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Morphologic, Physiologic, and Functional Interactions in Elite Female Ballet Dancers

Holly J. Haight
From: Medical Problems of Performing Artists: Volume 13 Number 1: Page 4 (March 1998)

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Abstract: Ballet exists at the cusp of art and athletics, and therefore embodies the best and the worst of both worlds. Beyond its science is a traditional art form, shaped by hundreds of years of history. By molding its training rigorously around tradition, ballet has created a world of unmatched discipline and respect. By allowing choreography to break away from the limits imposed by tradition, it has achieved breathtaking pinnacles of performance.
In dance as in athletics, audiences demand more and more superhuman feats of movement. Consequently, society has a role in dictating the development of the art, which constantly reflects society's current tastes and values (as does any art form). The ballerina not only must perform exquisitely, but must also epitomize what is considered beautiful and ideal in real life. Thus, today's ballet dancers must conform physically to an unrelenting aesthetic, the product of current societal standards of beauty and the necessity to amplify such on stage.
In contrast, classical ballet dancers, from the genesis of the art form, had powerful thighs, muscular rears, and ample breasts, engendered as the image of female beauty in contemporaneous culture and the product of the classical ballet training1,2; they were expressive artists who performed great feats on stage by virtue of their solid anatomy. The classical and romantic ballerinas created through movement the standard for the light, ethereal illusion that defines the art form. Today's dancers seek to be that illusion, striving to appear sylphlike through actual morphology rather than creating that image by the quality of their movement. American ballet dancers have therefore become emaciated, asexual, amorphous slaves to fashion and art in order to secure employment.
Competition for employment in the world of professional ballet is extreme. For any paying contract there are dozens, if not hundreds, of technically and artistically talented dancers. Those who hire are therefore in the position to discriminate on the basis of personal preference, which invariably means that any dancer whose morphology does not conform to established standards is uncompetitive. For some dancers, maintaining the requisite lean, lanky body shape is not an issue. Most dancers tend to be selected at an early age for these traits, to which, of course, they are genetically predisposed. However, the passion for dance does not discriminate, and there are those who are endowed with an unquenchable desire to dance and the determination, talent, and discipline to do so who are trapped in less-than-perfect bodies. For these dancers to remain competitive, extreme measures must frequently be taken, leading to an alarmingly high rate of eating disorders and energy deficiency among ballet dancers

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