The show Dance Moms portrayed some of the craziest, over the top, and outrageous personalities in competitive commercial dance, but that show has nothing on the real-life world of ballet schools.
Recently, my heart has been heavy as Kate Spade, a long time fashion icon committed suicide, leaving a lot of my colleagues at a loss for words. Over the past decade, three major fashion icons have taken their own lives. Then just days later, food legend and TV host Anthony Bourdain took his own life. Brilliant humans, experts in their fields, and role models for millions, all happened to be pushed to a point where they felt that it wasn’t worth it anymore.
I started doing some googling about the rates of suicides in ballet dancers, and even though there was not a lot of hard hitting solid statistical data, the number of articles was very upsetting. The most noted dancer who committed suicide was a 29-year-old lead dancer with the New York City Ballet, Joseph Duell in 1986 after performing in Symphony in C, and rehearsing Who Cares? But, he wasn’t the only one, Juan Carlos Amy-Cordero a principal with Eugene Ballet took his life in 2013, Tallulah Wilson was 15 when she took her life in 2014, in 2012 it was Rosie Whitaker, and the articles went on and on.
When it comes to suicide and the arts… Suicide among gifted individuals is at a higher rate. This might be because those who are gifted have an increased rate of depression, mania and mental illness. We do know, that history has repeated itself over in over again with some of the most gifted individuals contributing to the arts over time. But as I was pouring over the research and articles about these dancers, I started noticing that everyone was talking about the same thing from different points of view.
In articles that I read about why dancers make better employees, or they are going to be more successful in competitive industries… these same characteristics that are praised in these viral posts are the same characteristics that described those who committed suicide: dedication, perfectionism, creativity, representation, thinking outside of the box, OCD. At the same time in 2008, ABC reported ten jobs that create so much pain, that the addiction to painkillers was becoming more prevalent, ballet was number 10.
So, how does this all come together? I was scrolling through social media, well more like trolling, and looking at today’s bright young stars as they are competing at the World Ballet Competition and the prestigious USA IBC’s Jackson Competition. I was watching videos of these elite young dancers prepare for this monumental occasion, and liking all of their photos. But then, I started scrolling through the comments. I started looking through everyone’s insta, as if I was obsessed. I was obsessed, I spent a good five hours. More importantly, I was shocked. I was looking at people’s followers, who bought followers as it is obvious to see blank accounts following from foreign countries like Turkey and Albania… I was looking at how parents were letting anyone follow their kid, despite their followers only posting pictures of women in bikinis and underwear… I was looking at the comments and hashtags used… And I was watching the cyberbullying happen in LIVE time. Don’t get me wrong, I have always known that ballerinas in pretty tutus and pretty lip gloss are some of the most vicious kids on the face of the planet. They do it in the backstabbing, underhanded, sneaky, with a smile on their face kind of a way. I have known that ballet moms are ten times worse, because they do things to sabotage other kids. Like what parent picks a fight or tries to mess with a 13-16 year olds’ life/career? A monster.
I was noticing how a lot of these accounts said “parent owned” or “parent monitored”… I was noticing that a lot these accounts were full of fake inspirational quotes and light-hearted things. While their “friendsta” accounts were full of self-degrading “ballet fails” and random tags about how horrible they are, and how much training they need to do. I started to notice that the big trend was this miserable feeling if they can’t turn or jump, or that their bodies were far from perfect. I noticed that these young “superstar” dancers didn’t even run their primary accounts and that these moms were photoshopping their kids. I noticed that they were paying photographers who cost in the hundreds and thousands to take photos of their kids and have them retouched… Their faces to be more symmetrical, their bodies to be leaned out… some people had no shame in the matter and were photoshopping their kids so horrifically that the background happened to be warped. Trust me… I know… as a former professional editor/retoucher for fashion magazines, you can tell when something is retouched.
I was noticing that the pressure of having Instagram followers for young aspiring dancers was killing the spirit of ballet. That kids were trying so hard to desperately gain ambassadorships and sponsorship from major brands like Russian Pointe, Grishko and Gaynor Minden. I was seeing how hard these kids were working to get something as dumb as a box of merchandise and the ability to put “RP Ambassador” on their profile.
I started to notice people were lying about their YAGP wins… Like putting YAGP 2012 winner, but not putting their semi-final, and letting people assume they were winning at the finals. I noticed that people were making up things like YAGP, #7… This, I am guessing is from the TOP 12, which is called alphabetically by either first or last name depending on who organized it. I noticed that people were posting their YAGP semi-final scores to prove they scored above a 95%, and the responses that were being displayed was kind of intense. All of these things were happening, are happening on social media… It is hard enough that I find parents telling their kids it is okay to lie, cheat and break the rules. If your studio says, don’t train anywhere else, but you are training with a private coach behind your school’s back… what example are you setting for your kid? If you are at a studio that says that you can only compete if you are ready, and you are throwing a fit and at the last minute hopping over to a different school and coach… what example does that set? What does it tell your kid about commitment, about trust, about working hard?
All of these things… watching young girls tear other girls down based on body type or ability… Watching their comments, or even overhearing them in these dance schools makes me wonder if ballet is really worth saving. And it isn’t just students… I have seen it over and over again with professional dancers commenting on others performances, teachers, coaches and more. Even myself… Trust me… There are a lot of times where I have to put the lion back in the cage… especially when writing this blog, there are about thirty posts I would like to post but can’t because of how awful they are, or how it could affect someone out there…
So, beware the monsters of ballet. Make sure you aren’t becoming one, make sure you aren’t creating one, make sure you aren’t contributing to this problem in the arts. And remember, if you are ever feeling unsafe, feeling uneasy, or just need someone to talk to about the pressures of ballet, about what is happening around you or anything- contact an adult or a professional as soon as possible. Remember, your feelings are valid, your stress is valid, and life is essential. Ballet is secondary. Ballet is far from necessary in the grander scale of humanity, so ask yourself, is whatever you are feeling or thinking worth it for ballet?
Ask yourself… what are we doing, what examples are we setting, and how is this going to affect your kid, other kids, families, and the future? Because if you ask me, ballet is not worth becoming a terrible human for, nor is it worth watching me kid become defeated or destroyed at the hands of other parents, students, and teachers. I would also say that ballet social media, the YAGP, and ballet competitions are not worth the time, energy, money, stress or anxiety it is creating on social media.