A Feminist Goes to the Ballet

Ballet, as fine arts and sources of entertainment go, is not exactly what one might call a feminist pastime.  Though it is ridiculous trying to mandate whether something is "feminist" or not, ballet definitely deserves to be critiqued through a feminist lens. 

Don't get me wrong-- I love ballet.  I've been watching performances for years. I danced starting at age four, until I quit when I decided that I didn't want to seriously jeopardize my feet by going en pointe during my teens.  So, a recent performance of several short dances by a local theatre troupe reminded me of the complexities of ballet.

The pros: while ballet is often ridiculed for being girly, feminine or, of course, "sissy," the strength and discipline involved in training requires Herculean will.  One is reminded of Billy Elliot's immortal line: "Just because I like ballet doesn't mean I'm a poof." Props to ballet for being a haven for a lot of young "sissy" boys, even if it's not completely queer inclusive.


The cons: The mandate of thinness.  Yes, I recognize that the rigors and style of classical ballet (and modern dance, for that matter) require a certain size and measure of agility.  Few institutions other than modeling, for example, lead to a pervasive culture of eating disorders (the New York Times cited the incidence of eating disorders in dancers as one in five.) 

Another issue: a creative style that's so gendered that pas de deux tend to signify the female portion through fluttery woodwind instruments while pounding, bass scale music denotes the male part.  Male ballet dancers show off their strength through powerful jumps and leaps, while women showcase their grace and femininity.  And, of course, the vast, vast majority of pas de deux are with male/female partners.

I am no less a feminist, however, for appreciating lovely pas des deux, even if that heteronormativity and mandate of thinness that accompanies ballet culture makes me queasy. Let's not forget that women were the great pioneers of this art form, from Marie Camargo to Martha Graham. 

Any feminist ballerinas out there with input?

More articles by Category: Arts and culture, Feminism
More articles by Tag: Activism and advocacy, Music



Nellie B
Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.