Maybe Beauty Doesn’t Have to Mean Pain

Emma Blakley helps Gabby Sporleder with her position during an advanced ballet class at Midwest Dance Mechanix in Wichita, Kan. (Jesse Brothers/The Hutchinson News via AP)

At BuzzFeed, former dancer Ellen O’Connell Whittet interrogates ballet: a beautiful but demanding art form that exacts a high price from the bodies of the women who practice it — Whittet already lives with chronic pain stemming from a fractured spine she suffered during a rehearsal.

“I think you need to be asking whether you’ll ever walk without a limp,” the doctor told me. My parents drove three hours to come get me and bring me home, and I had to relearn how to do daily tasks with chronic and acute back pain, like drive a car or put on pants. A few years later, after I had healed enough, I joined a small dance company, but the pain in my back forced me daily to take stock of my own body, its needs and limitations, and to either continue hurting it or to use it to navigate through a world without ballet. Eventually, the culture of ballet was not inclusive enough for me to stay — it wouldn’t work with my limitations, and it required me to sacrifice my time and body in the name of art. Ballet was an austere and unrelenting master to me, one that asked more of me than I could give. I have missed ballet every day since, and yet I am disturbed by what, exactly I’m missing.

But the issues with ballet aren’t only around physical injuries from misstep or overuse. The physical pain is just the obvious symptom of a deeply sexist (and not a little racist) medium that regards women as implements rather than people.

Women’s contributions to ballet have historically been the most ephemeral: They are the archetypal ballerinas, whose careers depend on the constant vanishing point of dancing, over as soon as it happens. The parts of ballet that last past the moment of its occurrence — choreography, teaching, and artistic direction — have long been dominated by men. And this moment, which offers us a chance to have a mainstream conversation about the sexism of ballet, is also an opportunity to seriously consider what ballet’s future might look like. What needs to change to make it less damaging to women, while still preserving its value and beauty? And who needs to be more included in order to effect that change?

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