By Sarah Yoak
Close your eyes and think of the word ballet — hold the letters in your hands. Swish it around in your mouth. Do you see somebody onstage? Pointe shoes? The movie Black Swan?
I am not inside your head, but I bet I am right about this: You see a woman. What does she look like? Is she angular, sinewy, lanky, thin? Flexible?
Now stop. Are you sexualizing her?
Maybe you aren’t, but many people are. It’s somewhat innate — the culture of the ballet world has allowed for this perception of women but has failed to articulate the difference between appreciation of art and fetishization of a human being. Inside the studio, this line has always been blurry.
It is common knowledge that women are treated as objects in all forms of media. Women are overtly sexualized thanks to images of naked bodies thrown up on giant billboards, the entertainment industry’s ever-growing affinity for female nudity in entertainment, and the media’s exploitation of public interest in female celebrities’ sex lives.
The ballet world is no different, but those ever-so-glamorous ballerinas have perhaps even less agency and autonomy than women in other industries. Ballet dancers are trained in their craft and technique for years, but it is less known how they are coached in the art of silence and fear of authority. In the ballet studio, bodies are instruments, so voices are unnecessary and unvalued. A “perfect” ballerina will not step out of line. She will not talk back. She will not allude to dissatisfaction with the company she works for because this would make her “problematic” and “hard to work with.” She could get fired. Because of this, dancers are hesitant to paint this world — which has afforded them the dream many have fantasized about for years — in a negative light out of fear of retaliation. Will I still be cast if I tell the truth? Will I be fired for speaking out against misconduct and unfairness? This fear that is cultivated in the classroom bleeds through the lines of the gender binary and collects in puddles around the tutus and pointe shoes of women.
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