Teenage dancers endure pressure from all angles

Etta Harkness Bartholdi, Staff writer

 Dancing is not something that most people would think of as competitive, but as teen dancers get older and more engrossed in the dance community, the more competitive and stressful dance can be.

Dealing with pressures from parents, school work, and dance instructors are bad enough, but dealing with pressures from themselves can be the most stressful of all.

Some of the dedicated dancers start from ages as early as three or four. “I started when I was three and quit when I was 14,” said junior Macalester Orchard, “I did strictly ballet for about six years.”

This is a common story within the dance community. As dancers get older, their classes get longer and stricter, pressures rise and it costs more money. “I quit because it was too much, six days a week three hours a day,” said Orchard. She explains that towards the end of her dance career she felt overwhelmed with her busy life besides dance: “[I was thinking] ‘I can’t do this with my schedule, I want to do other sports, I can’t do this any more.’”

In addition to her packed schedule, “it got expensive, and it was too much money.”

Senior Rose Hartnett, an avid South ballet dancer, has used her demanding sport as a source of motivation in order to cope with her work load. “Ballet is all about trying to succeed,” said Hartnett, “so its hard for me to not try and succeed here; I’m usually up until two in the morning doing homework.”

Along with pressure from school, homework, and busy schedules, pressure from dance instructors is another reason teenager dancers end up quitting.

“Lisa was mean, and my other [instructor], Gloria Gloven, she was mean and she put so much pressure on you,” said Orchard. “Girls would cry leaving her class. It was hard because they were saying, ‘if you’re not giving me one hundred percent effort, leave. I don’t want you here, leave, get out, you’re wasting my time.’”

Instructors are not the only source of pressure that comes from adults in the dance world; parents also account for much of the pressure. In Orchard’s case, the pressure comes primarily from her mom.

“My mom’s dream is for me to be a dancer,” said Orchard. “She still really wishes that I continued with dance, so I think she put a lot of pressure on me to do well.”

In Harnett’s case, however, her parents contribute much less in terms of pressure: “If anything, [my parents] encourage me to take breaks and have time to do other things.” In fact, her mother is very different from Orchard’s. “My mom is more vocal when she’s annoyed about rehearsals getting in the way of family time,” said Hartnett.

A major pressure that motivates dancers to go to extremes is self-pressure, which can be the most important and the most dangerous of all. While self-pressure shows dedication and helps dancers to aspire to new heights, it can also be dangerous due to the variety of issues that can spring from wanting to constantly be better. For example, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia can be a prominent effect of teen dancers putting pressure on themselves.

“Even when I was fourteen I struggled with the whole weight thing,” said Orchard, emphasizing that the self-criticizing mindset that girls get starts quite young. She goes on to say that, as girls moved up levels and got older, “The girls who were top notch were thin.”

According to eating disorder statistics from the South Carolina Department of Mental Health website, one in 200 American women are affected by anorexia and two to three in 100 women are affected by bulimia. “Weight has a big impact on what you do and how people look at you,” said Orchard.

Eating disorders are brought on by a number of variables, but a common one is when someone feels under an enormous amount of pressure to be a certain way. This pressure could come from a number of different directions, including parents, friends, and instructors as well as the dancers themselves.

Ballet is, as Hartnett puts it, “trying to succeed,” and part of succeeding is earning respect and reward from their instructors for losing weight.

“Teachers will reward them for a while, but then when they see that they’re really sick, they have to stop,” explains Hartnett.

According to the article “Behind the Curtain: The Body, Control, and Ballet” by Paula T. Kelso, the problem with anorexia and dance is that as culture and social media changes to show the ‘ideal’ woman being a stick skinny or skeletal person, then peoples perception of how they should look changes; in the 1930’s and 40’s, ballerinas were considered thin, but looking back, they were still healthy.

“In the 1950s, Marilyn Monroe, who wore a size 16 at one point in her career, was considered the epitome of sexiness and beauty,” Kelso explains, “contrast this with more recent examples such as Courtney Cox and Jennifer Aniston from the television show Friends, who are considered beautiful. They wear a size 2. While models and celebrities have become thinner, the average woman is heavier today. This makes an even larger difference between the real and the ideal.”

This perception of beauty leads to much of the pressure that ballet dancers put upon themselves, and it is this pressure that can quickly escalate into an eating disorder.

“Of course there were eating disorders,” Orchard said, “the one girl that was bigger is always a little bit discriminated against. Weight is kind of a hard topic because I knew girls who weren’t the thinnest and were put on top, and I knew girls who were the thinnest and were put on top. I think if you’re going become a professional, they really want you to be thin.”

Orchard explains how it seems like all the self pressure comes from the founding idea that “if I was ten pounds lighter they would like me more.”

However, not everyone who does ballet struggles with negative self-image issues. “Everyone is conscious of what they eat and their weight,” Hartnett explained, “not everyone has an eating disorder, but they’re on more strict diets.”

Another downside of dance, besides the psychological damage, is physical damage. When advanced ballet dancers go ‘en pointe,’ a term that literally means ‘tiptoe’ in French, it can be very dangerous for the body. This is a classical ballet technique that involves walking and dancing on the tips of the toes can cause significant damage.

If you go en pointe before your ankles are strong enough or before the age of 12 it can cause serious damage. The article “Is Dancing en Pointe Bad for My Feet?” names some of the effects, such as bone spurs, bone degeneration, ankle sprains, and permanent foot problems. Dancers who practice and preform on injuries will seriously mess up their bodies later on.

Despite these possible negative physical effects, there’s no use in denying the physical benefits of ballet. The article “Six Incrdible Benefits of Ballet” by Kristie Leong affirms that some positive sides of ballet dancing are that it strengthens your body, promotes flexibility, encourages better posture, and promotes creative expression.

Dancing at a professional level is challenging because of the cutthroat competition and the accompanying stress, making it difficult for teenage dancers to stay on top. “I think it’s competitive because there aren’t a lot opportunities for dancers at all,” Orchard said, emphasizing that this was one of the reasons she quit. “The chances of you going to a professional company are very slim.”

Hartnett continues to dance because instead of fearing the competition with other dancers, she thrives off of the competition with herself. “I guess that it’s a different kind of competition,” Hartnett said, “because you’re competing with yourself and not as much competing with your peers for the parts. It’s more like when I’m being cast for Nutcracker I try to get a better part then I had last year; it’s more of a self drive.”