Demanding too much of dancers

The heavy toll that American football takes on players leading to long-term brain damage has been much in the news recently. It has led to some reforms especially among the younger age groups but not enough. People have been more focused on the bone-crunching tackles by large players in college and professional football while the cumulative effect of many small collisions over a long time has still not been widely recognized.

But another field that expects too much from its participants is professional dancing for the stage and ballet. From all that I have read, it is brutal in the demands that it makes and now one of the world’s leading ballerinas has spoken out against it.

Irina Kolesnikova, 35, doyenne of the St Petersburg Ballet Theatre, is calling for companies to nurture dancers, rather than pressing them to remain thin while pushing themselves to physically dangerous levels.

Kolesnikova’s previous London performances at the Royal Albert Hall and the Coliseum sold out, and in August she is returning to the Coliseum at the same time as the Bolshoi Ballet from Moscow arrives at Covent Garden. Before that summer visit, she told the Observer: “Big companies demand of their dancers at least 10-hour days – 10 hours of non-stop physically demanding performance. I’m not the only one who thinks this is counterproductive. At some point the body just switches off.”

It is not just physical trauma that ballet dancers experience.

Kolesnikova has struggled with her weight since childhood. She said her teachers in Leningrad made her feel like ballet’s ugly duckling, constantly telling her: “Look at your figure. What do you look like? You’ll never be a ballerina.” She said: “By belittling us in class our teachers thought they were helping correct our shortcomings, and didn’t understand that all they were doing was destroying our self-belief … they were traumatising the child psychologically and, even with the passing of time, not everyone got over that. Sometimes these requirements verge on obsessive and have little to do with your actual performance.”

The film A Chorus Line showed the hard world that dancers in Broadway theater experience. While one is impressed at the sheer dedication of dancers who are willing to put themselves through such physical rigors and emotional rollercoasters for the chance of occasional success, one wonders why it has to be so harsh.

Circuses are phasing out the use of elephants and aquatic parks are doing the same with dolphins because audiences are increasingly aware of how badly those animals are treated in order to get them to perform for our pleasure. Maybe we need similar revulsion in audiences to effect changes in the world of dancing.


  1. doublereed says

    The arts demand a lot emotionally. You have to be absurdly self-critical or you’ll never get better. I’ve seen too many of my fellow musicians crash and give up after not picking themselves back up. If anything, it’s because they were treated well until suddenly they weren’t, and it becomes too much. It requires constant criticism and self-criticism of why you’re so terrible at what you do.

    That being said, 10 hours of dancing sounds absurd. Ballet Dancing is crazy physically demanding, and the career-span of dancers is already abysmally short. That just sounds like it would increase the chance of injury, and I’m surprised dancers would put up with that even for a short time.

  2. says

    There are a lot of sports that impose metabolic restrictions at the highest level. I used to hang out with a nationally ranked competitive body-builder and her diet was absolutely fascinating. The ballet dancers are probably not having to dehydrate on top of everything else…

    It’s my opinion that, at a certain point, the only sensible restrictions we can make on performers and athletes would be age-related. I don’t think a 19 year-old can reasonably choose to accept the risk of traumatic brain injury to play football, the same way a 40 year-old can. Which, of course, is why the military recruiters and sports shills prey on the young. If we can establish that someone understands that running as hard as they want to do will destroy their ankles, or dancing like that will tear up your metabolism and joints, or playing football will damage your brain, etc -- it’s no longer possible to compete on a world stage without going to extremes. With 7 billion humans, the bell curve in some areas is going to only distinguish so far. Everything at the extreme end involves life-obliterating commitment. From Prince to Bobby Fisher to Muhammad Ali to Lance Armstrong and countless others -- if you want to be “the best” it’s going to take 100% of you, plus luck, plus natural talent.

  3. Numenaster says

    I have some perspective on this, because I’m a dancer too. But I’m nearly 50, how can this be? Well, I’m a belly dancer. We see a lot of former dancers from other traditions in our classes exactly because the demands of ballet, or hip-hop dance, or jazz, have gotten to be too much but they can’t bear to give up dance entirely. Belly dance is the only dance style I’m aware of where women my age and older are still performing professionally, regularly. It’s very sad to see the demands of a physical profession suck all the health out of its most enthusiastic participants: professional sports and dance sometimes look like a poisoned chalice in that way.

  4. says

    Numenaster -- my 56-yo sister competes in ballroom (with only 1 and 1/3 lungs) and there’s a really active scene in the “seniors” rank. There’s always hope for people who want to dance! Even if it’s just if you jitterbug in the shower. 🙂

    The issues always seem to come in (it appears to me) when you’re aiming for the highest levels of performance. I doubt my sister enjoys competitive ballroom as much as I enjoy waltz and swing at local open dances. I think it’s simply that competition drains the fun out of a thing and replaces it with the desire to dominate that makes people want to “win” (and from my aesthetic perspective: immediately lose)

  5. Numenaster says

    Marcus, I agree that competition drains much of the fun from things. But the highest performance levels of dance are not competitions, they are, well, performance. I don’t think it’s the desire to dominate that drives people to train 10 hours a day. The professional dancers that people know are the ones who are working regularly, especially in ballet (and in belly dance). The ones who win competitions are known mostly to their fellow dancers, but not to the wider world.

    Also, kudos to your sister!

  6. Johnny Vector says

    I recently went to the ballet for the first time ever, because it was the percussion ensemble version of Carmina Burana (at the Washington Ballet). They opened with some horrible Balanchine ballet to, um, Tchaikovsky I think, which was everything that makes me wonder why people watch this crap. Everyone dressed in pink tutus, jiggling across the floor en pointe, making me cringe for their toes.

    Then we got to Carmina, which was more like modern dance, with a gorgeous set and costumes, and dance moves that flowed with the emotion of the piece. AND (here’s the connection to this thread) one of the women dancers was fairly tall and had (gasp!) curves! Actual body fat! She looked like a real human, unlike the stick insect body type generally found on the ballet stage. And she was fantastic. Clearly demonstrating that remaining rail-thin is not at all a requirement for ballet. Maybe it’s the beginning of a trend. The joint damage and long hours will still take their toll, but if we can at least deep-six the eating disorders that seems like a good start.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    From Prince to Bobby Fisher to Muhammad Ali to Lance Armstrong and countless others – if you want to be “the best” it’s going to take 100% of you, plus luck, plus natural talent.

    One of these things is not like the others. Luck, natural talent, and massive cheating on an industrial scale over more than a decade, that’s what you need if you want to be like Lance Armstrong -- drugs, lies, and an aggressive lawyer. How you could put that scumbag in that list escapes me.

    On the subject of dancers -- nobody’s forcing them. It’s not vaguely comparable to “football”. In professional “football”, there is the real, if slight, chance that a player could become a multi-millionaire. This is a powerful incentive.

    Could you name more than two or three millionaire ballet dancers? Nobody gets into ballet because they think they’re going to get rich. It’s not a path out of poverty, like boxing often is for young men. It’s a tradition, and nobody who gets into it can possibly fail to realise what’s in store. There comes a point where you just have to let adults take responsibility for themselves.

    @Marcus Ranum, 2:

    I don’t think a 19 year-old can reasonably choose to accept the risk of traumatic brain injury to play football, the same way a 40 year-old can

    The thing is, the 19 year old can reliably shrug off injuries that would put the 40 year old out of action. And if you’re running a business, and a “football” team is a business first and foremost, you need your players fit.

  8. lorn says

    Dance has gotten harder and more extreme over time. The kicks are higher, the jumps higher, the moves are far more violent, and the dancers are required to be both thinner and more athletic. A star dancer from the 30s couldn’t make the third row today. It has become far more a spectacle, but also far less humane. Dancers are expected to destroy their bodies for their art.

    Of course, the same can be said of football. The players are bigger, heavier, but also faster and stronger. The sport leaves a tail of broken bodies behind.

    While their are certainly differing dynamics within each activity to my mind the commonality is that more and more is expected of labor to fill the desire for entertainment and the desire of the public for something ever more spectacular and impressive. We want the best, and expect that the todays best will be better than yesterdays best.

    Investors play the same game. They want profits to invest. But they expect that profits will improve if they are to stay loyal. Which means ever increasing pressure of labor to work harder, to become more productive, to destroy their minds, bodies, families, and communities to keep their jobs. It also drives cheating on safety, environmental regulations, labor laws, and honesty with the consumer. Volkswagen didn’t cheat on emissions testing because it hates the environment. It did it to try to keep investors happy.

    This is what you get when you treat everything as a competition with the losers being ground underfoot. Work harder, faster, faster, more, more. It has been this way for a long time but it has gotten worse every year. We are driving ourselves ever closer to insanity, breakdown, and dysfunction.

    The movie Modern Times came out in 1936 was about the increasing demands made on workers and the faster pace of modern life. It is a film that is worth watching.

    Charlie Chaplain was protesting modern factory work. We are far past that now. Computers are not constrained by the need to ship tons of ore, coal, and materials to a factory or bulky material goods away. We now manipulate virtual goods by the billions at nearly the speed of light. I suspect that we tacitly expect that our stars and heroes should likewise have Godlike powers. Is this why we are fascinated by superheroes? Are we at the point where we have an inchoate sense that we have built a society that is alien and hostile to mere mortals.

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