The big problem with ‘Big Ballet’

believes Channel 4’s dance programme undermined its own argument

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The Channel 4 series Big Ballet had its final curtain call last week. It was a nice idea, and did at times deliver an important message – everyone deserves the opportunity to dance and enjoy dancing. I commend Wayne Sleep and Monica Loughman for attempting to challenge the disconcerting body image that ballet can sometimes promote.

What worried me most about this program was that it failed to challenge the binary of fat versus thin. Dancers better than those chosen by Sleep were rejected simply because they weren’t “big enough”. It seemed Sleep was more concerned with making a program about fat ladies attempting ballet than proving that all sizes anywhere on the BMI spectrum can dance. The emphasis shouldn’t be on big any more than it should be on skinny. What should have been a real focus was the benefits dancing can have on your health, fitness and self-confidence.

Ballet has been heavily criticised in the past for allegedly fetishising skinny, but this doesn’t change the fact that certain body types lend themselves to certain sports, professions and arts.

A tall person tends to have the advantage in basketball. A graceful and, most importantly, strong person will have the upper hand when it comes to ballet – especially regarding lifts.

We live in a world where perfection is often strived for, and for aspiring dancers, perfection is the only way to professionalism.

Watching childhood friends train with professional ballet schools, they have always been conscious of (not obsessed with) the fact that honing their bodies into strong, slender and supple machines is the only way they can possibly achieve their dream.

Yes, it was disheartening to hear the sneers of the ballet world and the feigned compliments of some experts in the audience of Big Ballet’s performance of Swan Lake, but at the end of the day they have spent a life time in an industry where slender is the norm. The nature and intensity of a ballerina’s training means they will inevitably end up svelte and toned. It is important that slender doesn’t cross the boundary over to eating disorder- but that is something that should be monitored by the dance schools themselves when pupils are at their most vulnerable.

The show failed to change the inescapable fact that audiences aren’t going to miraculously start paying to see a bog-standard performance – especially when the novelty factor has worn off. The aim of the show was to prove that people of all sizes can dance, and yes, some of the cast members looked beautiful, but this certainly didn’t make it a professional standard show.

Everyone deserves the chance to dance, but at the same time the dance industry shouldn’t be criticised for employing those who are best suited to the job.

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