Junior Madeline Yentsch started ballet for fun, but as her career continued, the pressures of being a ballerina began to add up and she quit in the eighth grade. Yentsch once tried to wear a t-shirt and slider shorts over her common attire of a leotard and tights. The dance teacher yelled at her for the way she was dressed and made her take off the shirt and shorts in front of the entire class.
“It was just awkward and it made me feel uncomfortable about myself,” Yentsch said.
Ballerinas commonly wear a leotard and tights, which are form-fitted to their bodies. This display makes some ballerinas concerned about their physical image.
“In the beginning I didn’t [watch what I ate],” Yentsch said. “Once I started looking at the other girls and there was pressure to be the best in the class, I kind of started eating less. I would have water all of the time and I would have salads. I would be scared to eat meats because you’re in class in a leotard and tights; you expose your body.”
Some ballerinas choose to eat in moderation rather than cutting out junk food entirely.
“I have been told by dance teachers that I needed to lose weight even though I have never been over 115 pounds,” said sophomore and current ballerina Isabelle Frame, who has been doing ballet since she was three years old. “You can sit down and enjoy a cheeseburger, but you should actually watch what you eat and how much you eat.”
Dance teacher and former ballerina, Leah Smith, saw first-hand what ballerinas did to themselves to stay thin.
“[They were] not eating, or eating very little amounts,” Smith said. “Right before a big performance, they would be in the gym when they weren’t in rehearsal working out like crazy. Girls would soak cotton balls in orange juice and consume them because it would make them feel full, which is super dangerous because cotton balls are not approved by the FDA.”
A ballerina needs to have skill, but is expected to maintain a certain body image.
“I hate to say this, but with ballet, it’s an ugly combination,” Smith said. “You have to have the right
body type to be a ballerina just for the technique.
The technique of ballet is
made for long legged people who are very light on their feet, have beautiful extensions and who have no bones, [almost like] they’re just straight rubber. So it is, unfortunately, your body, but you also have to have the technique and the talent to back it up. Very few people have both naturally.”
It is important for a ballerina to have energy, especially when they start on pointe. Pointe shoes allow ballerinas to go up on their toes and dance. A ballerina starts on pointe whenever her feet and ankles are strong enough, which takes specific training. The age a ballerina starts on pointe can range, but a common age is 12.
“I had to force my arch. I put [my foot] in a wooden thing that would do little crunches for your toes. I would
have to do that each night when I got home, while I did my homework,” Smith said. “Then there was also another machine that forced your inner turnout, so it basically forced you into a straddle split, which hurt; it was not fun.”
Ballerinas use toe pads to prevent some pain and damage, but injury is not completely avoidable.
“[Pointe] hurts like crazy. I thought, ‘There is no way I am ever going to do this. How do people do this? They’re psycho,’” Smith said. “My feet had the unfortunate problem where they bled a lot from underneath my toenails. I didn’t have toenails for quite a while because of all the pressure. It hurt a lot, but once you get going, you’re so focused on what you’re doing, the technique of it all, being a good partner and being a part of the class, that you forget. It’s almost like your mind takes over and adrenaline takes over. Your feet hurt when you first put them in the shoes, then they go numb.”
When pointe shoes can no longer be used they are called “dead shoes.”
“Because [pointe shoes] are made of fabric and glue, they crack,” Smith said. “They’re not stable forever. When you use them so much, they do weaken, crack and get soft.”
Because pointe shoes break, they need to be replaced, which can be as often as every few months, or
even every few weeks. Pointe shoes can range in price from just under $50 to over $100.
“If I was doing a big show and I had a big part, I would use a pair for every two performances,” Smith said. “For The Nutcracker, [I was the] Sugar Plum Fairy; we did seven shows and I had four pairs of pointe shoes. Before that, I had the rehearsal pointe shoes, so I would say for that whole performance, from the beginning of the rehearsals to the end, I probably went through 10 to 15 pairs.”
With ballet comes long hours and less time for schoolwork.
“It has become harder now that I have a lot more homework, because if I come home, I have an hour to do homework, and then I go to dance and won’t get home until 10 p.m. It’s like that every night I go to dance; it’s stressful,” said freshman and current
ballerina Sarah Yunker, who takes ballet classes
three days a week.
Frame dances six days a week for multiple hours each day, which cuts into her social life.
“The days I have off and people want to hang out, I’m so tired and I don’t want to go anywhere,” Frame said. “I just want to stay home and do my homework and get everything that needs to be done out of the way.”
But for dancers like Frame, the sacrifices are worth it.
“It helps me escape from any problems like drama with family, friends and the outside world,” Frame said. “I love it because it is difficult to do and it’s beneficial in your life.”
Frame hopes to pursue dance as a career.
“I really want to go to New York or California to the San Francisco Ballet, and then maybe another country and try out for their company,” Frame said. “I’m training for auditions that are coming up next year, so I might be home schooled just to train.”
Others don’t see ballet extending past the next few years.
“I’m not going to put myself through it past high school,” Yunker said. “[Ballerinas] have a fine life, but I want more than that.”
Smith was discouraged from ballet as a career choice.
“I did [see it as a career choice] until my ballet teacher told me that it was not a choice for me because I did not have the right body,” Smith said. “She told me that I was too big and didn’t have a long enough neck, legs or arms.”
Despite what Smith was told, she keeps an optimistic view of ballerinas.
“To me, a ballerina was always the most beautiful girl that I have ever seen, perfectly put together,” Smith said. “They have this perfect look and their technique is perfect and their costume is perfect. They’re just the poster child of grace.”
Even though ballet can be difficult, some ballerinas encourage this form of dance.
“Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s stupid or that dance isn’t a career because it is,” Frame said. “It’s becoming something that is amazing…. It’s something to express yourself.”
— Lauren Merrill