dancer body

I was deeply disturbed by one theme that ran throughout the memoir Swan Dive, by Georgina Pazcoguin. I was so disturbed that I had to talk it over with a friend just to get my bearings; and I debated whether or not to feature the book on this blog at all.

Ultimately I decided to feature the book because (1) it’s just a fabulous read, a page-turner all the way through to the end; (2) it showcases the realities of being a dancer at the highest level, a place with which most of us are completely unfamiliar, and thus a place of interest; and (3) it presents a very human dilemma, one that’s not easily resolved and thus excellent for reflection and discussion.

Let’s talk about the dilemma of (3) today. As Pazcoguin rightly points out, the body is the dancer’s instrument. It is the substance being worked with to create art. Here’s how she describes this phenomenon:

“Ballet is an aesthetic art form. Ballet is about line. Ballet and the honing of the instrument, which in this case is one’s own body, requires an absolute specificity. In the training of a young dancer, every fiber of muscle is toned, working toward creating a beautiful ‘line.’ . . . Beautiful line makes watching ballet seamless.”

Add to the necessities of the art form the longstanding (and Eurocentric) ballet tradition, and you have a recipe for what amounts to cruelty and self-harm. Pazcoguin describes being repeatedly spoken to about her weight by her bosses—the people in charge of the New York City Ballet. It is made clear to Pazcoguin and her fellow dancers that they must look a certain way to keep their jobs.

Interestingly, Pazcoguin conceives of this in two ways. On the one hand, she is a true believer in her art form. On the other hand, she does not relish being admonished for being fat when she is not at all fat—at least not by ordinary standards, if not by traditional ballet standards.

As a ballerina—and she makes it clear that she is no exception, that it happens to almost all ballerinas—Pazcoguin endures many years of body shaming. It comes at her from all sides: from her bosses, yes, but also from her fellow dancers, and also from herself.

She wants to be thinner. She also knows that she is required to be thinner if she wants to advance in her career, or even have a career as a ballerina at all.

So she embarks on a series of experiments to try to make herself thinner. At various times, she tries extremely restrictive dieting, punishing exercise on top of her normal dance activities, purging nightly after dinner, and plastic surgery. I won’t give away which of these worked better than others, but I will share how she feels upon achieving her goal:

“But the first time I saw my sister . . .

“‘Your inner thighs don’t touch anymore, Gina. So, are you happy?’ she said it with a side dose of snark.

“The answer was yes. I don’t really want to say that. I’m mortified by the idea of little girls hearing this, but I was.”

I personally don’t know what to do with this. I’m happy for her for achieving her goal and furthering her art. But I’m sad that it took what it took to do so, and horrified by the example. But of course, she is an adult who is fully capable of making her own decisions, and we have to applaud her for weighing her options and making informed choices.

And it’s clear that Pazcoguin has the same mixed feelings. She wrote a book in which she admonishes her bosses for the Eurocentric body ideals to which they hold their dancers (Pazcoguin is half white and half Asian). But she also succumbs to meeting those ideals, through extreme measures, to advance her career and continue practicing her art.

What are your thoughts on this?