The Black Swan of Ballet

Speculation surrounding ballerinas’ thin frames has been whispered for years. In a recent ballet movie, Oscar winning actress Natalie Portman portrays a young dancer fighting for perfection in “Black Swan”—the movie explores the underbelly of a cut-throat dancing world. Nina, characterized by a thin Portman, is cast as the lead in Tchaikovsky’s famed ballet “Swan Lake.” As is traditional, Nina must depict both the heroine, the White Swan, and her evil twin, the Black Swan. We follow Portman through a dramatic transformation as she strives to perfect her interpretation of the Black Swan.

Courtesy of IMDB

Although the film never outwardly declares that Nina is suffering from an eating disorder, scenes highlighting caloric restriction and purging allude to a battle with anorexia. The accompanying hallucinations, paranoia, and self-harm suggest additional psychopathology, but the film highlights the dangerous trend in the dancing world towards taking extreme measures to achieve a thin physique. Body specific stereotypes such as a flat chest and protruding ribs exist in the dancing world, which can potentially lead to serious risks.

While a lean physique is necessary to achieve the high technical demands of pointe work and pas de deux, the extremely thin frame of today’s dancers, popularized by the acclaimed choreographer George Balanchine, can create an impossible standard for women. Ballet emphasizes the lines and forms created by the human body accentuating grace and beauty. For this reason, the “ideal” ballerina body type is characterized by exacting proportions: long, lean legs, short torso, and a long neck. Even “Black Swan” accentuates the long, lean form of a dancer by using special effects to alter the already slim Portman. In many scenes her hands and fingers were elongated, the length of her neck was emphasized, and her protruding shoulder blades were enhanced. This stylized body type is perpetuated throughout the dancing world.

A ballerina strives for perfection in her technique and performance; it only seems natural that driven perfection can spill into other areas of life as well. This is a risk for those in this elite profession of athletes. Ballerinas constantly practice in front of instructors with mirrors flanking the walls; their bodies are the tools of their art form and consequently are often critiqued and reviewed as if inanimate paintings. This constant obsession surrounding one’s appearance, along with the dancer’s natural tendency toward perfectionism, puts the dancer at an elevated risk for developing a negative body image and unhealthy eating habits. If an eating disorder does develop, it can lead to many other negative effects. Particularly, women must be aware of low bone density and amenorrhea, which can be detrimental not only to a dancer’s career, but more importantly, to her health. 

“Black Swan” concludes with Nina’s chilling words, “I was perfect”—an admirable dream too often internalized by dancers. It is extremely important that as an audience we encourage ballet and its progression but seek to better understand the unique pressures of the art form. While we must not be quick to judge that all ballerinas have eating disorders, we must realize that this is a problem plaguing the dance community, and we should support efforts such as providing nutritional and psychological support for dancers at all levels, training choreographers and teachers to be aware of and sensitive to emergent eating disorders, and empowering parents to “have the conversation” with officials of a dance school or company if they feel their daughter or son is being led down a dangerous path towards unhealthy weight control.

~Elana Zipkin, B.A. & Rebecca Dunn