn’t want that stress in her life anymore. Dr Philip Johnson, a sports psychologist, thinks it is common for dancers to realise in their teens that they were only doing ballet for people around them rather than for themselves.

Although Kym Alexander had a similar crisis of faith when she was a teenager, she is now a professional ballet dancer for the dance company Rambert. Looking back at that time she says: “It was something that just passed, it was just a phase.”

Ballet’s toll on the body

She describes the hardest part of ballet as the demand on the body, the injuries and being tired all the time. “I was off for about three months due to injury because I had a tear in my hip. There was a lot of rehab. I think for a dancer that’s always a difficult.”

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Almost half of professional dancers are injured each year in a ballet company./Pexels

A study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy revealed that in a professional ballet company almost half of ballet dancers were injured each year. Most injuries affected the foot or ankle. Hips, knees and back were also common places for injuries.

Dr Roger Wolman, a consultant in sports medicine at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, says that it is difficult to pinpoint what the worst effects of ballet can be on the body.

But he does say that ballet can cause “premature osteoarthritis and if dancers don’t eat properly then they can get problems with their bones, their bones get thinner and they can get osteoporosis”.

Dr Wolman argues that “in an ideal world” ballet companies should have a link to a multidisciplinary team, including a psychologist. He says: “I think emotional well-being is very very important in terms of a dancer’s ability to dance, dance safely and minimize risk of injury.”

Based on a study by WMN, only a third of ballet companies in the world currently have a multidisciplinary team on staff or on call according to their websites. Only one in nine have psychologists listed online as a part of those teams.

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Premature osteoarthritis and osteoporosis may be a side effect of a ballet dancer’s rigorous training. / Pixabay

Dr Johnson argues that injuries stem from the high expectations and discipline of ballet. “Young people can begin to overtrain and one of the signs of overtraining is regularly getting injured. At first it is not a major injury but eventually it can lead to burnout or a more serious injury,” he explains.

He adds: “If you moved into something very early in your life, it becomes your life. So if you lose performance in it then it becomes a stress in itself. It affects your life significantly, especially if you are a professional because then your financial capability is dependent upon the consistency of the performance.”

The all-consuming world of ballet

According to an exclusive survey by WMN, 65 per cent of professional dancers started ballet between the ages of two and six and a quarter described it as being “their whole life”.

Steven McRae, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet in London, says: “The amount of dedication that is involved means you cannot switch on and off from being a dancer. You are required to be in peak condition all year round, both physically and mentally.”

Our survey also revealed that 40 per cent of dancers list striving for perfection as a main stressor in professional ballet. They described a constant need to be better and to become perfect, often not acknowledging the accomplishments that they had already made.

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According to WMN, 65 per cent of professional ballet dancers start dancing between two and six./Pixabay

The inner need to be perfect is often reflected in the expectation of the ballet trainers. In Moraes’s case, the high expectation and constant pushing lead to her quitting ballet for good. She said that she might have reconsidered had there been a better or different teacher.

Dr Johnson argues that a performer’s relationship with their coach is vital and that it can make or break their career. “In my experience many coaches don’t really know how to communicate well with athletes and young people,” he says. “Gymnastics and ballet seem to attract coaches who are particularly difficult and sometimes even ruthless with young people in an attempt to get them to perform at the highest level.”

Kokich confirms that although it is getting better the majority of ballet teachers have “a mean streak in them”. “I think more careers have been destroyed by a lack of support or vicious criticism [from teachers] than anything else. With just an offhand comment you can destroy a dancer or with a well placed compliment you can create a career for them,” he says. “I think one of the first duties of a teacher is to make a student want to come back to class and want to dance.”

“The amount of dedication that is involved means you cannot switch on and off from being a dancer. You are required to be in peak condition all year round, both physically and mentally”

McRae agrees: “The coach is vital in preparing a dancer for the stage. I am beyond lucky that my main coach at the Opera House is someone I trust and value. I call her my Ballet Mum. She is able to read me and knows when to push me or when to back off. I have worked with coaches that are unable to read the dancer and this can have devastating results.”

But Alexander argues that it is precisely those ‘ruthless’ coaches that she found the most helpful to her. “I mean they are horrible to you, but it’s usually for a good reason. At the time, you just think that this teacher is being really mean for no reason. But when you get past that you realise that the teachers that were mean to you were the ones who wanted the best outcome for you.”

The reason to stay

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A quarter of ballet dancers surveyed said it was their ‘whole life’. /Pexels

Although teachers are important, dancers are not completely on their own when it comes to maintaining their psychological health. Dr Johnson thinks you have to value yourself and keep your confidence up so that you can deal with the heavy criticism that occurs in the ballet world.

“But when you get past that you realise that the teachers that were mean to you were the ones who wanted the best outcome for you”

He also says fundamentals are key: “We need to get satisfaction from what we do. We need to look after our bodies and that means we have to eat the right kind of things, keep our bodies hydrated, sleep well, and have good natural energy.”

For those who do enjoy their work, the extreme physical and psychological demand in professional ballet is worth it. Alexander says: “It is going to sound cheesy but people keep dancing because they love to do it.”

McRae gave a similar reply: “When I tore my Achilles at the age of 21 I was very depressed and reconsidered my love of the profession. However the time off stage only fuelled my love of dance even more, making me hungrier to learn and to improve.”

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