The beauty and pain of being a ‘Nutcracker’ ballerina
It was 2016 and I had asked for warm-up boots for Christmas. The puffy boots, which looked like trash bags, insulated the feet before rehearsals and were wildly popular at my ballet studio. After opening presents on Christmas morning, I spent the remainder of the day lying in a split with my new boots on, stretching my hip flexors and resting ice packs on my ankles.
I was 16 and soon to begin my performance as a Marzipan Shepherdess in “The Nutcracker.” Alongside my ballet company, I performed in 10 sold-out shows during the holiday season. Wrapped in a corseted top that dug into my ribs, I twirled across the stage with a long fluttering ribbon that cracked like a bright pink silk whip—a rare and coveted prop among the principal company dancers.
I remember waiting in the wings seconds before Act II’s “Dance of the Reed Flutes” sounded from the orchestra pit. The excitement ignited my nervous system. I prayed to God that I would hit all 12 piqué turns. I prayed that I would be cast as the Snow Queen next year.
I remember this moment because it would be my last performance of “The Nutcracker.”
I had been taking ballet classes since the age of 3. I made my Nutcracker debut as a part of the apprentice company of my small-town ballet theater in Pennsylvania at age 8. The scents of gingerbread and pine mixed with the chemical smell of Wet-Net hairspray marked the beginning of my holiday season for many years. Performing alongside dance-mates and friends in lush costumes on a big stage under the warm glow of spotlights, animated by Tchaikovsky’s moving score, was a quintessential dancer’s dream. Makeup and costumes. Pink and sparkles. Pretty and delicate pas de deux.
Ballet, with its fluffy tutus and pink ribbons, is an inherently feminine entity.
As I invested more into my burgeoning ballet career, spending my summers in ballet intensives in New York City and Philadelphia and venturing into my dream of becoming a professional ballerina, I felt the innocence of ballet begin to fade. The baby pink leotards, sometimes adorned with twinkling rhinestones, became plain, skintight black ones. They showed every curve and edge of a maturing body. I watched as the toxicity of ballet culture tore at the bodies and personalities of friends I held dear, rendering the beauty of their bodies entirely, physically skeletal.
We were constantly cold and consistently skinny. We endured hours of draining rehearsals wearing scarves, wrap sweaters and leg warmers. As a young dancer just beginning my time in the studio, I remember watching a senior member of my hometown company rush off the center floor after her solo. She was dripping in sweat yet ghastly white, except for the rosy pink blush high upon her cheekbones. Her rehearsal tutu looked like a cocktail umbrella wrapped around her toothpick body.
I would return home after hours of rehearsals covered in rosin and sweat. I had racked up every nasty foot infection and wore them like badges of honor. My growing feet were boxed into the wooden cage of a pointe shoe, over time knocking my joints out of alignment. To this day, my ankle joints crack like popping bubble wrap whenever I walk upstairs.
I watched as the toxicity of ballet culture tore at the bodies and personalities of friends I held dear, rendering the beauty of their bodies entirely, physically skeletal.
Ballet, with its fluffy tutus and pink ribbons, is an inherently feminine entity. Yet there was something so conventionally masculine about the blood and sweat of ballet training, particularly in the weeks preparing for “The Nutcracker,” that empowered me as a young ballerina. I loved the grossness behind something so beautiful. I loved the physical profanity of flopping out of a fouetté turn in rehearsals and then perfecting it to land gracefully in performance. I loved transforming my body and soul for an art that was so personal, so physical and so alive in a way that other art forms never could make me feel. And the glory of God, as St. Irenaeus said, is the human being fully alive.
But the quest for perfectionism, for a performance of being fully alive, killed parts of who I was. Damaging my body, especially for aesthetics, could not possibly invigorate me with the aliveness I wanted.
The merging of the body and the spirit has its price, especially for ballerinas. In particular, there is a perpetual need to maintain a slim silhouette, which has become synonymous with the ballet aesthetic for dancers who spend their hours finely tuning their muscles and ligaments and comparing their bodies in front of a mirror.
The merging of the body and the spirit has its price, especially for ballerinas.
I performed in “The Nutcracker” for the last time that Christmas season in 2016 because ballet had stopped being a fun and carefree extracurricular activity. It had become my life. I grew tired of my body constantly hurting. As I aged I grew less flexible, less interested and, frankly, less capable than my fellow, younger dancers who moved with a fluidity that I could no longer cultivate. The price of a perfect performance was pain. Eventually, the sacrifice became too great to bear. I donated my warm-up boots, traded my tights and leotard for a high school cheerleading uniform, and moved on to a less demanding and time-consuming after-school activity.
In 2020, Elyse Durham wrote about her ballet experience for America and spoke of the ballerina as “making not one but a thousand beautiful choices, sacrificing comfort for the sake of something greater, disciplining oneself for the benefit of others.”
As I reflect on my time as a ballerina, I realize that the sacrifice behind ballet is socially coded as a woman’s role; that is, to make sacrifices so that others may experience something beautiful. She contorts her body to be a showcase of the feminine. The ballerina subjugates herself to “ballerina,” and all that conjures up: Makeup and costumes. Pink and sparkles. Pretty and delicate pas de deux.
I realize that the sacrifice behind ballet is socially coded as a woman’s role; that is, to make sacrifices so that others may experience something beautiful.
Even though women often score bigger roles than male dancers in ballets, it is not enough to say that the physical sacrifice is “worth it” for ballerinas. The payoff does not necessarily compensate for the pain. Female dancers are at higher risk for eating disorders and body dysmorphia. They often fall into substance abuse and sustain long-term injuries that can hamper or end their ballet careers. Their sacrifices come at a great cost, and the fact that they have put themselves through so much to create these beautiful performances for audiences often goes unnoticed.
The great choreographer George Balanchine famously (or notoriously) said, “Ballet is woman.” Choreographers and artistic directors are the ones who dictate how that woman appears on stage: where and how women move and what types of roles they will play. Yet these positions within ballet companies have historically been controlled by men. Ballet is woman, unless you are in charge of the woman doing ballet—in that case, you are a man.
(None of this is even to mention the discourse surrounding gender-based casting in ballet, but that is a separate article.)
The ideal of what a ballerina should look like should expand from a perfectly thin silhouette to include all body types. Achieving this will include more people in the world of ballet and will be less dangerous to the health and well-being of the ballerina.
It is the responsibility of the dancers, dance companies and audience members to appreciate the sacrifice of the ballerina.
It is the responsibility of the dancers, dance companies and audience members to appreciate the sacrifice of the ballerina. To appreciate all of the hours of rehearsal and injury and trying not to drive herself insane by constantly checking how she looks in the mirror so that she may be “fully alive” on stage.
Recently, I watched the New York City Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” during its opening weekend at Lincoln Center. The music and costuming entranced me, along with the fluid movements of classically trained ballerinas, many of whom are at the pinnacles of their careers. But I tried to remind myself that behind the performer is a human person. Her toes are probably covered in Band-Aids and tape, blistered and bloodied from countless hours of rehearsals. There is so much more that goes into the performance than what I see on stage—a physical and emotional transformation that raises questions about what a “ballerina” should look like in our world today.
I love ballet, but you can love something and still want it to change. Reminding myself of the ballerina’s humanity isn’t a cure-all, but remembering her sacrifice makes even clearer the glory of God fully alive in her.