Nicole Johnsen

Inside the World of Ballet

By Nicole Johnsen

 

Preface

A violinist can complete a concerto on a violin with loose strings; however, his song will sound harsh and wrongly out of tune. A ballerina can finish a performance with bent legs and flexed feet; however, her performance will look unpleasant and greatly flawed. It is not until the violinist carefully tunes his instrument, and the dancer carefully tunes hers, that the true intention of the pieces can come to life.

Week 1

I stood directly in front of a mirror and yet I could not see my own reflection. I used my hand to wipe away a small circle of the condensation. My face was blushed; I watched as sweat droplets hastily formed on the side of my face and ran down my cheek bone in a stream. I quickly glanced at the digital clock on the side of the studio: it was 10:26 am. We still had 6 hours left, yet I was already thinking about my plans for the night when I returned to my small apartment downtown. “Stop, Maestro, stop… thank you.” The music stopped, all movement halted, and the air felt still. Stopping us in the middle of a rehearsal was never a good sign; my heart sank in anticipation. “Girls I know you have been working hard, but I need to see more effort. You can’t just go through the motions without thinking or nothing is going to improve.” We had all been working so hard to impress him, and yet our hard work never seemed satisfactory. He informed us that a few corrections should be made as we rehearsed the dance again: the second leg on the glissade was to be stretched; lines in formations were to be held straight as we moved; the arms on the last arabesque were to be reversed, and all the while we were to make our faces appear as if this all came easily to us. Cast 1 went first. I quickly gulped down the remainder of the water in my liter jug and jolted into action. Right jump, left step, glide—my brows wrinkled in concentration—“Keep in line, no one is going to pay to see this mess!” One, two, three, four, right…no left! My heart beat faster; I could see my veins pulsing through my hands. “Nicole!” I had only made a simple mistake, but I knew Mr. McCarthy did not think it was minor. He said nothing, but his silence threatened me and his eyes steamed in frustration. As the dance concluded with the pianist’s final dramatic chord, the rising and falling of our chests became auditory, and I felt my furrowed brow relax.

It was Cast 2’s turn. I kept a solemn face as I walked towards the wooden bar, but I could feel a ball of embarrassment and disappointment welling up inside my chest. I propped my left leg up on the bar, and leaned forward into a stretch while pretending to watch the second cast perform through their reflection in the mirror. My mind became engrossed with my mistake as I gently guided my left leg up to my ear. I had to do better; I had to be better, I thought as I leaned sideways pulling my left leg over my head past 180 degrees. How could I already, so early in the dance intensive, have made a fool out of myself in front of Charles McCarthy, the Artistic Director of the entire company. I knew important Ballet Masters like McCarthy were known for quickly becoming frustrated with girls who did not fit the ideal ballerina body. After all, without the appropriate equipment, dancers had a much harder time executing the movements properly. However, much like musicians tune their instrument, I thought I had managed to aptly tune my body to ballet years ago. Yet, I now began to question if I had really ever managed to fully achieve the ideal image. Were my legs not hyperextended enough, my feet not arched enough? Maybe it was my stomach that bulged out a little too far.

I refocused my attention to the mirror in front of me, and watched the reflection of Cast 2 perform the ballet. Legs with slightly hyperextended knees pointed in each direction, forming beautiful curved lines that filled up the room. Arched feet completed the curving lines at the end of legs, creating half crescent shapes that were strangely stunning. Each part of their bodies seemed to softly complement another. As I pieced the parts together and completed the magnificent puzzle, I could feel myself growing more insecure of my own parts.

I blamed the famous dancer and choreographer, George Balanchine, for my obsession with obtaining the “perfect ballerina body.” Balanchine was not only a well-respected dancer during his prime days dancing, but he also came to be one of the most influential ballet choreographers of all time. His ballets starred petite dancers, with long necks, legs and torsos (Kiem). Their legs were slightly hyperextended to form overly straight lines, and their feet were beautifully arched to finish off the lines their legs had begun (High Steps, High Arches: Ballet Feet). In 1934 Balanchine released his first ballet in the U.S.; crowds poured in and stood in awe as they witnessed the seemingly supernatural creatures perform on the stage. After only a decade, Balanchine had already begun to revolutionize the path of ballet. The ideal dancer body quickly morphed from simply needing a light dainty figure (High Steps, High Arches: Ballet Feet), to demanding a so-called “Balanchine body” with a long neck, short torso, hyperextended legs, and arched feet. If one’s stomach did not match the line of the body because it bulged out too much, or one’s knees simply did not straighten all the way, lines were broken and the magical visual imagery Balanchine lived to create was disrupted. Therefore, as years passed, it soon became essential for ballerinas to achieve these lines in order to captivate a crowd and succeed as professional ballet dancers.

As I watched the ballerinas dance, I wondered why I let this beautifully destructive art form consume me. Not only had I tried to morph my body into the ideal shape, but my diet, the way I walked, and the way I presented myself to people had all become highly monitored in order to ensure that my presentation was looked upon favorably by the Ballet Masters. I thought to myself, “Why did I so readily succumb to this idealistic mentality?”

Year 1

I was 2 years old, and desperately trying to look over the group of other young ballerinas piled in front of me; the older girls were dancing! I watched them in awe as they seemed to magically glide across the stage. Girls danced in and out of my small view. They seemed to bounce around the room like a rubber ball. Huge smiles spread across their faces, and soon a huge smile spread across mine as well. The older girls struck a final pose, my friends and I jumped up and down, and the Ballet Mistress clapped proudly. I thought to myself, “I would give anything to be like those girls.” Through my years of training, I soon learned that many other ballerinas share this mentality.

Day 1

It was placement day. I woke up at 6 a.m. to give myself enough time to make my bun look pristine, do my make-up, stretch, and grab a protein bar. I wondered which level I would be placed into as I walked down my apartment’s six flights of stairs. On the twenty-block long walk to the studios, I could feel myself shaking under my layers of clothes. I tried to calm myself down by taking a bite of my bar. But I continued to shake and didn’t feel very hungry, so I put the bar back into my bag.

I finally arrived at the studios, joined the end of the line about three blocks from the actual building, and surveyed the dancers who I would be seeing for the next five weeks. Some dancers looked stern and self-conscious about upholding their perfect posture in front of the other dancers. Other dancers seemed to hold themselves effortlessly. Although most of the dancers seemed extremely self-conscious about their appearance, I was happy to see a variety of tall, short, thick and thin dancers in the line, a group not often known for being accepted into rigorous ballet intensives like this one.

Finally, the clock hit 9:00 a.m. and the doors opened. We hiked up the five flights of stairs and were handed a number to pin to our leotards. According to my number, I was told to stand at the bar in the back. I set my dance bag down beside me and rolled casually into a frog stretch. I surveyed the room, trying to stay calm as I watched the other ballerinas show off their impressive flexibility. Number 23 had elevated one of her legs on a barstool and extended the other behind her, stretching into an over split about 90 degrees past a normal split. Number 56 had bent her knees and placed her feet under the piano; as she slowly extended her legs I watched her ankles stay in place as the rest of her leg moved in the opposite direction. I remember being jealous of the line her beautifully arched feet formed under the piano. As I continued surveying the room, one ballerina in particular stood out to me, number 87. 87 kept quiet and did not look as if she were trying to intimidate anyone. She possessed the ideal dancer body with her tall stature, long hyperextended legs, and beautiful feet. Her incredibly lean but muscular stature made her look confident. Simply from her appearance, I could tell she would dance beautifully. We awkwardly made eye contact and introduced ourselves to one another. Her name was Giselle.

The teacher finally entered into the room, and the dancers stood up to acknowledge her presence. She gave us a variety of combinations to perform while three judges took note of our performance. As I waited on the sides of the room in between combinations, I remember watching number 87, the girl who had introduced herself to me as Giselle, dance. I was not surprised to find that she danced beautifully and with great physique. After all, she was practically the full embodiment of what Balanchine had imagined. Her long legs seemed to form never-ending lines, her arched feet had more curve than I knew was possible. However, there was one feature that she possessed that was not typically favored in the world of ballet: she was strangely muscular. Often if muscles became too large they too, like fat, could destroy the lines the dancers were so arduously trying to produce. However, Giselle’s legs were already so hyperextended and feet so arched that her toned muscles did not seem to break the line. Instead they added a powerful aspect to her dancing that allowed her to demand the room’s attention.

As the class came to a close we were told the results would come out first thing in the morning. When I entered the next morning, I hurriedly searched for my name and soon found it under the level Indigo. What? Was this a mistake? …I had been placed in the highest level! I gave a small internal squeal, and soon noticed that Giselle had also been placed into my same level. I felt excited, and was determined to become friends with the beautiful dancer over the next few weeks. I hoped she would give me some pointers on how to become just as talented and graceful as she was.

Week 2

Today, as we entered the studio, Mr. McCarthy informed us that we would be performing a piece called “The Lilac Fairy” in front of him one by one. A single girl would then be chosen to perform the variation in our final concert at the end of the summer intensive. As the first few dancers performed, I compared and contrasted their unique qualities of dancing, wondering which dancer would get the part. However, admittedly after about three dancers I became bored with watching the same variation, and turned my back to the room to focus on improving my middle splits by pushing myself up against the wall. About ten minutes later I heard Giselle’s name called. I quickly performed an over-the-shoulder roll to face the middle of the room, and comfortably slid into a left split to watch her performance. I noticed that all of the other dancers seemed to have the same idea. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, and all eyes turned to Giselle as she confidently placed each foot with purpose and walked into the middle of the room. Mr. McCarthy exclaimed, “Thank you, Maestro” indicating to the pianist to play; musical notes poured out into the room, and Giselle’s variation began. As Giselle began to dance, I could feel the colors of the music spread across the entire room as the Lilac Fairy came to life. Her leg grandly and swiftly lifted her body into the air signaling a grand chord from the piano. A left triple turn painted blue circles in the air as the music fluttered around her. Her arms moved from right to left, signaling individual notes and colors to sound. Her body was the most beautiful instrument I had ever seen, and I could almost smell the lilacs.

When all of the dancers had completed their turn at performing the solo, I believe I can confidently say that no one was surprised when Giselle was given the part…except for Giselle, herself. When Charles McCarthy announced her name, I watched as her face turned bright pink and a shy smile crept from the corners of her cheeks. Over lunch, she told me she had never performed a solo variation in front of an audience before, and was concerned that she was “not quite good enough to have the part.” I tried to tell her that she was beyond prepared for the part, but she had no intention of believing me and vowed to take every opportunity to improve. I would later regret my support for my friend’s endeavors “to improve” her dancing, but in the moment I was happy and congratulated her on her huge accomplishment.

Week 5

Giselle’s face had taken on ghostly appearance; her cheek bones now formed pointy ridges diagonally cutting across her face. The skin below her eyes seemed to have slightly sunken backwards into her skull. Her original muscular stature had long faded and I had begun to notice small divots in her leotard forming around her ribs. She had noticeably lost at least 10 pounds from her already thin figure. When I first noticed that she was beginning to lose weight at the start of week 2, I tried to warn Giselle that this was very dangerous. As dancers we, at the very least, need to maintain a healthy body weight in order to be able to perform the intense combinations we were given with comfort and ease. I always knew that dancers would go to the extremes to achieve better linear figures, and had seen many dancers undergo extreme measures to achieve the ideal “Balanchine body.” However, I had never had a close friend whose health was so dramatically affected by it. That day after class, Mr. McCarthy asked Giselle to stay to talk. Giselle later informed me that McCarthy, too, was concerned about her loss of weight, and told her if she could not regain her original strength, he would not allow her to perform.

After this confrontation, I noticed Giselle desperately trying to make a change in her daily habits. She now began to bring a hefty turkey sandwich for lunch to replace her usual small Caesar salad and carrots. Seeing this positive change in Giselle’s diet made me feel confident that Giselle was finally going to return back to her normal beautiful state. However, I soon realized this was not the case. Even though Giselle had begun to bring more food, it seemed as if she was having trouble actually eating it all. Although neither I nor Giselle recognized it at the time, I later understood that at this point Giselle had fully developed anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that caused Giselle to not “feel hungry anymore” in her own words.

The Day before the Performance

It was the final day before the performance, and we were scheduled to have a dress rehearsal at the end of the night. Charles McCarthy hesitantly voiced that he wished to see Giselle’s variation one last time before the show. He softly whispered, “Thank you, Maestro,” and the music began to play. Giselle began to move, but her body lagged behind the sounding notes. It no longer felt like her body commanded the music with her movements, but more like the music was sorely dragging her along. As her frail legs stepped one by one, I hoped that her movements would not break them. A grand chord sounded just before Giselle carefully made an effort to hoist her body into the air. The music now seemed just as black and white as it had when I watched all the other dancers perform, and I could smell all the sweat and hard work. The final notes sounded, and the audience of dancers was left with the image of Giselle’s chest rising and falling rapidly as the bottom of her ribs popped in and out with each breath.

After class that day, Mr. McCarthy, once again asked Giselle if he could “have a word.” I waited in the hallway, sweating, with my back pressed against the bumpy wall. I had a feeling that Giselle would need a friend. Giselle walked out of the studio with her head hung low, looking down at the gray floor. I said nothing for a while, fearing to ask the question, but somehow already knowing it was true. We walked down the bleak white hallway slowly, postponing our arrival to our next class. After a few minutes I put my hand on her shoulder. She looked up at me; the whites of her eyes had turned a crimson red in harsh contrast to their icy blue centers. “I just wanted everything to be perfect,” Giselle said, “and now all the work I put in has gone to waste.” She let her gaze fall back down to the gray floor; I kept my arm around her shoulder.

The Final Performance

We were surrounded by black curtains. Bright white lights flashed on and off. Blurred images of dancers jumped in and out of my vision. Streaks of indigo costumes flew across the stage. I caught a glimpse of a shining indigo tutu sparkling in the distance; I squeezed Giselle’s hand, and the Lilac Fairy music began to play. A dramatic chord signaled a leap into the air; a turn signaled the whirling of music. Yet as I watched the understudy perform, all I could see were the individual notes in black and white; there was no added emphasis to color each step. Giselle, however, looked as if she was not seeing in black and white, but rather in all gray. Her eyes stared straight ahead, making no effort to distinguish the dancer from the stage. I put my hand on her shoulder as the understudy bowed, the audience applauded, and Giselle continued to look solemnly ahead. She said nothing as she turned towards me and began to walk away from the stage. For a moment, her face shone brightly under a blinding white light, blocking the light from shinning onto the stage; her face was a ghastly white, and I could see the dark remnants of makeup lines she had tried to wipe away. As she continued to walk, she moved away from the light and into the darkness, blending in with the black curtains around the stage.

Further Research

The Balanchine mentality or “obsession with [attaining] this impossible ‘structure’”…is often blamed for the destructive eating and body disorders that plague the dance world” (Kiem). Although Giselle was the only dancer I realized had an eating disorder, I later found out that eating disorders in ballet were a lot more common than I would have liked to acknowledge. While “the average incidence of eating disorders in the white middle- class population is 1 in 100,” the number of affected individuals “in classical ballet is [elevated] to 1 in 5” (Dunning). This statistic was initially shocking to me. I had no idea that of the 40 girls who were placed into my level, there were likely 8 who had already developed eating disorders. Giselle was only one of those girls, and I began to wonder which of my other friends had also been affected. As I continued my research, another study that specifically focused on the prevalence of anorexia nervosa in pre- professional ballet dancers found that only “7% of dancers were satisfied with their weight” while the remaining 93% remained unsatisfied (Herbrich 2). Even though I, myself, have never suffered from an eating disorder, I admit I am one of the 93% who remains unsatisfied with her weight, and will likely remain extremely conscious of my body image for the remainder of my life.

After attending this ballet intensive during the summer of 2016, I decided to make one of the hardest decisions I have made in my entire life; I decided to quit ballet indefinitely. I set aside the 16 years I had spent dancing, surrounded by a room full of mirrors, to let my body rest in the hopes that I would be able to accept my body in its natural and healthy shape. I knew that I, myself, was highly prone to slip into acquiring an eating disorder like Giselle had, so in fear for my health I quit the beautiful art form. After taking one semester off from dancing in college, I gave into my love for ballet, and hesitantly took a dance class in the spring. I have found that although I still dance in a room surrounded by a room full of mirrors, I am nowhere near as self-conscious about my body as I was in New York in 2016. As I adjusted to college life and my new studio on campus, I felt the idealistic Balanchine mentality that had been permanently etched into my mind slowly slipping away. Now, I no longer stand in front of the mirror criticizing every small part of my body, but instead I marvel at the fact that I am able to continue dancing without feeling defeated by ballet culture.


Works Cited

Dunning, J. “Eating Disorders Haunt Ballerinas.” New York Times, 16 Jul. 1997. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

“George Balanchine.” American Ballet Theatre. New York City Ballet. 2013. abt.org/education/archive/choreographers/balanchine_g.html

Herbrich, Laura, et al. “Anorexia Athletica In Pre-Professional Ballet Dancers.”

Journal of Sports Sciences. 29 Nov. 2011: 1115-1123. Web. 18 Mar. 2014.

“High Step, High Arches: Ballet Feet.” Wandering Apricot. 31 Mar. 20019, apricot.wordpress.com/2009/03/31/high-insteps-high-arches-ballet-feet/

Kiem, E. “George Balanchine: The Human Cost of an Artistic Legacy.” Huffington Post: US Edition. 23 Jan. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.

Morris, G. “Balanchine’s Bodies.” Body & Society: Sage Pub. 19-44. 4 Nov. 2005. Web. 18 Apr. 2017.


A Word from Nicole

Headshot of Nicole Johnsen

I have always been passionate about the art of ballet and its unique ability to transform one’s grit, perseverance, and determination into something beautiful. However, despite my love for the art form I have found it is difficult to communicate how tremendously taxing ballet can be not only on one’s body but also on one’s mental health. For a few years during my junior and senior year of highschool, I considered pursing ballet as a professional career. Some of friends and family members applauded my accomplishments and encouraged me to continue on my journey deeper into the world of ballet, and some of them simply did not understand how pursuing ballet professionally could be so appealing. However, as I told people that I was considering this as a professional career, what did not cross any of their minds was the idea that ballet could potentially have severe effects on my mental and physical health.

At first, I was surprised at how no one was concerned that the rigor and demand of ballet could quickly; however, I soon realized that the idea most people have of a ballerina is the image of a small girl in a pink tutu gleefully twirling around a room. Shattering this image has been a challenge to me my entire life, because I have never known how to accurately describe all the factors that go into what ballet is and the effects it can have on people to those who have never actually experienced ballet themselves. I had hoped that one day I could find a way to express my feelings in the utmost detail, however, I was discouraged from the idea of writing about my experiences as I had never considered myself much of a writer. As a pre-med student, my writing experience has been considerably limited to writing lab reports, notoriously known for being concise, short, and to the point. Therefore, in my writing class when I was told to pick a topic I was passionate about and describe a personal story in substantial detail, I knew I wanted to write about my experience in the world of ballet; however, I had little faith in my own writing abilities. My first draft of the essay was one of the worst papers I believe I have ever written.

Again, I began to get discouraged from sharing my story. However, my writing professor, Elizabeth Whitehead, encouraged me that my first draft had a lot of potential, and that adding more specific details like how I noticed “small divots in [Giselle’s] leotard forming around her ribs” would add to the strength of my essay. This small comment along with various other suggestions, like making my transitions flow better, and telling my story in a logical but not necessarily chronical manner, pushed me in the forward direction and I was finally able to complete a piece that I believe accuratelydescribes my experience in the world of ballet.


From Professor Elisabeth Whitehead

Assignment

Narrative Advocacy

Writing the truth is a political act…If you write the truth you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publically, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming.

-Pat Schneider

For your third paper, develop an argument built on the foundation of personal narrative on an issue of concern to you.

Narrative arguments make it possible for writers to illustrate a point by appealing to their audience, invoking experience, and creating a sense of identification with the controversy at hand. Key to creating an effective narrative argument is establishing credibility (your audience must believe you and trust your presentation) and establishing representativeness (the audience needs to understand that your narrative reflects a larger problem beyond the scope of its events).

Choose a subject that is tightly focused. You will want to keep your work balanced rhetorically by accompanying the emotional appeal of your story with strong credibility and with logical evidence (both anecdotal and researched) to support your claims.

Think in terms of an experience that made you realize that something was wrong or that something needed to be changed, and from which you gained essential knowledge about yourself and about the workings of the world around you. Tell a story that allows you to establish your position on the controversy and provide support for your claims. A well-told story often engages in vivid description. Create presence in your details. Your readers should really feel that they too, by reading your account, are there beside you, and can hear, see, smell, and touch those surroundings. Clean and vivid details can help set scene and tone. Therefore, be specific, descriptive, and engaging.

Successful papers will provide a rhetorically balanced narrative argument and will be clearly and engagingly written. You should conduct enough research to provide relevant, external support for your position. Your paper should include at least three sources (books, magazines, journals, newspapers, interviews, films, and/or texts from the academic databases), but use as many sources as you need. One of your sources can be from a credible website. At least one of your sources must be from the databases. If you choose to use more than three sources, you can use additional website sources.

Using MLA style, incorporate in-text parenthetical citations and include a works cited page. Papers should be 5-7 pages long. In your folders include: final paper, two drafts with your changes marked, and a copy of your sources with your annotations. (Or you can include a copy/paste document with the source material you used, rather than printing out all of your sources. But I want to see all of your source information in its original form.) Your final grade for the paper will be reduced one step for each element that is missing.

Professor Commentary

In the novel After Dark, author Haruki Murakami, writes about a jazz musician attempting to explain what it is like to play “creatively.” The character speaks about creating a “shared state” between himself and his audience, in the transmission of the music. First, he must be completely present, and in that presence, his body can undergo a kind of shift. At the same time, the listener’s body makes an identical shift. In this place of shared experience, there is little separation anymore between the musician and the audience. As I read Nicole’s essay again, I am reminded of this definition of “shared state” between a creator and an audience.

The intimacy and the thoroughness of being integrated/immersed/ submerged into the world of ballet is felt strongly in the writing. Nicole has slowed down the scene and details.  As a writer, she first closes her eyes and puts herself back into the studio and back into the body as an artist. Then, she looks around and describes what she sees and experiences. This is someone who not only knows the world of ballet, and knows the experience of dance in the body, but who can also bring herself so precisely into this place again as a writer, that it invites us into the experience as well. “I quickly gulped down the remainder of the water in my liter jug and jolted into action. Right jump, left step, glide—my brows wrinkled in concentration—‘Keep in line, no one is going to pay to see this mess!’ One, two, three, four, right . . . no left! My heart beat faster; I could see my veins pulsing through my hands.” Nicole has created a sense of immediacy through her language which is precise, beautiful, and very alive. At first, some of the details might not seem necessary to the story or argument. But without them, creating a “shared state” would not be possible. And without this immediacy, her advocacy would not have the same force.

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