Why I’m Over the ‘Ballet Body’ Trend

Alle Connell
ballet body

Photo: Jack Vartoogian / Getty

Slim, toned, long of leg and perfect of posture: For as long as we can remember (and especially since “Black Swan”), the world at large has been swooning over the elegant, lithe figures of ballerinas. If you thought that particular fitness trend was over, let me tell you that it’s still going strong: every week, I’m invited to at least two classes at posh gyms and private studios that promise to give me the perfect “ballet body.”

And I hate it.

Let me back up: I studied classical ballet for sixteen years. I was never a prodigy, but I was good enough to seriously consider it a career option. I genuinely love ballet in all its forms. And I despise the “ballet body” fitness trend. Wasn’t it enough that for almost two decades, I held myself to an unattainable standard of thinness for my job—now I’m supposed to do it in my normal life?

But, seriously. Death to the “ballet body” term, and all the bullshit that goes along with it.

Don’t get me wrong: physical activity is great, and you might very well get a good workout when you go to a cardio barre class. But no matter how many plies you do, you will not get a ballet body, because a ballet body is so much more than just “being skinny and toned.”

A ballet body is an instrument, not a fitness fetish. It carries you through morning class, hours of rehearsal and two-hour performances, six days a week. A ballet body is strong enough to jump incredible distances, fast enough to turn at amazing speeds, flexible enough to hold beautifully impossible lines—all while making it look totally effortless. A ballet body represents years of discipline, training and dedication, and to reduce that to a marketing term synonymous with “thin white woman” totally sucks.

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Because, let’s be real: that’s what that term means. When gyms sell you the dream of a “ballet body,” they’re selling you Svetlana Zakharova, not Degas’ dancers. I suppose the reasoning goes that all ballerinas have long, lean bodies; all ballerinas do these exercises; therefore the exercises create that highly desired body shape. Right?

Nope. Those lithe, sinuous muscles that you’re promised if you buy this DVD or sign up for that trendy workout? Those are the result of genetics, not a killer workout—because ballet requires certain physical traits, like an extremely petite frame, that no amount of drive or hard work can give you. If you could get the perfect sylphlike figure from a barre class at the gym, every aspiring ballerina in the world would be lined up out the door from now until the end of time.

Because let’s be real – not even all ballerinas have “ballet bodies.” There are a multitude of different body shapes present in dance; most principal artists have similar body types because that’s the look their company likes. It’s not really the result of the workouts they do. Back when I was dancing, I was forced to realize that as much as I wanted it, I’d never be a star—I was too tall, and my frame too large. I did not have a “ballet body” the way it’s presently defined, and I was actually studying ballet.

It drives me insane that people so fetishize “ballet bodies,” because honestly: how many people actually want the body of a ballerina? I have the body of an ex-ballerina, and let me tell you, it sucks. My feet and toes ache constantly. My right knee, injured when I was 11, still hurts so badly sometimes that I need to wear a brace. My flexible back, so praised in my dancing days, is unbearably painful now—when I sit, when I stand for too long, when I walk. I have the joints of an old woman, with arthritis in my elbows, feet, shoulders and hips. That’s to say nothing about the various hurts that you can’t see—the former eating disorders so severe I was hospitalized, the harsh self-criticism, the pride in and simultaneous contempt for my own body and its limitations.

So sure, I have great posture. I’ll also probably need a hip replacement before I turn 40. That’s my glamorous ballet body.

But wait, I hear some of you saying. We don’t want to actually be dancers. We just want to look like dancers.

So you don’t want to do the thing, you just want to look like you do the thing? None of these “ballet body” classes promise to make you as strong or as flexible as an actual ballerina—and trust, dancers are both—they just tell you that you’ll look like one. What’s the point of that? Sure, ballerinas look a certain way, but they look that way so that they can do incredible things. What’s the point of these fitness classes? A workout that doesn’t mess up your hair.

One of the best things about the ever more visible body positivity movement is that women are encouraged to take pride in what our bodies can do, not just in what they look like. More and more, we’re waking up to the fact that health and fitness comes in every size, not just the extremely slim ones. I loved ballet, but I love not hating myself because of my skeleton’s shape even more. Maybe it’s time to find a fitness class that encourages an overall healthy well-being (and body), instead of promoting just an extreme, slim result.

So if you want to learn to chaine across the floor, I am all for it; find a beginner’s dance class, learn a new skill and be happy. But if you’re just in it for the defined calves? As one of my ballet teachers used to say, “Reconsider your choices.”