Each year, as the Western festive season approaches, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairies and The Waltz of the Snowflakes whistle through the cold winds and land softly in our ears. Graceful bodies covered in flowy white tulle sway to the beautiful tunes and infuse magic into an already enchanting time of year. Yes, the art of ballet invokes elegance, glamour, and magnetism. Yet, it also invokes tenacity, exertion, and sacrifice. Join me on this journey into the world of ballet and see the many ways that this dance is gendered.
The noble courts of the Italian Renaissance are the original site of ballet, however, it is the French Sun King, Louis XIV, who is praised for formalising and disseminating the art form. As is the case with most of the art at the time, ballet was originally dominated by men. It was men who wrote, scored, designed, directed, and starred in the shows. Only in the 17th century, as the dance transitioned from an aristocratic pastime to a professional discipline did women begin to star in leading positions. This time was also characterised by the inclusion of performers from lower social strata. Soon women dancers became as respected as men dancers, and their technique and artistry as elaborated and refined. Here, it is interesting to note, that as the dance was separated from royalty, it was also feminised.
In the 18th century, ballet underwent important aesthetic changes. As panniers and corsets fell out of fashion, dance costumes became freer allowing the performers a greater range of movement. However, subsequently, costumes became also more revealing. This visual shift scandalised many whilst enticing others. Consequently, the popular perception of ballet changed and the art form came to be understood as vulgar and common. Nevertheless, the 19th century is considered the golden age of ballet. It is also the age in which ballerinas overtook their gendered counterparts in popularity. However, at a cost. Ballet is a sacrificial art form, and its history of exploitation is long and perverse, the 19th-century Paris Opera Ballet being one of the most notorious sites of sexual exploitation in its history.
If you have strolled through prominent art galleries, such as the Parisian Musée d’Orsay, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, you will have certainly come across beautiful impressionist pastel paintings of young women and girls practising ballet by Edgar Degas. Perhaps, the most famous artwork of the French impressionist is the bronze figure, The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer. ‘Petit Rat’ (little rat) is the way the young ballet apprentices of the Paris Opera Ballet were, and still are, referred to. These were often impoverished girls, overworked and underfed, desperate to be admitted into the company. Alongside these girls existed the ‘abonnés’, wealthy men who subscribed to the Paris Opera Ballet for special privileges. Sadly, these facts are probably enough for you to infer what sort of transaction the environment fostered. Essentially, once the stage curtains dropped, the young women and girls depicted by Degas were being prostituted. Degas was himself an ‘abonné’, which granted him access to behind the scenes and into the dressing rooms of the opera.
Much has changed thankfully. However, despite mostly women populating ballet companies, positions of power within the world of ballet continue to be overcrowded by men. Men are often the leaders of ballet companies, they choreograph the dances and are also the artistic directors. This can create sexualised gendered power imbalances, which may lead to toxic work environments and dances designed through a male gaze. This reality was exemplified on the silver screen by the perverse relationship between Nina and her ballet director in the award-winning film, Black Swan. The film tackles the intense pressure ballet dancers can be put under, and shows Nina slowly succumbing to an obsessive perfectionism at the cost of her mental and physical health. Although this film is a work of fiction, it displays the dark side of ballet beautifully.
Indeed, ballet demands near-impossible attainments of the human body. This involves strenuous mental, emotional, and physical sacrifice which can have disastrous consequences. For example, ballet dancers are much more prone to suffering from eating disorders and other mental health issues as the shapes of their bodies are continuously monitored and corrected. The physical toll ballet dancers are put under is also gendered. For example, traditionally, it is only women that use pointe shoes. These shoes have a little rigid box on the tip, which enables dancers to perform on the tips of their toes by putting the entire weight of their bodies on this tiny body part. This might look magical and effortless on stage, however, it often causes immense pain, injuries, and long-term health problems for the dancer.
Whiteness is also a physical feature that ballet has traditionally dictated and that is still difficult to surpass. And so, the iconic Black ballerina, Misty Copeland, uses brown foundation to paint her pale pink ballet pointe shoes before performances. Pointe shoes are designed to blend into the dancer’s legs and skin to create long elegant visual lines. Soft pink, or ‘ballet pink’, blends nicely into the skin of white ballerinas, but not into any other skin tone. Not only does the absence of a variety of skin-coloured ballet pointe shoes display an innate exclusion but it also means that ballerinas with darker skin have to spend additional time and resources to prepare for their shows. Further, in 2021 the professional Black ballerina Chloé Lopes Gomes condemned some of Europe’s principal ballet companies for pressuring her to lighten her skin with make-up before performances and demanding higher standards because of her skin colour. This displays the deep-rooted racism and white supremacy embedded within the culture of the dance.
Finally, Ballet choreographies rely strongly on the gender binary. Most choreographies, which are danced as a duet, involve men supporting and presenting the ballerina as she forms complicated figures with her body. Men and women perform different types of movements and are cast in roles that reflect those. This leaves no room for different gender expressions. Despite this fact, ballet dancers, who are men, are often assumed by pop-culture to be queer. Perhaps it is the elegance and softness of the art form which so well camouflages the strength and sacrifice that each position involves, that leads most to follow this belief. Or, maybe it is because women-dominated spaces have often been devalued and questioned. Whatever may be the case, it ultimately marginalises and instils fear in many aspiring boys and men dancers who are frightened of the ‘taint’ of femininity and queerness in a world that privileges virile masculinity and heteronormativity. Disappointingly, it is almost as rare to see a boy dancing ballet today, as it was to do so in a ‘Geordie’ mining town circa 1984.
Ballet is slowly, very slowly, becoming more inclusive. As a woman who learned ballet in an unorthodox environment at the ripe age of 28, I feel strong and empowered when I dance. However, there is still a long way to go for inclusivity to reach the ballet mainstream.