Dancing around the issue
Ever since Kate Winslet was airbrushed into emaciation by GQ magazine, we have been ambivalent about jumping on the bandwagon of the latest body-image scandals du jour. Although such fiascos are often genuinely appalling and expose the media's rabid curve-o-phobia and weight bigotry, one can never shake the feeling that they are thinly disguised publicity stunts.
For example, Winslet's GQ controversy surely helped to sell tickets to her next film. The recent debacle about a Marie Claire 'blog (in which the writer stated that she couldn't bear to see heavyset characters embracing) sent droves of new readers to the magazine's Web site. And whenever plus-size supermodels shrink down to straight-size proportions, the outrage over their selling out becomes a cynically bankable "controversy."
The latest body-image furore involves a New York Times dance critic named Alastair Macaulay who delivered a sneering insult to ballerina Jenifer Ringer for supposedly being overweight.
We were initially going to ignore this topic, because the timing seemed too serendipitous by half (coinciding with a big-budget Hollywood ballet movie starring a major Hollywood actress). The entire controversy was likely stoked to sell Black Swan tickets. However, as we noted above, sometimes a situation is so appalling that it requires denunciation, even if behind it one senses the manipulative hand of marketing.
To recap, Macaulay was reviewing a New York City Ballet performance of The Nutcracker, one of the greatest ballets ever written, and one of Tchaikovsky's finest scores. (Disney fans will recall The Nutcracker as an especially imaginative section of the 1940 masterpiece Fantasia.) In his review, Macaulay made the following snide, crass remark:
Bear in mind that while ballet is one of the finest achievements of Western culture and boasts some of the most glorious music ever composed, it is, in its current form, almost unbearable to watch, because the ballet establishment has mandated a skeletal standard of appearance for its female dancers that is every bit as toxic and crippling as the anorexic look demanded by the straight-size fashion industry.
As a result, eating disorders are the norm in ballet, not the exception, and ballerinas routinely end up afflicted with osteoporosis and other crippling illnesses, after having starved and tortured their bodies for years.
Therefore, don't get your hopes up that Macaulay's comment means that New York is currently blessed with a plus-size ballerina. Here is a picture of the very slight Ms. Ringer as the Sugar Plum Fairy, taken on the very evening that the above insult was lobbed.
Obviously, the critic's comment is worse than ridiculous. Ringer is in dire need of more sugar plums, not fewer. There is something deeply wrong with anyone who could look at a dancer with such a painfully thin frame and deem her overweight. Ringer has stick limbs, no bust, and veritably no flesh whatsoever on her bones. For anyone to state that such a harrowingly skinny dancer should be even thinner is nothing less than an edict that she must become anorexic.
And it gets worse. Ringer is, in fact, an actual, recovering victim of eating disorders, having received medical treatment for her disease--a fact about which Macaulay, as a professional ballet critic, could not have been unaware. So not only was he telling someone who was already cadaverously thin that she was still not emaciated enough, but he was saying this to an anorexia victim.
Forgetting for a moment the appalling lack of empathy that such a statement indicates, how could anyone actually view Ringer's wizened frame and consider that too curvy?
A tiresome interview with Macaulay from earlier this year contains a pertinent bit of information about this reviewer. Macaulay says:
How predictable. In her book Off Balance: The Real World of Ballet, author Suzanne Gordon notes the following:
Macaulay's original comment was bad enough, but once the public outrage over his cruel insult erupted, he wrote something that was far more offensive than his original infantile slur. He penned a grotesquely self-important justification for his comments. And here is where he truly becomes intolerable.
First, he resorts to an underhanded bit of sophistry to justify his degenerate aesthetic:
So Classically curvaceous femininity is not part of "any fashionable idea of beauty"? And how does he define what is "fashionable"? As whatever accords with his own freakish taste? The fact that the majority of commentators on this issue have stated that if anything, Ringer looks too thin, not too curvy, means that what Macaulay defines as a "fashionable idea of beauty" isn't fashionable at all to most people. Therefore, what he is actually saying is that women with curves are merely not a part of his idea of beauty, an idea of beauty that the public overwhelmingly rejects.
His second assertion is therefore even more ridiculous. He claims that ballet pursues "widely accepted ideals of beauty." But if this furore has demonstrated anything, it is that what he defines as ballet's idea of beauty isn't "widely accepted" at all, but widely rejected. It is only narrowly accepted--by a tiny cabal of marginal individuals such as himself, and then shoved down the throats of the rest of us.
But the following comments expose the true shallowness and puerility at the core of Macaulay's criticism:
So according to Macaulay, Ringer has body "flaws" and "physical imperfections," such as "upper arms [that] wobble"; her shape is "less than ideal," and her weight is "surplus."
He piles on the insults like a six-year-old schoolyard bully.
Followers of plus-size fashion will immediately recognize the shopworn and offensive nature of his criticisms. His comments are of the same sort that fashion writers once employed to defame curves as something shameful, which must be covered up at all costs. This kind of hide-your-body muumuu thinking went out sometime in the 1970s.
Take away Macaulay's florid prose, and this is all that his sentiments come down to: a curve-o-phobic squeamishness about visible fullness. Behind his comments is merely his fringe belief that female fleshiness is unsightly, which he presents as some kind of incontrovertible fact, as if he were explaining mathematical laws, when all that he is doing is revealing his own prejudice.
To support this claim, notice how he shifts the agency from himself to "ballet," as if ballet were a conscious entity:
"Ballet demands"? "Balled has codified"? "Ballet is severe"? These "demands" and "severity" are simply coming from Macaulay himself and others of his ilk. Ballet does not have a consciousness. Ballet has no agency. Ballet is not a geological phenomenon with fixed properties. There is no Ballet God somewhere imparting divine revelations to critics. Rather, there is just a small cadre of size bigots too prissy to handle womanly curves, who impose their warped tastes on the rest of society, then absurdly claim that "ballet made them do it."
What Macaulay fails to acknowledge, either strategically (because he knows that it would crush his argument), or simply because he cannot comprehend this fact, is that emaciation is the true "imperfection," that a starving shape is "less than ideal," that visible bones (rather than visible curves) are the actual "flaws."
And that brings us, finally, to why we have addressed this topic a week after it made the rounds of the Web. In their condemnation of Macaulay, commentators have stated that the critic should focus on the dance, not on the body. This gave Macaulay the opening to make his specious defense that in ballet, "the body matters."
Or consider this 1893 French poster advertising the ballet Le Fête de l'Argent. The ballerina (despite the ubiquitous corseted waist) has visibly full thighs, rounded arms, a notable bust, and even some fleshiness in her face. She looks nothing like the gaunt walking cadavers with whom the ballet establishment insists on populating the modern stage.
Is there any current ballerina who is even remotely as buxom as this Dancer in Casual Dress sculpted by Degas in 1919? Such prominent secondary sex characteristics would expose a present-day dancer to the harshest of jibes from curve-hating New York Times arts writers.
The tradition of fuller-figured ballerinas (fuller by today's warped standards) goes all the way back to the beginning of the art form. This paining of the famous 18th-century dancer Barbara Campanini may not reveal much, figure wise,
but observe her facial features. She has a round face with visible fullness, and even a curve under her chin. Today's ballerinas, by contrast, are so emaciated that their faces resemble skulls with a thin layer of skin stretched over them.
Another painting of "La Barberina" shows the fleshy curve under her chin even more visibly, and not a trace of a visible clavicle.
Alas, very few of the early ballerinas had their portraits professionally rendered, so all that remains of their likenesses are simple line drawings, which often pay little attention to human proportion. Nevertheless, this sketch of dancer Maria Taglioni (1804-84) discloses a fullness in her legs and arms which contrasts vividly with the stick-thin limbs that modern ballerinas possess.
This lithograph of 19th-century ballerina Fanny Cerrito definitely indicates how voluptuous she was--far, far more than someone like Jenifer Ringer, with her supposed "surplus weight" (not an ounce of which is actually visible).
That Fanny was likely even fuller than this drawing suggests is indicated by a contemporary account, which maintained that she
The cover of this collection of vintage ballet prints shows a dancer with arms and legs so round and substantial that they would scandalize today's timid dance critics.
Anna Galster, seen with her partner in this 1830 drawing, was quite respectably buxom--far more than a modern ballet guru would ever permit.
Even a painting from as late as the first half of the 20th century, a canvas by Francois Gall (1912-45) titled Dancer Adjusting her Tutu, shows a girl with a voluptuous bust.
We offer one final historical example, which is this work by Pal Fried (born 1893) titled The Ballerina. It shows little of her figure, but observe how healthy and robust her facial features appear.
She is young and pretty, girlish and soft. And this leads to an important consideration:
To watch a girl of Courtney's size 18/20 proportions do ballet would be a voluptuous experience, an intoxicating display of feminine opulence and sensuality. To watch a modern dancer execute an arabesque is, by contrast, something cold and mechanical, no better than viewing stick-figure animation:
The following YouTube clip comprises Kailee O'Sullivan's videos for David's Prom from 2007. They show her doing elegant, graceful twirls in her prom gowns, which rather resemble ballet costumes. We have added background music from Adolphe Adam's Giselle, perhaps the greatest ballet ever composed, performed by the Vienna Philharmonic and conducted by Herbert von Karajan. As you watch the video and listen to the music, imagine a goddess such as Kailee performing the beautiful movements of ballet, dressed in the figure-revealing attire of this art form, thus exhibiting the undulating motion of her soft figure as she gracefully dances in time with the music.
This is what ballet could be--something far more appealing than what it currently is, something much closer to its original conception (which held sway until the 20th century) as a voluptuous presentation of feminine beauty. And this is what androgyny-worshipping dance critics like Macaulay will never understand.
Re: Dancing around the issue
This makes me sick whenever I see it, and it never seems to end. It ends up paradoxically rewarding the models who sell out, because press is what they're after. "No such thing as bad publicity," and all that rubbish.
The solution is simply to condemn the selling out, forcefully and unambiguously, and from then on to ignore the sellout's work completely (after all, they're now just regular skinny models), to deny them the publicity that they're after. And instead, to devote attention to models who don't shrink, who keep their curves, or, better yet, augment them, and who are legitimately full-figured.
Those videos are beautiful. I haven't seen them since back when they first debuted, but I still remember them, just as I remember the lovely screencaps showing Kailee looking so gorgeous in those dresses:
Re: Dancing around the issue
This is a ruse that size-celebration advocates know all too well. It is exactly akin to when designers make ridiculous claims that "Fashion requires emaciated models" because "clothes look better on skeletal frames." Rubbish. Fashion requires nothing of the sort. Fashion is not a person sitting in a room making decisions. They are -- individual, prejudiced designers.
Clothes only look "better" on skinny waifs to those individuals who can't stand the sight of curves on the first place. To those who love womanly contours, who adore visible fullness, clothes look better on women with flesh and substance. That's why the industry needs more people with pro-curvy tastes.
The same is true for ballet.
Re: Dancing around the issue
I couldn't take anything that this critic said seriously once he equated making a snarky crack about a dancer's weight with a pertinent dance critique, when he wrote the following:
Well, duh. That Macaulay cannot understand why people slammed his juvenile name-calling and not his dance critique speaks volumes, and indicates that the people who have condemned him are far more rational than he is. They know the difference between a valid dance analysis and petty cattiness. That he doesn't comprehend this distinction makes Macaulay an embarrassment as a critic.
Re: Dancing around the issue
This is an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I am a former dancer who was always too f** to dance. However, that just meant that at 5'4" I weighed between a mere 118 and 132. I wore a size 6 to 8 in those days, and it was still never thin enough. It was one of the saddest realizations of my life, and one reason I abandoned dance at age 18, after 15 years in the studio. I figured I could not be as skeletal as required by the Balanchine-loving choreographers, and decided to pursue a career that was not necessarily tied to any one body type.
However, this Christmas Eve I am on the verge of getting a new job with a contemporary ballet company that hires non-traditional body types. This is a good start.
I just really, really wish that dance could just be...dance, and an expression of feeling well in one's body, no matter what the size.
Re: Dancing around the issue
I also quit serious dancing for the same reason. I still do ballet and other dance forms, just not in that kind of environment. I was having difficulty maintaining that weight and didn't want to sacrifice my health.
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