A Closer Look at Body Image in Dance
Imagine being an eight-year-old girl with a desire to attend a top-ranked ballet school.
Imagine putting in long hours in the dance studios, traveling to nerve-wracking auditions, and stepping onto the stage to prove your dedication to the craft under the watchful eyes of the judges.
Imagine knowing your performance was executed beautifully - you hit all your marks, after all, but you’re being turned away anyway. Why? Because you don’t have the “right body type” for the part.
Former Sports Health Institute intern Keeley Osborn had the opportunity to talk with dance instructor, choreographer, and body awareness coach Fredrika “Freddy” Keefer about her experience as a young dancer and the ways her past experiences have shaped her into the person she is today. The conversation delved into the relationship between her career as a body awareness coach and rejection from a prominent dance school at a young age because of her appearance.
Tipping the Scales to Favor Looks Over Merit
Keefer didn’t hold back when recounting her experience auditioning with a California dance program. “I remember walking in with my mom; she knew the person that was registering (for) the auditions,” she said. “And she was very surprised that we were there. I think she even said to my mom, ‘[d]on't even bother, because they won't even look at her based on (her) body.’ And (I’m) not sure what my mom's response was to that, but I ended up in the audition room anyway. And, you know, we didn't dance very much. I actually don't remember jumping or leaping, or learning any sort of combination...
... I think that's why this became such a big story. They didn't actually audition my dancing... they lined us up (by height). And I think I was either the last or the second to last person in line. So, I probably wasn't an option, because I was short, and I wasn't short with a petite little frame. And, so, I think that's why my mom raised hell so much about it because they actually didn't audition the dancing. I literally just walked across the room. And so it was based on that experience, you can tell that the judgment isn't based on any sort of talent or ability or potential even. It's really based on what you look like.”
Keefer’s rejection due to her appearance—and at only eight years old, no less—is not surprising given that, “[t]he average incidence of eating disorders in the white middle-class population is 1 in 100. In classical ballet, it is one in five.” This stark contrast among the number of dancers who had eating disorders vs. non-dancers who had eating disorders was pointed out by Dr. Warren, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, and is a testament to the fact that the culture surrounding body image in ballet needs to change.
A Different Dancer, A Similar Story
Keefer’s experience is not exclusive to auditions on the West Coast. For ballerina Anais Garcia, the pressures from her dance career led to the development of restrictive eating habits. At one point, she weighed only 79 pounds and her heart beat only 35 times per minute. When Garcia was 13, she auditioned for an East Coast-based school for the first time and claims she was only rejected because her body “needed more muscle tone.”
Since Anais Garcia was determined to attend that specific school, she auditioned again a year later and was accepted. However, her teachers “repeatedly said she was ‘too soft,’” so she felt pressure to keep losing weight as a result. By her senior year, she had already lost a lot of weight, and when she earned the lead role of Clara in “The Nutcracker,” during her senior year of high school, she felt that reinforced the idea that ‘being skinnier was better.’” In August 2017, 20-year-old Garcia’s weight became dangerously low and she received treatment for her eating disorder. Thankfully, Garcia is much healthier now. However, if it weren’t for the comments and extreme constraints placed on what a dancer’s body should or should not look like, she may have avoided being placed in a dire situation.
Preserving The Passion
Turning a situation around is something with which Keefer has become all too familiar. She’s still dancing and, more importantly, she’s been able to use her passion and love for movement to help and support others. The cherry on top of it all? She regained a sense of safety by developing her craft and her career goal from the beginning.
“You know, where I felt safe was performing and being with my community and being with my family. And that's what was really important to me. And so my dream wasn't to make it big. My dream was to build community and have friendships and do art with people I love. That was the dream. That was the desire.”
Moving Beyond The Stereotypes
Although Keefer has been able to utilize her past experiences—the good and the challenging—to develop a career in dance, she acknowledges that many dancers are susceptible to struggles with body image.
“I agree that there are lots of body issues (in dance)... and, sometimes, it has nothing to do with dance,” she said. “I feel like you can find body issues in any community. But, I think you ask any dancer if there's 100% neutrality around the body, I feel like the answer would probably be ‘no’ the majority of the time. How can you escape that? It comes with the territory of being a dancer. And that's not to say that it's okay. But it's really hard to escape that.”
There are thousands of stories similar to Keefer’s and Garcia’s. It’s important that the collective dance community, stakeholders, and anyone who consumes dance recognize the value that variety in appearance has in the field. In order for adolescents to feel more confident in their own skin, we need to continue the push to change the narrative that only those with a specific body from a certain demographic can be a dancer. The world of dance is ever-evolving, and our expectations of who is allowed to dance should evolve with it.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out to a trusted adult, and explore the resources provided below:
National Eating Disorders Association Helpline: 1-800-931-2237
Available Monday-Thursday from 9am-9pm EST and Friday from 9am-5pm EST
Crisis Text Line: Text CONNECT to 741741
*This line provides support to those with other mental health issues in addition to people with eating disorders
Guided Meditations from *Body Banter: bodybanter.com/meditations
*Sports Health Institute has previously partnered with Body Banter for the creation of educational social media content
Dunning, J. (2021). Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas (Published 1997). Nytimes.com.
Retrieved 23 July 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/16/arts/eating-disorders-haunt-ballerinas.html.
Rolz, I. (2018). A ballet of ‘living hell’: Ex-dancer recounts her battle with anorexia. The Washington Post. Retrieved 23 July 2021, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/a-ballet-of-living-hell-ex-dancer-recounts-her-battle-with-anorexia/2018/11/09/adad582c-d169-11e8-b2d2-f397227b43f0_story.html.
Slambrouck, P. (2021). The shape of a ballerina: Who's to say?. The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 23 July 2021, from https://www.csmonitor.com/2000/1218/p1s4.html.