Re-Setting The Barre: Body Image [Part 1]

Breathe-taking aren’t they?

Throughout the performance itself, every dancer is synchronized with one another, which makes it a bit difficult to truly appreciate each dancers’ individual movements.

For example: Notice how in the image above, both the female lead and male lead fully extend their arms, legs, and neck. Take a closer look at their hands and notice how even their fingers are fully extended. Both dancers also point their toes.

These minor details are not something the audience can appreciate since most dancers stay in position for less than ten seconds at a time. Although the audience might only be fortunate to catch a glimpse of their masterpiece, ballet companies expect their dancers to have complete control of their body and be able to extend each muscle to their fullest.

The art of extending every muscle involves key elements such as flexibility, strength, and balance. All the dancers need to do is hold that position for the appropriate amount of time, while making the performance an amalgamation of fluid movements, AND smile through it all. Piece of cake.

Why go through all of that effort? Well you see, in the ballet world it’s all about body image. All of this is done to fulfill the stereotypical image of what a dancer is supposed to look like on stage: lean, tall, and light-skin toned (but I’ll touch on this a bit more later).

So who is to blame?…I mean, who is the role-model behind the “classical figure,” as the Dance Magazine refers to her in this article.

Marie Camargo

Marie Camargo (pictured in the oil painting above).

She was a well-known ballerina in the eighteenth century. She was particularly known for her quick feet and agility. She wasn’t satisfied with how quick she was and always looked for ways to improve her speed (unfortunately, I never met her in person — but the articles I came across made it seem this way). She accomplished this by re-inventing the classical attire ballerinas wore. For example, she shortened her tutus and began wearing “close-fitting drawers” which eventually became today’s modern ballet tights. As if that wasn’t scandalous enough, she also began performing (and perfectly executing) the entrechat and cabriole: two movements that were predominantly performed by men. Well known for her innovations and unique technique, Marie Camargo set the BAR[re].

She has since then become an idol to all ballerinas and some might even say she molded ballet companies into preferring shorter ballerinas — since she was particularly shorter than the male dancers. (Ironic isn’t it? Since the reason ballet companies ask their dancers to extend is for them to appear taller). Shorter ballerinas are preferred so that when they are on pointe shoes (which adds about two inches to your height), they are just the right height for a male. I guess ballet companies have some logic behind their height requirements (which you can read more about in the Dance Magazine article previously linked).

Since her time, other ballerinas have emerged and are changing the image Marie Camargo set as ideal — such as Misty Copeland. Tune in next week for more on the woman shattering the glass mirrors.