Fat Ballerina?

Thanks to Sabrina for her comment and everyone who e-mailed, Tweeted, Facebooked, and texted me about this today.

If you haven’t heard the story: in writing a review of a performance of the Nutcracker, New York Times critic Alastair Macauley wrote:  “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many,”

Full article here:  http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/40639920

Ringer, who has dealt with eating disorders in the past, said “As a dancer, I do put myself out there to be criticized, and my body is part of my art form,” She also said “I know there were 2,000 people probably out there. He got to put his opinion in the paper, but everybody else had a different opinion.”

I struggled with what to say about this.  She seems pretty adjusted about it and I support anything she does.  Thinking of it from my perspective as a dancer is what really gave me pause.  For reference here are our bodies side by side (lest you be confused, I’m the one in black :).  (My photo here is un-photoshopped, taken by the brilliant Richard Sabel.  I am coming down out of the move that she is performing so beautifully, obviously with different arm position).  I am working on getting her fantastic extension on the split leap, frustratingly I can do it on the floor but not in the air at the moment.)

I think the main reason that I struggled with my response it that I sometimes feel so far outside of what is “acceptable” that this kind of comment doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me.  If people thought that I was 10 or 20 pounds too heavy, I might be harder hit.  But once people start to think that you should be 100 pounds lighter, you just feel like you are completely outside the whole discussion.  I remember being in a cha cha lesson where the teacher showed us a trick with our hip position to make us look 5 pounds thinner.  When I laughed and told her that at my weight 5 pounds wasn’t worth the effort she looked confused for a moment but didn’t argue.

I don’t know why Jenifer Ringer dances but I dance because:

  • I have things to say that I think can best be expressed through the movement of my body through space
  • I love music and think that dancing gives it another layer of expression to affect an audience, and I want to be part of that
  • I love the way it feels to work my body in this way – the power, the flexibility, and the grace of it.
  • I love the discipline of seeking perfection of technique
  • I love the way that excellent technique allows the freedom to say what I want to say unhindered
  • I love entertaining people – making them feel something, making them think, telling a story, expressing something in the music
  • I love the way that dancing my own choreography allows me to create my own world and then live it it.  It’s like The Sims with toe-point.

I don’t believe that as dancers we put our bodies out there to be criticized.  I think that we put our bodies out there to express things, to tell a story, to entertain.  But because they are out there, people choose to criticize them,  I assume for the typical reasons that  I talked about in my blog about arm chair critics.

As for me, while I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to challenges people’s stereotypes, I would dance if I were naturally thin as well. I dance because I have something to say – something to express – not because I care to hear what people think about my body or its size.  It’s certainly other people’s prerogative to get so caught up with how my body looks that they miss the point of my performance, but that right there is a big flaming sack of not my problem.  Technique is technique and expression is expression and if people can’t see the technique and expression because they are so distracted by my size then I think maybe they have some issues to work out, but I just can’t bring myself to care.

To speak about the specific incident, I think I would have more respect for his critique had it been outright instead of trying to be cute with a joke about eating sugarplums.  If he had said something like “Ms. Ringer appeared to have difficulty with [speed, lift, lightness, etc.] perhaps caused by her weight”, it would seem less like he was selling her up the river because he wanted to make a funny.  When considering how much credence to give Mr. Macauley’s opinion, we may do well to remember that for whatever reason, this man sought out a job in which is he paid to criticize others full-time. I’d personally  rather create than tear apart, so I guess that’s why I dance and he criticizes.

Best of luck with all of that Alastair.  Here’s what I’m doing with my time:

20 thoughts on “Fat Ballerina?

  1. If people thought that I was 10 or 20 pounds too heavy, I might be harder hit. But once people start to think that you should be 100 pounds lighter, you just feel like you are completely outside the whole discussion.

    This perfectly sums up my feelings on just about every mainstream discussion of bodies and fashion.

    1. I feel that way too – I’m just so far outside the mainstream that most stuff just doesn’t apply. I think it’s probably a good thing – at least for me!

  2. What an a**hole. I could somewhat understand a younger journalist potentially feeling that way. They’ve ‘grown up’ with women in the arts being so much thinner than the average woman. But this old hack…and the previous journalistic relationship he had with this dancer…this is just cruel.
    i know when I see a ballet, i appreciate the muscle tone and definition for sure as a part of the enjoyment of the performance. The thinness I don’t care about.

    1. It almost seems to me that he thought up the joke ahead of time and would have said it no matter what. Either way it’s just sad.

  3. “I am working on getting her fantastic extension on the split leap, frustratingly I can do it on the floor but not in the air at the moment.”

    Until I read this I did not fully realize Ringer was doing this in midair! (The background shading was a mite confusing for me.) Forget the five pounds–I was simply amazed at the human body all over again.

    1. Hi Liisa,

      That is funny, and a really interesting point. I do kind of wonder how the composer would feel about critics complaining about the people who are working so hard to give physical form to his music 🙂

  4. I hope you don’t mind me asking this but do you ever feel like your weight negatively affects your dancing? I’m of a similar size/build to you and a martial artist (kung fu specifically). We have a few leaping/twisting moves and while I keep up pretty well I do feel like physics is kind of working against me. Just wondering if you’d ever experienced that.

    1. Hi Kate, I don’t mind you asking at all, it’s a great question! Thus far, I haven’t found any issue with my dancing that wasn’t solved through improving my technique, strength, stamina or flexibility. I’m currently working on a standing back tuck, I’ll definitely keep my blog readers posted on that progress 🙂

      In partner dancing there are a couple of issues that have come up:

      Lifts – there are tricks where physics can be leveraged and the trick can be done but some lifts just haven’t been possible for me and probably won’t be possible for me.

      The only other area has to do with size and not weight – in partner dancing there are moves where my partner wraps his arms around me. If I have a partner who also has a large body and/or short arms then some adjustment is necessary and depending upon the issue some moves may not be possible.

      To be clear I am extremely lucky in that I have one of those bodies that can build a lot of muscle and is also able to be very flexible. Like most dancers, my physiology is atypical, so I’m not sure how much my experience will apply to you. It is completely awesome that you do kung fu. If I had free time I would definitely get into martial arts so for now if you don’t mind I’ll be living vicariously through you 🙂

      1. Ha! Well if I had any rhythm I’d try dance so we can trade. 🙂 I actually live in Austin and would really like to see you perform some time!

  5. I remember trying to master flying splits. One of the tricks about it was that I had to be able to do a substantial oversplit on the ground before I could do a full split in the air. I’m tired just thinking about the number of jump splits I practiced. Jump straight in air, try to split, come down, use rebound to bounce back into another air split. Sets of… 20, I want to say. For gymnastics though.

    I see the poses you post, and wow! For the ones with a gymnastics equivalent, I know how much flexibility and strength they require. You have fantastic form in the pictures!

  6. OK, I have been reading your blog all day and just got super excited to see a ballet post, even if it is from 5 years ago. And OMG, you are fat, love dancing, cuss a lot, and mentioned The Sims in your post…I think we are kindred spirits! Except my blog is a hot mess with no discernible sense of direction, and I wish I could be as flexible and jump HALF as high as you are doing in that picture.

    I returned to ballet at age 35, 3 years ago, after quitting at 25 because I thought I was too fat at 125 lbs and wasn’t very good. Ha. I weigh 154 at this moment at 4’10”, and I’m usually the oldest, shortest, fattest person in the university group I’m currently dancing with (though not always–we do have body diversity going on!) However, I get a lot more positive than negative comments, which is not what people would expect to happen in the ballet world. I think even though certain negative voices may get to put their opinions in the paper, there is actually a growing culture of ballet people who are rejecting the cookie-cutter, anorexic, factory-standard ballerina ideal and embracing body diversity and athleticism at whatever size you happen to be in.

    Those who have always wanted to try ballet, but think it’s “not for fatties,” may be pleasantly surprised after getting over the psychological hump and walking into a studio (though here is my warning: starting, or returning to, ballet as an adult may cause a lot of pain and soreness for a long time while your muscles develop, no matter how accomplished you are in other athletic activities). At least here in Chicago, I have found the culture to be pretty accepting, dress codes for adult students are more relaxed so you don’t have to feel totally exposed in a leotard and pink tights, and people seem to intuitively understand the “underpants rule.”

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