Every year in early November, the level of cranky among NYCers increases as about 50,000 really, really, really skinny people descend on the city to run in the New York City Marathon. Thousands of the elite level professional runners make the MB Fashion Week models look like fatties. They make most of the city’s professional ballet dancers look like they could slim down. There’s nothing like a bunch of extra skinnies thrown into a general population already obsessed with weight to ratchet up appearance anxiety.
It’s gets worse, though. You see, these skinnies always seem to be eating. Eating eating eating. Not lettuce and protein shakes, but pasta – pasta heaped with pesto and tomato sauce and plates of potatoes. No "slim-down" diuretics for these folks - nosiree, each one is hydrated enough for five non-runners and has skin that is as clear as a Maldives lagoon.
Then they start running. Running like the average person can only dream about. Running at a high level of physical efficiency with a degree of commitment that is alien to the average person’s understanding.
Of late, the same ones almost always win. African runners with narrow frames, long legs, short torsos, and steely delicate musculature cross the finish line first. They’re usually from Kenya, sometimes Ethiopia.
Every year as Haglund watches the race from some street in Manhattan or Brooklyn, he ponders what it would be like if the Kenyan and Ethiopian ladies would have brought their narrow frames, long legs, short torsos, and steely delicate musculature into a ballet studio at an early age instead of opting to do what their cultures encourage everybody to do: long distance running.
Take a look at these ladies who are running in an Olympic marathon. They are so in tune with one another that they could be four cygnets in Swan Lake. Look at Edna Kiplagat’s legs and shoulders on the far left, and imagine that body in a tutu after a little tutoring in turn-out. If only ….
It’s easy to spot perfect African American ballet bodies on most any street in New York on any given day. You recognize them instantly: naturally lean with narrow frames, light bones, impossibly long legs supporting tiny hips, swan necks. They are mixed in with the ordinary bodies and the many overweight bodies, but they are there. In Haglund’s neighborhood, they may be hanging out on a 9th Avenue corner after school arguing about the latest Beyonce/Jay Z melodrama or trying to buy cigarettes at the 7 Brothers Deli along with their potato chips, pizza, and soda or hanging out around the basketball court on 47th Street. They’re doing what kids of every color everywhere in the city are doing, and they’re not doing ballet. But their black bodies are well-suited for it.
No ballet company in this city can truthfully claim that it has to settle for dumpy bodies just to diversify the culture. And no ballet company should sit on its hands while an ambitious, modestly talented dancer tries to advance her own career by falsely claiming that objections to her lack of classical aptitude are race-based and by distributing sexually provocative images of her bare tits to her minor-aged fan base over the internet.
In Russia, mothers recognize when their young daughters have bodies that might succeed in ballet and they seek out schools. The art form, its aesthetic, and the basic physical requirements are commonly understood within the culture where ballet, opera, and classical music are sources of great national pride. You may recall Veronika Part explaining to David Letterman that when she was born into a family that had no previous dancers, someone looked at her infant legs and pronounced her a future ballerina. There is an awareness within the general population of the aesthetic and an acceptance that children studying ballet is an honorable endeavor. And the preprofessional deselection process starts early with the application of requirements that few can meet.
Here is a chart that spells it out in black and while. (Click on the image to enlarge and clarify.) The Moscow State Academy of Choreography, also known as the Bolshoi Ballet’s official school, employs the following height/weight requirements for Russian students on its website – where this week, incidentally, the school's website is celebrating Montana native and third year student Julian Mackay's achievement at the Istanbul Ballet Festival.
A girl who is 160 cm ( 5’2-1/2”) should weigh 39.6 kilograms (87 lbs). A girl who is 174 cm (5’7”) must weigh 49.8 kilograms (109.79 lbs). There is a tolerance of +/- 1 kilogram. Any girl who weighs over 50 kilograms (110 lbs) is not permitted to participate in Pas de Deux class but is required to attend as an observer. The requirements for boys appear just below those for the girls.
For students from foreign countries, the weight requirements are even more strict. The first chart is from the Academy’s website; the lower chart is the Google translation to English. (Click on each image to enlarge and clarify.) Note that according to the chart in the above illustration, the 5’7” Russian girl could weigh up to 109.79 pounds, but according to the chart below, a 5’7” foreign female student may not weigh more than 103.6 lbs (47 kilograms).
Foreign student requirements (Google translation to English)
There are also 15 pages that detail the medical conditions, congenital conditions, and acquired conditions that make any student unfit for the academy's preprofessional curriculum. Those standards are designed not just to get thin students, but to get students who are natural ectomorphs with narrow frames who are free of physical issues that might impede intense instruction and who may ultimately achieve the exquisite lines that are highly valued in the art form. Such people are present in every culture, and they are who the Bolshoi's feeder-school wants to train.
It’s a different story in America. A little girl is more likely to be enrolled in ballet class to stave off obesity or as a substitute for rigorous sports, to address deportment issues, or as a place to stash the kid after school. Not always but oftentimes, kids end up in their first ballet classes because of negative factors - factors that have nothing to do with the parents valuing the art form – not positive factors. And because schools rely on tuition and not government support, every body – no matter how unsuited to the profession – is welcomed into the ballet class, encouraged to come back, and told they are wonderful so that the flow of money continues.
The result is a vastly different pool of potential aspiring dancers for this country’s professional training programs. You see a wider range of bodies trying to enter classical ballet as a vocation with minds convinced at an early age that if they can whack their ears with a foot or do an inverted leg split, then it shouldn’t matter whether their bodies can achieve classical line. There is quick and easy denial that there exist traits that are bona fide qualifications for succeeding in the ballet profession just like there are traits required for succeeding in the NBA - most notably being tall. And as time passes, the NBA players get taller and taller. In ballet, the legs lengthen, the bodies become leaner and stronger, and the ability to approach classical perfection takes a step closer to reality.
In the past couple of decades, ballet has discovered a treasure trove of great ballet bodies in Japan, China, and Korea where the most common physiques in the cultures are ones that are lean without being attenuated, have necks like swans, excellent physical coordination, and high mental discipline. These dancers are joining American companies in large numbers and also routinely knocking off the white, black, and Latino dancers at competitions to take home the gold. Is it unfair?
The truth is that there are plenty of beautiful bodies of all colors who meet the current aesthetic of professional ballet. The effort by Misty Copeland to convince everyone that her inabilities to achieve that aesthetic and the expected technical level are a function of racism is a load of waste, and the willingness of American Ballet Theatre to let that story run debases the organization and the art form.
Ballet doesn’t need a role model who describes in her book in great detail ordering a muffin from her deli in the morning and then in later pages claims that she doesn’t eat flour and sugar. Ballet doesn’t need a role model who distributes sexually provocative photos to minors. Ballet doesn’t need a role model who makes false claims of racism. Ballet doesn’t need a role model who trashes her own mother in order to make her story more colorful and marketable.
In her book, Misty derided Swan Lake for having a so-called “white act” that she sought to twist into a for-white-people-only act. What will she claim about Act III, the Black Swan Act, when in a few weeks she adds her name to the few major black ballerinas who have already danced the role? That the 32 fouettes are a white thing; so she doesn’t need to do them? Maybe she and ABT are counting on the friendly Aussie audience not to notice and especially not to notice the more competent ballerinas who are not starring in Swan Lake in order to make room for Misty. What an embarrassment to this nation ABT has become.