This week, the ballet and dance world has been rocked by a Vogue España shoot starring Kendall Jenner. In it, the model prances around a ballet studio in slow-mo, dressed in ballet-esque outfits and pointe shoes. What might seem like an innocent projection of childlike dress-up onto Kendall Jenner’s body ended up being controversial enough to give Brangelina’s split a run for its money.
Ballet is such high art and coming from someone who's spent years in the studio, it's almost offensive to see Kendall act "cute" in it.
— KILLA KUSH (@_acushla) September 20, 2016
Sure, it's interesting to think that a bunch of ballerinas are worked up over Jenner "appropriating" ballet when that's what she and her family do to black culture all the time. But still, this indignation is far from baseless. It points to a larger conversation about body politics and dance.
This isn’t the first time the world of ballet has taken offense to models pretending to do ballet. In 2014, Free People put out an ad campaign for a new ballet-inspired line, FP Movement Ballet, featuring a beautiful woman speaking about what ballet means to her and claiming she had danced since the age of three—while clumsily attempting basic ballet moves. Dancers immediately recognized that this woman wasn't one of their own, criticizing Free People for not doing their homework and for disrespecting the art form.
The people behind these two videos seem to have conflated a skinny woman with a dancer, thinness with physical ability, waifishness with grace. Which is insulting to both dancers and consumers. Our perception of the world of modern dance, particularly ballet, has always been rife with body image issues. The “Balanchine body," named after seminal choreographer George Balanchine and typified by long legs, a long neck, and a short torso, is considered to be the ideal body type for the dance form. Even the language we use to describe quality technique—weightless, light, supple, lithe—suggests that skinniness is integral to successful dancing.
While these experiences may certainly not be universal among dancers, high-profile incidents like Mariafrancesca Garritano publicly discussing widespread eating disorders at the La Scala ballet company in 2012 and the Russian Bolshoi Theater's firing of ballerina Anastasia Volochkova for being too heavy back in 2003 have given the public a glimpse into how unhealthy standards can be institutionalized. Further light was shed on this very real and concerning trend by Dance UK’s Nutrition and Disordered Eating in Dance Conference in 2012, the first-ever conference dedicated to combatting unhealthy body standards, recognizing eating disorders in dancers, and promoting a diversity in body types in the dance industry.
In the last few years, the ballet world has become more open to body positivity and diversity. In 2014, the St. Paul Ballet Theater came together with the Emily Program for the “Take Back the Tutu” campaign, which drew attention to body image, eating disorders, and beauty in ballet. Ballet-trained dancer Amanda Trusty went viral for her body-positive burlesque routine to Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Sierra Leonean-American ballerina Michaela DePrince addressed the overlap between ballet's lack of racial diversity and body diversity in an interview with The Guardian, saying, “When I was a child, I overheard one of my directors saying ‘we don’t put a lot of effort into the black girls, because they end up getting fat.' I want people [in ballet] to realize that not everybody is the same—you don’t know how our bodies are going to turn out.”
Which brings us back to Free People and Vogue España dressing up models in ballet attire. Both the fashion and dance worlds risk promoting harmful body image, so attempting to pass someone off as a ballerina on the sole merit of being skinny is not just reductive and insulting. It’s actively harmful. While Vogue’s video focused more on Jenner herself as opposed to ballet, Free People's ad was clearly a missed opportunity to feature an actual ballerina (and a ballerina of color at that) as the face of their new line. Skinniness does not a dancer make.