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What Is a Ballet Body?

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Quarantine, along with the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, gave her a chance “to think and feel what I hadn’t allowed myself to feel in the ballet world for a long time,” she said. “I was preventing myself from strengthening my quads and my hamstrings and even my rotator muscles, because I was worried that I would just bulge too much.”

She focused on building strength, realigning her body with Gyrotonic training. “You need those muscles,” she said.

In the past in ballet, gyms were taboo because of a fear of bulking up. Dancers were not to be seen as athletic but as beautiful, waiflike and ethereal. Yet ballerinas, especially up to the 1950s, had more curves. That fashion changed — and the person that many like to blame is George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet, who had an outsize influence on postwar ballet in America.

It was believed by some — and still is — that Balanchine’s preference was for dancers with long legs and tiny heads. The notion of a Balanchine body stuck, and created a template for what people think a ballet dancer should look like. But Balanchine choreographed for, and chose for his company, dancers with a range of body types. “I think his biggest measure of acceptability was irreverence,” the dance historian Elizabeth Kendall said, “which translated into the personality is stronger than the step.”

In a joint interview, City Ballet’s current leadership, the artistic director Jonathan Stafford and associate artistic director Wendy Whelan, said the dance world is moving in a better direction. “Look at the white European beginnings of ballet,” Stafford said. “It’s taken ballet a very long time to get past that ‘ideal’ image — whatever ideal meant to that person — whether it’s someone tall and thin, or whether it’s someone very pale. Obviously, ballet companies have been very late to get past that aesthetic.”

Stafford and Whelan represent a generational shift in leadership that is exploring a new take on what ballet culture could look like. Both were principal dancers and have long associations with the company; Whelan was a star, whose career lasted 30 years. They were appointed to their new roles in 2019, after City Ballet was rocked by the loss of its veteran leader, Peter Martins, who retired amid an investigation into reports of physical and emotional abuse (he denied the accusations) and a scandal in which male dancers shared photographs of female dancers.

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