So recently I was asked to respond to some of the hoopla going on lately about ballet dancers and eating disorders and Black Swan and so on. I wrote this as a guest blog for a bigger site but time restraints made them unable to post it so...here it is now, haha. This was somewhat ins response to this post.
There’s some kind of artistic hunger ingrained in us as young ballerinas-in-training. I’d sit in the wings of the second act of Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker entranced by the lights, the beauty, the precision onstage. Behind me was the blackness of backstage, the scent of Tiger balm, the whining dancers, the clunk of props. I was so lucky to see both sides of this elite world.
I ached to be a part of it.
That hunger for opportunity is the true meaning of a starving artist. We can be deprived of so much as ballet dancers – a childhood, a prom, a stable career. But our appetite for art supersedes all that.
It’s an addiction really, that obsession for perfection. During one summer at Boston Ballet I was living at home, an hour away from the city. While all my fellow students returned to the dorms for their dinner break between rehearsals, I stayed to take an extra class. We already had two technique classes a day, plus rehearsal and maybe Pilates. It wasn’t enough for me – I’d take men’s class during our lunch break and more technique at dinner. I loved it.
While training in New York City (and taking an overload college course schedule and holding an internship) I used to get to the studio early on Fridays for an extra semi-private class with my favorite teacher. I’d dance 6 hours without a break. That last push at the end of the day felt amazing.
Years later as a professional, I would do three shows a day at Radio City Music Hall and then run across town to take a class or two at The Ailey Extension. It just made sense to me to do more. Ballet was my life.
Is my life.
Because I’m mostly freelance, there’s this constant fight to find a job. A fight with myself, with my body, with my competition. Every day in class we’re told what’s wrong with us. We stare hours on end at our bodies just in a leotard in tights. It’s frightening honestly, but we often blame the mirrors.
Oh I can’t stand at that barre – that’s a fat mirror.
Aronofsky’s film Black Swan really captures that mental struggle we face daily. Though Nina’s (Natalie Portman) actions are obviously taken to extreme, her intentions and motivations are completely realistic. She wants to be perfect. She wants to be thin. She wants her role. NYCB principal Wendy Whelan has it right when she says, “Dancers learn to take on these subtle head-trips every day.”
Though there has been much discussion about the film’s depiction of eating disorders, I actually think it did well in not making that a huge focus (as other silly ballet movies like Center Stage did). The truth of the matter is that ballet dancers can’t maintain these kinds of training schedules without eating anything. And those who don’t eat don’t last very long. Where would the stamina and strength come from?
During my season of 17-show weeks at Radio City I’d eat at least three big meals a day (I’m talking bacon and eggs, big plates of pasta, chicken parm…) and I still lost weight unintentionally. Though ballet is anaerobic exercise, it still burns calories fast as muscles tone. I don’t think Portman and Kunis lost 20 pounds each just to look like ballerinas – their training to dance like ballerinas naturally thinned them out. With a professional schedule you’re going to lost weight whether you’re eating nothing or everything.
Our bodies are our tools. Unlike a painter whose brush is not physically a part of them, our art and our selves are one in the same. Our entire self-perception falls prey to that – healthy or not. We’re not hungry for carbs. We’re hungry to dance.