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NY Post
New York Post
8 Apr 2023

NextImg:The dark truth behind the glamorous facade of ballet school

Alice Robb dreamed of being a ballerina.

Every night, she squeezed her flat feet, trying to mold them into a perfect dancer’s arch.

She practiced until her body felt ready to collapse.

She stood on her toes as a group of stern ballet mistresses scrutinized her form. 

In 2001, a 9-year-old Robb got into the prestigious School of American Ballet (SAB), the feeder school for the New York City Ballet.

(She had auditioned three times.)

When she finally learned of her acceptance, a few days after 9/11, she leaped yelping through the sidewalks in the Upper East Side.

“The city was in mourning, but it was the best day of my life,” Robb recalls in her new book, “Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet” (Mariner Books, Feb. 28). 

Ballet is beautiful and glamorous — but offstage, dancers are subjected to a tough and often punishing regimen.
Paul Kolnik

The high didn’t last long.

Three years later, Robb was expelled from SAB. The “mistresses” deemed her “without a future.”

At 15, she quit dancing altogether.

Yet more than a decade later, she writes, the feminine ideals that ballet “takes to an extreme” — “the beauty, the thinness, the stoicism and silence, and submission” — continued to haunt her.

When NYCB director Peter Martins left the company in 2018 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, she cringed remembering how the instructors and students had tripped over themselves trying to impress him, and the pride she felt when she was chosen to demonstrate a step or combination for him.

Making it to the upper echelons of the ballet world — such as Maria Kowroski in “Swan Lake” — takes years of hard practice.

Making it to the upper echelons of the ballet world — such as Maria Kowroski in “Swan Lake” — takes years of hard practice.
Paul Kolnik

“As I wrestled with my feelings about ballet and femininity and my body, I wondered how my old friends were faring,” she writes.

“What had become of the ambitious girls in my SAB class? How had they coped with the disappointment of not making it?”

She would find out.

Meiying Thai, who had starred as Marie in Lincoln Center’s “The Nutcracker” at 8 years old, spiraled into a years-long depression when her teachers said her feet were too flat and her neck too short to become a prima ballerina.

Another, Emily, endured “fat talks” until, at 13, she lost 15 pounds in two weeks due to a hospitalization.

More than a decade after leaving ballet, author Alice Robb remained haunted by “the beauty, the thinness, the stoicism and silence, and submission.”

She “was so weak that she struggled to get through short variations in class, but her teachers said she looked good,” Robb writes. 

Even Lily — the lucky one who won an apprenticeship at the New York City Ballet — passed out on the subway due to her anorexia.

She spent the first season at the NYCB dancing eight shows a week with a broken foot, her toe shoes stained with blood.

When — sick and vomiting with a temperature of 104 degrees — she didn’t think she could finish a performance, one of the older dancers pulled her into a dressing room and offered her cocaine so she could power through.

Choreographer George Balanchine (here, with American dancer Suzanne Farrell) famously compared his ballerinas to “obedient animals.”
Getty Images

It still wasn’t enough: She was let go in her second year.

Since its inception in the 17th century, ballet has fetishized femininity, beauty, and a fanatical pursuit of perfection and grace.

But the obsession reached new heights in the mid-20th century, asserts Robb, after the great choreographer George Balanchine created SAB and the NYCB. 

Balanchine compared his ballerinas to “obedient animals,” even choosing what perfume his favorites would wear.

“Don’t think, dear,” was one of his favorite phrases.

Movies like “Black Swan” (starring Natalie Portman) highlighted the dark underbelly of elite ballet.
©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

He pushed his dancers’ bodies past the limit, and allegedly pursued many of the young dancers in his company, marrying four of them.

(He had known his last wife, SAB graduate Tanaquil Le Clercq since she was a child when the choreographer — according to one account — would mock his “prize pupil” for her “asparagus” legs in front of the other young dancers.)

Soon, the skinny dancer was the standard across the industry.

Robb tells the story of poor Heidrun Müller, of the Berlin State Opera, who, “after hearing that she could burn extra calories by shivering . . . arranged to be pulled across a lake by a boat while lying on an air-filled mattress in its wake.”

In the wake of #MeToo, many ballerinas have spoken out about sexual harassment.
Getty Images

Prime ballerinas routinely starved themselves.

Robb entered SAB almost 20 years after Balanchine’s death, yet his tyrannical presence loomed large, his dictums parroted by his disciples who still taught there.

“We couldn’t go to the water fountain or the bathroom without permission,” Robb writes.

Pain was a source of pride, to be “relished” instead of avoided, she says.

Ballerinas like Misty Copeland have challenged the old model of ballet with more transparent talk about injuries, body image, and racism in the industry.
Getty Images for The Music Center

“As students, we found ways to make it all more painful, just to show we could. We scraped our hair into buns so tight we worried about receding hairlines. We took pride in forgoing pads in our pointe shoes, in dancing on bruised toes. We learned to find our limits and then push past them; to ignore the thousands of nerves in our feet and legs and backs that screamed for us to stop.” 

In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, dancers accused NYCB director Martins of sexual harassment. He left a year later.

Don't Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet by Alice Robb

Others have since spoken out against the art form’s impossible standards.

They go on Instagram and TikTok and talk candidly about their injuries and racism in the industry, or let their hair down revealing their goofy selves and bopping to Beyoncé.

They refuse to dance through their pain. 

Currently, the world’s biggest ballet star is not a pale wraith, but Misty Copeland, a 40-year-old African-American dancer — and new mom — who refused to shed her muscles when the American Ballet Theatre gave her the “fat talk” nearly 20 years ago.

She’s still there.