Pirouetting Perspectives: Looking At The Popular Portrayal of Dancers

© Copyright 2017 Deanna Bucco, Ryerson University.

Chassé-ing Away From Popular Beliefs

It is no doubt that the popular perception of dancers, especially female dancers, is that of body image and self-esteem issues. Even much of the research centered around dancers showcases the negative aspects of dance and its effect on body image. Although there is also a substantial amount of research that focuses on the positive side effects of dancing on the body and mind, such as Wendy Oliver’s article “Body Image in the Dance Class”, which found that dance produced a positive sense of self-esteem through sensing movement from within the body and creating a feeling of connectedness with others (23), this information is less favoured and typically overshadowed by the research that confirms negative stereotypes. This is perhaps due to the fact that the popular portrayal of dancers in pop culture and the media is that of girls with severe eating disorders and mental health issues. Through my short documentary Pirouetting Perspectives, the popular portrayal of dancers in both movies and the news is juxtaposed with testimonies from professional and amateur dancers to critically analyze the question of: what impact do the negative stereotypes have on dancers and how has dance affected their personal perception of body image? By showcasing two different perspectives in contrast with each other, it is seen that there are different factors that affect perceptions of body image, and although some individuals may experience poor self-esteem or insecurities due to their art, many dancers have used dance as a way of feeling comfortable in their bodies, coming to terms with their insecurities, and being happy with who they are.

The Creative Process

When I had originally set out to do my research, I was planning on producing a paper on my findings; however, I came across an article that sparked my idea of producing a short documentary instead. The article I am referring to is from the Toronto Star, written by Jesse Winter entitled “TTC Ballet Campaign Gets Unflattering Review.”

Photograph of a ballet dancer doing a jété jump in front of a stopped subway train.
Kuras, Karolina. We Move You. 2016. The National Ballet of Canada. Online Gallery. Web.

The article discusses commuters’ disapproval of the National Ballet advertisements on the subway because of their promotion of “unhealthy body image stereotypes” (Winter). As a dancer, this made me think of all of the stereotypes my competitive team and I have had to deal with throughout our careers, and how predominantly untrue or inaccurate they have proved to be. I began gathering footage from Black Swan (2010)–one of the most famous depictions of professional dancers, and the most prominent within popular culture–to showcase the popular perception of dancers in film. I displayed the footage alongside snapshots of Winter’s Toronto Star article to show how these perceptions were consistent throughout the media as well. Having seen many dance documentaries before, I was inspired by the documentary style of First Position (2011), a ballet documentary that presented information through a mix of dance sequences, interviews, and voiceovers. Considering this style, I then interviewed both professional and amateur dancers to juxtapose the popular negative opinions with the opinions of actual dancers to show the difference in perspective of how dancers see themselves within the framework of the negative stereotypes and how dancers work with their insecurities to feel better about themselves mentally and physically.

Presenting The Choreography

Dance is an art form that can only be understood visually. It is not enough to read about the choreography being executed. In order to fully comprehend the intention of the piece, one must watch the dancer perform it. For this reason, a film was the best way to showcase my research. Body language is just as important in conveying information as what is verbally being said, so by displaying my interview subjects dancing in combination with their responses, viewers are able to see the physical embodiment of the dancers’ perceptions and they are able to read the dancers’ body language as an extension of the dancers’ perspectives.

Turning my film into a documentary was also an important aspect because I found throughout my research that dancers were typically presented as test subjects who participated in a number of surveys in order for researchers to gather information regarding dancers and body image. There was a lack of research that included actual testimonies from dancers and how they personally felt about body image in relation to dance. For example, Pollatou et al. completed an “intensive study” of 200 dancers who participated in daily full-time dance courses, but based all of their findings on a 69 item questionnaire (133). I do not believe that the questionnaire method is the best way to gather information on a topic so personal as body image. It forces dancers to fit themselves into categories that may not necessarily apply to how they feel and does not allow them to describe their feelings properly. My documentary aims to give a voice to dancers and an opportunity for dancers to share personal perspectives that are not often included in research.

Placing Pirouetting Perspectives In Context

One of the most important points to note that grounds the aspect of body image and dance is the fact that the issue of negative body image is not limited to dancers. We live in a media heavy society that places enormous pressures on both women and men to look and act in ways that are deemed socially acceptable (Oliver, 20). Some are able to rise above these pressures; however, whether a dancer or not, many people succumb to them. Also, as Oliver points out in “Body Image in the Dance Class”, issues of body image are never as simple as whether something such as dance promotes either negative or positive body image (22). Studies vary in their approaches and there are many outside factors that lead research to point in both directions (Oliver 22). This is where Pirouetting Perspectives comes in as a way of presenting viewers with both aspects of the research in order to understand body image in dance as a multifaceted issue that is more complex than dance promoting negative body image or not. The level of dance, style, and dancer’s age are also factors that affect dance in relation to body image. More advanced dancers are seen to be more invested in issues of body image to maintain a lean bodily physique that is optimum for physical performance than beginners (Swami and Harris 40). My documentary covers dancers from a range of ages and levels to showcase these differences. Overall, the research seemed to conclude that level of dance training affected the preoccupation of body image ideals, and length of time engaged in dance training varied its effects on self esteem (Pollatou et al. 135). This ultimately shows that not all dancers experience the same effects of body image and self-esteem issues through dancing.

In terms of dancers’ feelings toward their popular portrayal throughout film and media, it is also apparent that they feel like they are not being accurately represented, which affects the way others view dancers and the ways dancers view themselves. Professional Ballet BC dancer, Rachael Prince stated, “I’m sure every dancer struggles with little things here and there but for one girl to struggle with every single problem out there, it just makes us look crazy” (Ahearn). This shows that dancers recognize that there are individuals who struggle with body issues, but it is not a generalization of all dancers, nor are the issues always so extreme. The way dancers view themselves portrayed on screen was also made apparent through BC Ballet dancer, Peter Smida who stated, “I think it’s always going to be hard for me to watch a movie that’s centralized around [dance] because obviously I’m going to be watching it from a different perspective” (Ahearn). My documentary takes note of these different ways of seeing and presents it to viewers as an extension of body image related research.

The Final Bow

Pirouetting Perspectives does not aim to prove that all of the negative stereotypes are wrong and there are no dancers with eating disorders or mental health disorders that have occurred as a result of their art. It would be highly inaccurate to generalize in this way, especially since all stereotypes are born out of some form of truth. Instead, my work aims to showcase dance from a different perspective that highlights the positive effects of dance and gives voice to the dancers that are at the core of all of the research. There will always be individuals with insecurities that are born out of intensely visual arts such as dance where you are constantly being looked at; however, as seen in my documentary Pirouetting Perspectives, many dancers are able to embrace their insecurities through dance and feel more confident about their body image through their art.

Pirouetting Perspectives



Works Cited

Ahearn, Victoria. “Ballet Dancers Bothered by ‘Black Swan’ Stereotypes.” CTV News, www.ctvnews.ca/ballet-dancers-bothered-by-black-swan-stereotypes-1.589665.

Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, produced by Mike Medavoy, Scott Franklin, Brian Oliver, and Arnold Messer, screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin, Fox Searchlight, 2010.

First Position. Directed by Bess Kargman, produced by Bess Kargman, Sundance Selects, 2011.

Kuras, Karolina. We Move You: Online Gallery. 2016. The National Ballet of Canada, national.ballet.ca/Explore/We-Move-You.

Oliver, Wendy. “Body Image in the Dance Class.” Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, vol. 79, no. 5, May-June 2008, pp. 18-25. ProQuest, search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/215753337/abstract/65B3E807A74E47C6PQ/1?accountid=13631.

Pollatou, Elisana, et al. “Body Image in Female Professional and Amateur Dancers.” Research in Dance Education, vol. 11, no. 2, June 2010, pp. 131-37. Scholars Portal Journals, journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/details/14647893/v11i0002/131_biifpaad.xml?q=dance+and+body+image&search_in=anywhere&date_from=&date_to=&sort=relevance&op=AND&q=Research+in+Dance+Education&search_in=JOURNAL&sub=.

Swami, Viren, and Amy Harris. “Dancing Toward Positive Body Image? Examining Body-Related Constructs with Ballet and Contemporary Dancers at Different Levels.” American Journal of Dance Therapy, vol. 34, no. 1, June 2012, pp. 39-52. Scholars Portal Journals, doi:10.1007/s10465-012-9129-7.

Winter, Jesse. “TTC Ballet Campaign Gets Unflattering Review.” Toronto Star [Toronto], 27 Oct. 2016, GTA sec., www.thestar.com/news/gta/2016/10/27/ttc-ballet-campaign-gets-unflattering-review.html.


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