I struggle with the symbolism of the ballet tutu every day. I’m a ballet teacher: it’s a skill I have that allows me to buy groceries for my kids. Most of my students are girls under the age of 10. Many sign up because they’ve seen movies of beautiful Barbie princesses dancing beautifully about and they want to be just like her. The reality of classical ballet training is very different from the movies: it’s very disciplined, technical, hard work and lots of sweat.
It does seem that ballet is the epitome of the stereotypical female. Like Lee Damsky says in “Beauty Secrets” (in Body Outlaws, 2003, Ed. Ophira Edut), the tutu is magical, it can create transformation, it promises perfect feminity (p. 133). I constantly struggle with how to teach ballet from a feminist perspective and I think I’m getting better at it if it can be done at all. Dancers are strong – not frail at all – and my students must learn to combine grace and power.
Ballet appears to be a predominantly female domain, but the few male dancers certainly get a lot of attention. Technically weak male students are cast in roles and receive scholarships because there is less competition. I like to challenge society’s conception of dance as something for boys who are ‘sissies’ and girls who are ‘girly-girls’ but I do believe that practicing the role of ballet dancer can create a transformation in a person. Not necessarily the one that Damsky refers to – becoming a princess and queen – but through the development of new skills emerges a confident young person who can express themself through a relationship between and connection with movement and music.