February 15, 2024

Suzanne Wagner Ballet Blog – The Demand For Thinness in Ballet

About the Author: Suzanne Wagner
By Published On: February 15, 2024Categories: Ballet

Suzanne Wagner Ballet Blog – The Demand For Thinness in Ballet

In my generation, being thin was a necessity. While dancing is an art that can burn a ton of calories quickly, the mental and emotional stresses can take a toll in a variety of ways.
Dancers are high stress thoroughbred racehorses. We are high strung, nervous, perfectionistic, and see fault in everything we do.
Then you add to it that one lives constantly staring in a mirror. And that mirror is not like the fairy tale of Snow White’s stepmother, when she incessantly asks, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the fairest of them all!” And the mirror tells her what she wants to hear until the beautiful Snow White matures into becoming a woman.
Our mirror is constantly pointing out what we are doing wrong, and we can find fault with the smallest of things. Add to that was the fact that video was not great in my day. It had to be done at the back of the theater and was often grainy, of poor quality, and did not show the talents of the dancers well. It is easier to find faults when one is just a blur.
During my time in Berlin, I have (Thank God) pictures, but videos of my dancing there were few and far between. And as copies of all these things are owned by the ballet companies, there is a tight lid on allowing them out into the world.
Video during my time dancing were taken to record choreography for later use to teach the exact steps and styles to the teachers, and dancers. They were not of any valuable quality for TikTok or Instagram.
Ballet West did recordings of each ballet, each show, and each night. They were available to us to go look at ourselves and to do a self-critique of our performance. Needless-to-say, that could be an excruciating experience. I remember asking myself, “Oh my! Does my foot really look like that from the audience? Yikes!”
To have the ability to self-critique and to not let it devastate one’s emotional state … requires a strong inner self and a knowing that everything is not just steps.
I knew deep inside that it was the emotional ability to carry an audience that matters more than just strict technical ability.
Even now, I find dancers that perform and are so concerned with correct and perfect technique that they come across to an audience as stiff and often scared.
Being a great performer means that one can let all the technique go and trust one’s training and the body’s ability to do what is required. When you trust your body, and let go, only then can the music and the power of the moment merge the heart of the audience with the souls of the dancer. That is when something magical can begin to happen.
I can tell (even now) within 2 minutes of watching a dancer perform if that dancer has the ability to capture my heart and soul and carry me into another reality with him or her.
A dancer can be technically brilliant but if I can’t feel their heart … I cannot feel the magic that I crave to feel. Then that dancer actually makes me nervous because I feel their underlying fears and insecurities. Then I get tight inside, and my breathing becomes shallow just watching them and that is an unpleasant sensation for me.
All the great stars that I have worked with, whether they were in the orchestra, the ballet, or the opera, all had the ability to transport me in those moments beyond my own petty life and into the world that they were embodying, inhabiting, and that together we were co-creating.
That is what excites me. That is why I go to the theater.
But ballet requires a tremendous attention to lines, angles, details, and a type of sinewed tension that moves emotions, thoughts, feelings, and passions through the fibers of the muscles. To do that effectively, the beauty of the muscles must show through the tights, costumes, and unitards. And that requires a low body fat level and to do that one has to be almost constantly aware of the slightest changes in weight.
I was one of those dancers that if I weighed myself, I actually gained weight. It caused me to worry and fret so much that such a type of mental tension and anxiety would cause me to eat more out of nervousness.
I did better if I just looked in the mirror honestly.
I did better if I would eat.
There were a few dancers that were eaters, with me. That was a relief to be with them because we needed to eat. Some dancers learned so much personal mental self-control that their secret (that they told me) was to eat a half a grapefruit in the morning with a cup of coffee with one drop of milk in it. Then lunch … the same thing. And dinner some small bowl of soup.
To me that felt insane! I would die from the lack of food, calories, and putting that much pressure on that level of mental control over my food.
Such a diet would cause dancers to break physically under the pressure. They would get injured more, they would get sick more frequently, and the toll on their body (over time) made them seem to age more rapidly, getting wrinkles early and skin sagging because of the lack of proper diet.
As I have said in earlier blogs on the ballet world, that at SAB, we did not have a word for anorexia in my early years. Certain ballet companies (because of directors and ballet mistresses) were brutal in demanding a certain level of thinness. The Berlin Ballet, did not harp on weight but there were several dancers that were clearly bulimic as I would unfortunately hear them in the bathroom after eating lunch or before a show, vomiting in the stalls. And there was one young German girl in Berlin, that was clearly full-blown anorexic that almost died and looked like someone from a concentration camp. It was terrifying to me at the time.
There is nothing scarier that being in Berlin, after WWII, with the history of the concentration camps, and seeing a dancer you know, go up to a bakery, stare in the window, desperately hungry and dying (literally) for a sweet, but then to watch their mind talk them out of going in. Only for them to walk around the block and repeat the whole process over and over again.
Even then I wondered if this behavior was some form of schizophrenia. Because clearly there was a conversation going on in the person’s head between opposing parts that were telling them to not eat and then telling them to eat.
In Ballet West, there was a much stronger, unspoken telepathic agreement to be thin. I think that it started in the earlier years with the Utah Ballet and some of the older teachers at the university that I heard were requiring dancers to “weigh in” in order to be in class. Such a behavior was shocking to me, and I am afraid in certain circles it will still be going on.
Fortunately, I have had some healthy reflections of dancers that maintained their weight and did so with a drive to be healthier and they understood that while thin is good … getting injured because of not taking care of the body was to them (and me) not worth the risk.
I saw my body as a temple. And if I did not give it what it needed to perform at its best then I was at fault for failing my body.
Dancers like Lee Provancha Day (a principal dancer) took vitamins and sold those vitamins to the dancers, and I was first in line. I would see dancers literally falling apart. They looked like their legs were Jell-O and they looked weak and as if they were about to pass out from lack of food and nutrition.
I would try to hand them a vitamin and they would refuse saying, “When I take vitamins, they make me hungry. So, I can’t do that!”
At that point I would say to them, “Maybe your body is trying to tell you something and that your body is starving for something specific.”
But until they were literally about to pass out, they would not take the vitamins that I had in my dance bag all the time.
I remember we were in Kennedy Center performing and a newer young female dancer was literally falling down, wobbly legged and stressed out. I got her to take a B-Complex vitamin which helps stress levels. And in 15 minutes she was feeling much better. You would think that this would have been a pivotal moment for her, but she just went back to abusing her body and ignoring the clear message that might help her become a better dancer.

Sometimes dancers in ballet can get so fixated on thinness that dancers forget to remember that without their body working at an optimum level, they will not just fail … but they will fail at a critical moment on stage and that is just not acceptable. Such things get one fired or not have the opportunities to do more.
In my generation of ballet, we were busy doing breakthroughs such as having massages, doing Pilates, and discovering how ballet can strengthen some muscles but weaken others. We were in the generation where dancers were discovering the value of cross training and working to strengthen our core, deeper inner muscles to help us be stronger rather than just focus on extreme flexibility which can cause overstretching and a weakening of critical muscle groups that then would fail causing injuries.
In Berlin, the medical system would look at me for a sore back and give me a prescription for 10 massages before they would see me again. And all this came off on our insurance in Germany.
It was awesome! I took full advantage of the generosity of this type of care and approach. Because of that, it was in Berlin where I first started becoming interested in Massage Therapy and healing techniques which would be my transition out of ballet.
I am grateful that dancers are now educated on eating a healthy diet and taking better care of themselves. After all ballet is a ridiculously short career for most dancers. The pressures on the body are so high that the chances of career ending injuries are still an issue. The mental and emotional stresses of performing and the pressure we put on ourselves during performances is off the charts and many dancers retire because they know that as much as they love ballet, they know that continuing to do it will kill them.
The ending of my ballet career with the director, John Hart, was so emotionally and mentally draining on me that I could see that if I did not quit that this profession was going to kill me in some way, either mentally, emotionally, physically, or spiritually.
It is one thing when one is appreciated and supported by a director and ballet mistress. With Bruce Marks, I came in weak, way too thin, and emotionally a wreak from almost dying. But his faith and belief in me gave me the emotional support that I desperately needed and because he believed in me, I gave it everything I had. And I believe that magic happened because of that. But Mr. Hart was a completely different story.
He was not from my generation of dancers. He was not wanting to allow Ballet West to be this wild and enthusiastic, young ballet company. He wanted to remake us into the Royal Ballet. And that was a complete impossibility.
None of us were born or bred to dance those styles without tremendous effort. We were continuously failing and that never feels good for anyone. It destroys the emotions of the dancers and makes us lose confidence in ourselves. No one does well … being told day in and day out (in various ways) that we are not good enough. Every dancer already feels that but when we would do our best and feel as if our best was disgusting to the director, it tears apart the tenuous glue of confidence that is required by all dancers to keep going. That is how then more mistakes happen because dancers can’t let go and flow. They start thinking too much and analyzing things to the point of nausea. Then the fun goes away, and the reason dancers dance is for the feeling. But if we are required to fit into some very small box from a director’s memory as he is trying to recapture his own past through us, then things begin to fall apart. Dancers need the ballet staff to believe and have faith in them. Dancers need to feel as if they are succeeding. Dancers need to have some positive feedback to keep going.
During the John Hart days at Ballet West, it was clear that his demands were not just making the dancers miserable, neurotic, and crazy, but he was making also the ballet staff, teachers, and rehearsal directresses miserable as well. The pressures were becoming too much for everyone and that was when I knew the writing was on the wall. For me, it was a message that it was time to move on and into something else. I knew that I artistically, theatrically, and psychologically disagreed with John Harts approach. I knew that I was not alone in my feeling. I knew that I needed to retire before I was going to be forced out.
I knew he was prepping me to become a rehearsal directress or ballet mistress and that was not what I wanted for the rest of my life. I knew I could not work with him or be his whip to make the dancers do what he wanted because I never agreed with his approach. I could see that he did not see the dancers of Ballet West the way I did.
These were dancers that knew how to have fun and to excite an audience not with their technical brilliance (as there were no Evdokimova’s or Nureyev’s in the group) but with their energy, enthusiasm, and their joy of dance.
Mr. Hart showed me that we can never go back.
We cannot keep remaking the past.
We have to learn to work with the talents and abilities of the dancers we have and give them opportunities to grow not by trying to fit a round peg into a square hole but by honoring who these dancers were and support their inner and outer growth by finding choreography and vehicles for these dancers to shine.
What I loved about Ballet West was its wildness and the freedom that these dancers carried onto a stage. The style of Ballet West was the style of America and the freedoms that this country offered and the unique blend that these dancers offered to a world that needed to remember that we did not need to mimic other countries, other styles or other times. We were here to show what happens when we embrace our diversity, allow each to shine, and show that it can be done.
I am happy to say that under Adam Sklute, the current director of Ballet West, that unique outlook burns brighter than ever and because of his ability to embrace the energy of Salt Lake City and the dancers that come to this area for those freedoms, this company that I love so dearly is better than ever and reclaiming its place on the world stage, not for being a copycat of another company but for being its own unique and very special self.

~Suzanne Wagner~

Go to Top