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Too fat for a ballerina?

Plenty of women would kill to look like Jenifer Ringer. The 37-year-old ballerina is slim, toned and healthy, with a million-watt smile, and something about her that just seems to sparkle.

But according to New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay, this beautiful woman ‘looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many’ in her performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy for the New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker late last month.

In any situation, such a comment seems cruel and unnecessary. When you add the fact that Ringer has suffered from anorexia in the past, disparaging her for not being skinny enough seems even more out of line, and Macaulay was hit back with avalanche of complaints from readers saying just that.

The interesting thing is that rather than apologising and backing down in response to the criticism, Macaulay has gone on to defend his comments. And he opens up quite an interesting debate.

His argument is that because the body is such an integral part of ballet, and we are invited to watch and admire the body in this context, it’s fair game to criticise a dancer for not perfectly fitting the mould we’ve come to expect. The body is part of the art, so commenting on it is no different to commenting on anything else, like the set or the costumes.

To an extent, this is a fair point. Dancing is an art form that plays on the beauty of the body, so commenting on a dancer’s form is admittedly very different to say (in the example Macaulay gives), criticising the body of a painter. It’s harsh, but it would almost be fair enough to comment if Ringer’s weight or shape in any way actually hindered her performance.

Part of Macaulay’s defense seems to be based on the presumption that because ballerinas have always been pressured to be stick-thin, this is just the way things are, and the way they always have to be. He admits that unfortunately this often goes hand in hand with eating disorders, but seems to accept that this is just part of the whole package of being a ballerina.

But who decided that being frail and skinny makes you a better dancer? Obviously, it’s important for dancers to be in good shape, to be light and nimble. But does having a slightly more athletic form like Ringer does make any difference to her ability to dance? Maybe it makes her look less waif-like, less delicate than ballerinas traditionally are. But is she any less graceful? Was her performance really of a lesser standard because of it?

Clearly, I’m far less qualified to judge Ringer’s dancing ability than a critic for the New York Times is. For all I know, maybe her dancing wasn’t up to scratch, and maybe it was because of her weight. I doubt it, but I honestly don’t know.

But as a judge of her appearance: to me, she looks strong, healthy and powerful. And completely beautiful. And having seen and heard so many stories about the strive for the perfect ballerina-body sucking the life and soul out of young dancers, I think it’s wonderful to have a woman like Ringer offering a more realistic image for girls to aspire to when they put on their leotards.

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