By Brian Nolan
GRD DIP, GRD CRT, BA, DIP, RAD TC.
In the world of classical ballet, our instrument is our physique, which is infinitely complicated, astonishingly diverse, extraordinarily functional, artistically imposing and at the very least – aesthetically pleasing. If we are lucky, work hard, are conscientious with our training and everything falls into place our instrument can then become our servant.
As dancers, we become very aware of what our body looks like. At each class or rehearsal we attend, we generally wear tight fitting clothes, dance enthusiastically in front of mirrors and are constantly comparing ourselves with others in the room. A dancer has to look at themselves for many hours in a day and/or accumulative in a week and as a result, we become very conscious of our shape.
Do I have to be short?
The origin of classical dance came from King Louis XIV, but the origin of the classical figure or body type is said to come from a young dancer by the name of Marie Camargo who in the eighteenth century became a prominent figure in the theatre. She was said to be light-footed, very artistic with an assured technique, and most notably shorter than all of the male dancers on the stage. As Camargo became famous, every aspiring female dancer wanted to perform in the same company as she. Before her debut on the stage, ballet dancers of that era were not conventionally small, but, due to her popularity, the new figure became mandatory to succeed in the world of ballet. Thus, the 5’ 5” (165 cm) dancer emerged and soon it was the standard for all for decades. Sadly, as girls reached 5’5” their dreams would be shattered at the realization that they would never be the next Camargo. The company, aware of her extraordinary ability and popularity soon refused any new dancers who were taller than its star performer. Luckily for the taller dancers of today, this height restriction is no longer adhered to by most companies.
So what is the ideal female ballet body today?
Most experts concur that your body’s proportions are critical to having the ideal physique for dance. Apart from the aesthetic consideration, a well-proportioned body should endure the stresses and strains of the workload required of it with greater ease than one in which there is some contradiction. In reviewing the physique, we are examining the dancer who is hoping to enter a training institute of higher learning at an elite level or is aspiring to be a professional.
In reality, the ideal physique for a female classical dancer is slim, with a long neck, a shortish to medium length torso, long legs with complimentary long arms and high insteps.
The height requirements of dancers are really designated by the ballet companies hiring. Most ballet company’s average height for a female is approximately 167cm. However, in Europe some companies require females to be no taller than the traditional 165cm, while others have a minimum height of 173cm. One company I know has their lead female principal dancer at a height of 184 cm!
An elite school will in general try to adhere to a standard body type, with the ideal physique for the female classical dancer generally shaped by the requirements of the ballet company attached to it or by companies relative to that region, area or country and/or simply by the height of the male dancers available.
It is important to recognize that in the professional arena a mature dancer’s physique does not necessarily have to be (and probably won’t be) the same as the physique of a student in training. What might be acceptable to a ballet company might not necessarily be acceptable to an elite or national school. Companies want talent and talent comes in all shapes and sizes. Few companies will turn down an exceptionally talented dancer just because their torso is a bit long or their legs are a bit short, they might not have the best feet, or they are too tall or a little short – if they are truly talented, they are seriously considered.
Do I need to be thin?
At an elite level, slim is better than thin. Genetics play the biggest role in determining one’s physical shape. The size and shape of your parents determines the outcome of the female form. Puberty is the main contributor to the eventual physique of young girls. A girl can have a lovely physique at 11 or 12, go through puberty and sadly develop a less than ideal shape required of them to continue to the elite level. Some might simply have an odd shape until around 17 or so, and then mature into a perfectly acceptable dancer’s physique – so don’t give up if you are not the idyllic type! If you do not conform to the normal standards, remember that it is one thing to have the ideal physique, but unless its facility is qualitative, it is of little use – so in most cases talent prevails!
In general, during the intense training stage (12 -17 and especially 14 – 17) it is important for girls (regardless of the shape) to be ‘slight’, and the main reason for this is due to the opposite gender – the boys. At this level, pas de deux classes are imperative to the training of all classical dancers. Lifting is an essential part of class work, however, it only takes seconds for a lift to go wrong and for young male dancers to injure their backs. If the males are not strong enough to fully support the weight they are lifting they will generally hyper-extend their backs and possible chronic injuries to the lumbar thoracic and middle thoracic areas of the back can occur.
Pointe for girls is what pas de deux is for boys. Today, without good strong and aesthetically pleasing feet en pointe, girls have little chance of entering the pure classical arena. Boys on the other hand, need to be strong and physically capable of lifting girls with consummate ease and with little or no strain on their body during the execution. As males generally mature at a later stage than girls do, girls need to be ideally slim or light so the demands on the boys’ bodies during lifts aren’t too great. The girls (in general) also need to be shorter than the boys due to their increase in height en pointe.
Of course there will always be exceptions to this and some male dancers at 17 or 18 are fully developed and their bodies (provided they’ve had correct pas de deux training) are more than capable of lifting fuller bodied partners.
Any teacher who is not experienced in pas de deux and/or is not aware of the physical requirements of boys should not ‘experiment’ in lifting just because it might potentially look good.
Most companies will have a standardized physique from which they will try to be consistent. Corps de ballet members need to be very similar in height and shape, as with the traditional classical ballets, a company will have the corps appearing to be the same. There may be a variance in heights within the one company but in general they would still maintain a commonality with the group and henceforth a standard physique is required.
Even though the training physique ideally needs to conform to the standards as previously stated, the professional dancer really can come in all shape and sizes – short, tall, wide, narrow, buxom, large hips, or long torso. What is important at this level is their ability as dancers. The males at a professional level should all generally be strong enough to adhere to all the rigors required of lifting.