Danseur Ignoble: The Elephant in the Room — On (Not) Talking About Diet In Ballet

First, though, a quick question for my fellow bloggies:

How do you manage ideas? Like, when you come up with a good idea for a post, and you really want to write about it, but you don’t have time to address it just now, what do you do with it? Do you add it to a list? Start a new post, pop your idea in there, and save it as a draft?

In short, right now, I’ve got lots of ideas, but also a rather strangely large number of things to accomplish, and I’m not sure I’ve hit on a good idea-management strategy. Right now, I seem to be using the “start a draft” approach, but I’m not sure whether that’s wise. For whatever reason, my list of unfinished drafts actually sort of fills me with dread. Go figure.

~~~~~

Okay, now for the sensitive stuff.

In the Default World, as it were, there’s an ongoing conversation about body size and weight, about food as a source of pleasure and as a source of fuel — and while it’s still largely dominated by voices of what one might imagine as the Body Establishment, we’re starting to hear a lot more from other corners — for example, from fat activists like Ragen Chastain at Dances with Fat and Kath at Fat Heffalump, from members of the medical community who are saying, “Hold on, maybe we’re looking at the wrong parameter; maybe we can’t directly measure health by measuring body size,” and even from plain old regular people who are tired of all the hoopla and just want to figure out how to enjoy their lives and be as happy and healthy as they can.

However, in the Ballet World, we’re still not really talking about it much, and we’re really, really not talking about food.

I should stipulate: professional companies tend to have advisors that address these issues, as do pre-pro schools. However, those of us in the Adult Amateur Ballet Community At Large, the area — especially where diet is concerned — is still largely Verboten. Like, we all acknowledge that, in ballet, Body Size is A Thing, but we also don’t want to give anyone a complex about it; meanwhile, we’re terrified that any specific thoughts we share about eating will spawn a rash of anorexia diagnoses.

We’re all very aware of some of the problems that can and do arise around the question of weight in the Ballet World. We’re all very aware that, for whatever reason, the modern Western world doesn’t beget too many people who fit the current Classical Ballet Body Type mold. We’re all very aware of the temptation to use drastic means to squeeze into that mold. We’re all afraid of accidentally pushing vulnerable people over the line and into those drastic means.

And yet, as a result, we also find it difficult to discuss the very measures that might, for a great many of us, act as prophylaxis against resorting to drastic measures: we find it difficult to discuss fueling strategies, difficult to discuss the challenges that different body types bring to the studio or the stage (and I’d argue that there are unique challenges associated with almost any body type, including the one currently enshrined as the Classical Ballet Ideal), and difficult to discuss how to cope with those challenges (whether they be joint strain, risk of osteoporosis, or just possessing a set of knobtastic knees that sometimes seem like they won’t get out of the freaking way — oh, wait, I might be projecting, there).

I suspect that we’ve developed a sense that acknowledging the challenges unique to a given body type sort of delegitimizes that body type as a vehicle for dance. There are too many stories out there of people being told they should simply quit dance because they weren’t blessed with the right body for it — people who loved dancing, who wanted to keep dancing, but who too often weren’t able to find a place where they could continue.

We’re all afraid, I think, of touching those nerves. For adults, ballet is already a counter-cultural pursuit. It’s neither “useful” in the purely-practical “this is going to make me lots of money” sense (though, in fact, ballet offers immense health benefits for dancers of any shape), nor is it casual (with rare exceptions). It tends to turn into a life-consuming passion, one for which non-dancers kind of look at us askance. Somehow, to them, watching TV for ten hours a week doesn’t seem strange, but dancing for ten hours a week does.

To be fair, part of the argument in favor of TV is that you can do it at home with your family at relatively little expense — I get that. But the long and short of it is that, as adult dancers, a lot of us already feel like we’re always fighting an uphill battle to prove to the universe that we have a right to belly up to the barre.

When we start addressing some of the problems of body type, we’re already coming from a defensive posture. We’re already fighting against a societal claim of illegitimacy — one that comes from both outside the studio and sometimes from within, as well.

On one hand, from the outside, we get the message that we have no business dancing at our age, whether that age is 19 or 95, unless we’re professionals. On the other, from the inside, sometimes we get the whole “you’re not a real dancer” thing — especially if we’re truly raw beginners with absolutely no experience or if we diverge too widely from the standard Classical Ballet Body Type. This makes the whole idea of saying, “Hey, I have this body type, and I’ve noticed that people with my body type have this specific challenge in the studio…” exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s just a shade too close to that old message, “People who are built like me shouldn’t dance.”

~

Bike racing shares a few characteristics with ballet.

First, if you do it as a hobby, people think you’re nuts. To be fair, this is a label that most serious bike racers pretty much embrace publicly in a way that amateur dancers often don’t (though we do, within the confines of the Ballet World, acknowldge at regular intervals that We’re All Mad Here).

I suspect that, in the US at least, that particular flavor of Crazy is more broadly accepted if it involves competitive sports. While cycling isn’t as warmly embraced in the US as it is in much of the world at large, it’s still clearly a competitive sport, one with well-defined competition opportunities for people of all ages (and one in which people in the higher age brackets are often formidable competitors). Nonetheless, cycling as a sport is still fringe-y enough in the US that people are shocked to learn that you spend twenty hours a week like, you know, riding a bicycle? And you don’t get paid for it?

A few years ago, people felt similarly awkward around amateur MMA or Muay Thai enthusiasts (I know, because I was one at the time; I loved Muay Thai and wouldn’t mind taking it up again, if the day were only, like, six hours longer); now that everyone’s doing P90x (which seems to be somehow loosely associated with the world of combat sports), tough mudders, and so forth, a fanatical embrace of combat sports has gained a kind of legitimacy.

It doesn’t hurt that it’s something you do in a community: we learn MMA and Muay Thai skills in classes at organized schools, and the best part is that we can usually bring our spouses and kids along for their own classes. Like cycling, meanwhile, combat sports also offers plenty of competition opportunity for adult amateurs. Sure, it’s expensive and time-consuming: but you can win, like, a trophy or a belt buckle or something! To the American mind, that kind of makes it all make sense, I suspect.

Meanwhile, ballet is fringe-y without offering any overarching structure by which adult amateurs can measure our achievements. We don’t have our own Prix de LAAusanne (see what I did there? AA for Adult Amateur?). We don’t even have the equivalent of the weird competition-dance circuit that those of us in the High Art World of Ballet (myself included) kind of love to hate. We might walk away from our hours in the studio with exceptional poise and grace, and sometimes even with very lean and fluid bodies — but we don’t get “ripped” in the way that people who go to the gym and lift weights for fun do.

And, just like in cycling, we spend what the rest of the world perceives as an inordinate amount of time in the studio. Ballet is a harsh mistress, but we love her so. That’s suspiciously close to the way cycling aficionados tend to describe their bikes.

Second, cycling culture has powerful, deeply-ingrained standards about body type. Professional cylicsts, like professional dancers, tend to be extremely lean. Amateur cyclists — racers especially, but also those who don’t race — are subject to a sort of inherited pressure to be lean.

Seriously, in no other American sub-culture are you likely to hear someone kvetching about his arms being too muscular. The demands of training at anything beyond the entry-level both select for and produce lean bodies; in very competitive areas, even the most rank Cat 5 amateurs tend to be far leaner than their non-cyclist peers (seriously; hit up a cyclocross race in the freakishly competitive Ohio Valley Cyclocross Series, and you’ll see what I mean).

Combat sports enthusiasts, meanwhile, don’t have quite the same problem: yes, weight is a legitimate concern (since competitions are organized by weight category), but the hard-and-fast upper limits are still very much in line with people of average build, and how your body’s shaped matters a whole lot less in the gym than how much ass you can kick with the body in question. Or, at least, that was my experience.

Meanwhile, competitive bike racers really are kind of expected to cap out at around 170 – 180 pounds, and the selection pressures only increase as you progress through the ranks. A lot of high-end racing equipment isn’t designed to handle riders heavier than that. The idea is that the lighter the total weight of bike, rider, water bottles, kit, and whatever else you might need to have on hand, the easier your job as a racing cyclist will be. Moreover, the slighter you are, the less wind resistance you’re going to create — and simply pushing through the air is actually where you do the vast majority of your work as a cyclist.

Third, bike racing culture is a niche culture within a niche culture: just as there’s dance culture, and then there’s ballet culture, so there’s cyclist culture, and then within it, racer culture. A lot of non-racing cyclists think all racers are arrogant, jerk-faced wankers (to be fair, some racers regard all randonneurs as grade-A weirdopaths and all commuters as dirt); some non-ballet dancers seem to think all ballet dancers are uptight, arrogant, jerk-faced wankers (to be fair, some ballet dancers regard those ballroom-dance types as plebian socializers and all modern-dance aficionados as wannabes whose technique couldn’t cut it in ballet).

In short, to the outside world, both amateur bike racers and amateur dancers are the Weird of Weirds. You’re not just weird, you’re an especially devoted, obsessive flavor of weird that owns a lot of suspiciously fancy stuff and uses a lot of foreign words. Mon dieu!

Lastly, both cycling and ballet share high energy demands and a history of disordered relationships with food.

The major difference, as far as I’ve seen, is that bike racing culture is really pretty free to discuss food and diet, and does so constantly, sometimes in nauseating detail. There is, perhaps, less sense of illegitimacy imposed upon individual riders — and, as such, less risk of being cast out of the circle if one admits that one is a few pounds (or even many pounds) heavier than one would like to be, or that one resents one’s muscular arms. The discussion of how best to fuel for training, for performance, for recovery, for the off-season, for the pre-ride, for the post-ride — that discussion never, ever, ever, ever ends. Food may be the only thing cyclists talk about more often than bikes.

Dancers, meanwhile, also need to think about how best to fuel their bodies — but forums for discussing how to do so are almost impossible to find. Some of the best online communities for adult amateur dancers have explicit rules against talking about diet, for fear that the discussions in question will devolve into “How To Starve Yourself And Still Keep Dancing.” The standard answer is more or less, “Eat a balanced diet and bring your specific concerns to your health-care providers.”

That’s a very legitimate approach, I think, to dealing with nutritional questions from adolescents in pre-pro programs. In short, the nutritional needs of growing dancers are immensely complex, and most of us have no business trying to advice them; likewise, adolescent dancers are just as subject to the immense pressures to maintain the Classical Ideal as adult dancers, but generally less-equipped to cope with those pressures. They are more likely to lack the resources and experience to make well-informed decisions about whose advice to follow; they may not yet have acquired the critical-thinking skills that will later help them distinguish between a sustainable plan for healthy eating and what amounts to a quack diet, but they are more likely to have people in their lives to help them with these decisions.

Meanwhile, amateur adult dancers (who my very unscientific analysis suggests tend to be self-possessed individuals with pretty good minds) are less likely to have people in their immediate lives who have both the time and expertise to offer any kind of insight into fueling their bodies, but are more likely to have critical thinking skills to help them distinguish between sound fueling strategies and wacky starvation plans.

Perhaps part of the problem is that ballet is an art first, an athletic endeavour second. As an erstwhile half-baked bike racer, I’d go so far as to say that bike racing is an art, but I’d be remiss if I failed to state plainly that it’s an athletic endeavour first. Dancers are encouraged to think of themselves as artists; cyclists as athletes.

Athletes are free to regard their bodies as machines and to think about them accordingly.

Artists? Well, maybe not so much. We are invited to transcend the limitations of our mortal frames: but we are not explicitly invited to examine those limitations, especially not as adult amateurs who must already combat the idea that we’re not “real dancers,” and therefore not “real artists.”

Perhaps it follows from there that we can’t freely discuss what is, ultimately, an immensely important topic: what kind of fueling strategy will help us feel the best in the studio, on the stage (if we’re so lucky), or after class? What works? What doesn’t work? What works for some, but not others? Flatly put, how much should we be eating, anyway, when we’re dancing six or ten or sixteen hours each week?

Inevitably, some of us will want to trim down a bit; others might want to build some muscle or fill out our curves. It would be good if we could talk to each-other about these things: in part because sometimes it’s that very possibility that allows people who are slipping in to the realm of Drastic Means — of disordered eating — to get help before the problem gets out of hand.

It would be good to know that there was a forum where we could ask what might seem like stupid food questions (“Okay, I just did two hours of class. It really is okay for me to have an ice cream cone, right?”) and ask about other dancers’ strategies (“Guys, do you find you get less sore if you eat after class?”) or even to figure out who to talk to about specific questions that might need input from a professional (“As a male dancer who spends two hours a day dancing and does a fair bit of throwing other dancers around, who do I ask about making sure I’m getting enough protein? Dietitian? Family doc? Personal trainer? Wizard?”).

One of the strengths of the bike-racing community is the way it handles questions like these. There’s a huge aggregated knowledge-base out there pertaining to fueling strategies for racers at all levels, and bike racers are free to talk about it all they want. They even talk about eating disorders (which kind of makes sense in a sport that has itself more than once been described as “a very expensive eating disorder”) and reach out to help members of the community who struggle.

I think we, as adult amateur dancers, are mature and wise enough to do that for each-other. True, dance-specific nutritional strategies are less broadly-studied than sport-specific nutritional strategies — but a lot of us in the Adult Amateur Ballet World are pretty good researchers. We are capable of putting our peer-reviewed journals where our mouths are (though, guys, just so you know: there are better fueling strategies than eating peer-reviewed journals, and besides, they tend to be kinda dry and dense).

The question is, where do we start talking about this, and how?

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/03/12, in balllet, food, life, weight and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You’ve written an EXCELLENT editorial! Remove your first concern over topics, blogging strategies, and leave off any comments submitted by your readers when you forward your essay. Here is where I would suggest you submit your writing: The San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Chicago Sun Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc., etc., etc.,

    This is your finest piece of work to date. A dialog needs to begin. You touch so closely to the flame that you nearly ignite the message. Take it to the next level and don’t discount anything you define as, Amateur category, and NEVER amend something because others don’t understand it, or fail to see it’s integrity.
    The world is filled with arrogance, and lacking desperately for understanding the perspective of others. You would tend to think that as adults we would have learned to respect the differences, needs and concerns of others. Sadly, we are still working to break down barriers. Your written words have the ability to open up a much needed dialog.

    As for the “Elephant in the Room,” we need to release him back into the wild, allow him the Savannah and the freedom to go and live his life free from the chains that bind.

    Talk about Diet in Ballet. For those who say it is something taboo, offsetting and not to be brought up, who are these people? They certainly are not the ones who are fighting the demons. They are, I suspect, the same individuals that look for the perfect specimen to perform. Shallow, I say. Let me give you this to ponder:

    I’m sitting in a theater watching a performance. Dancers of all shapes and sizes are entertaining the audience. We, the audience are of all shapes and sizes. A few of us remember dancing earlier in our lives, or perhaps we were gymnasts, and we grew taller, filled out and we were ‘cut’ from the team. So here we are, watching this performance. Who do you think we are rooting for?

    ❤️

    • First, many, many thanks! It’s funny, I hadn’t really thought about this as an editorial, but it did rather turn into one, didn’t it?

      I love the metaphor of releasing the elephant back into the wild. It’s funny how we never think of the elephants in out living rooms in those terms, and yet that’s exactly what we do when we open up about our elephants. What a great thought!

      I’ve been thinking a lot about how bringing different-sized bodies into the performance mix could offer new possibilities for the interpretation of choreography and open doors for dancers — I hadn’t really thought about how audiences could also feel empowered by that (I am sometimes a little slow to see the bigger picture!). I’m so glad you mentioned that: of course people are going to root for the dancers who look like themselves; the ones who they feel will have shared their struggles. And, of course, those who secretly dream of returning to ballet might feel empowered to do so if they see bodies like their own up there on stage.

      Once again, thank you! I’m giving serious thought to your suggestion. It’s kind of weird to feel like something one has written in this very casual blogging context might resonate with a broader audience in relevant and meaningful ways, but I can see what you mean — diet, of course, is always more relevant to dancers than we want to admit, but body size is a major thing right now in our culture as a whole. Though I was thinking of this question, when I wrote this post, from a narrower perspective (that is, as a dancer who’s trying to figure out a fueling strategy), it fits into that larger cultural conversation.

      Meanwhile, a lot of people I’ve talked to seem to feel as if ballet is losing its relevance (which is to say, it is increasingly perceived as a niche interest relevant to audiences who possess arcane knowledge). While the go-to tool for attempts at increasing relevance is innovative choreography, and that’s important, maybe we should also look at how to really diversify the instruments in our ballet orchestra — the dancers themselves. I think there’s probably some concern about diluting the art, but the soul and essence of ballet is its vocabulary, and that can be taught to all kinds of people. As for the body-type ideals: those have always been in flux as long as ballet has existed.

      For a long time, I’ve been kicking around the idea of creating a strictly adult-amateur company to offer passionate adult dancers a chance to perform and maybe choreograph their own works and so forth. I hadn’t thought about it as a vehicle for this sort of thing, but what better way to make it meaningful and relevant?

  1. Pingback: The Relative Expense of Ballet | my beautiful machine / danseur ignoble

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