Not long ago, Akira Armstrong was invited to appear on a new reality dance competition. She was thrilled.
The founder and chief executive officer of Pretty Big Movement, a New York City-based company for plus-size dancers, Armstrong had been a vocal proponent of body diversity in dance. Now, a major media platform was recognizing that larger bodies had a place in this art form.
Then Armstrong visited the show’s costume department. “There was nothing in my size,” she said. “And they knew they hired a plus-size choreographer. They had my clothing size ahead of time. They picked me.”
Even those outside the dance world are familiar with the stereotype of the rail-thin dancer. Over the past several decades, many companies, organizations and casting teams have consistently sought out artists with extremely slender bodies, for aesthetic and artistic reasons.
The trend toward thinner and thinner dancers has raised both equity and health concerns. In addition to limiting opportunities for larger performers, size-related pressures can significantly affect dance practitioners’ well-being. Studies have shown that dancers are three times more likely than nondancers to develop eating disorders.
But when bodies are art, what qualifies as body discrimination?
That question can be thorny in a legal context, and dancers have repeatedly brought discrimination cases to court. Last month, two former Richmond Ballet dancers filed lawsuits claiming the company, based in Virginia, had required them to maintain a “dangerously unhealthy weight.” A recent high-profile lawsuit brought by a group of Lizzo’s former dancers suggests that even outwardly body-inclusive environments can harbor body shaming.
Akira Armstrong, the founder and chief executive of Pretty Big Movement.Credit…Jackie Molloy for The New York Times
On Nov. 26, a law banning discrimination based on weight or height took effect in New York City, a major dance capital. In theory, it will be a useful legal tool for all job seekers — and particularly powerful for artists. But in practice, it is likely to have symbolic rather than functional consequences for dancers.
Shaun Abreu, the New York City councilman who sponsored the bill, said that its aims are simple: “As this applies to dancers, the basic question is, can you dance? And if the answer is yes, no matter your size, you should have a fair shot at becoming a dancer.”
The roots of dance’s preoccupation with weight are deep and twisty. In ballet, they go back through the Romantic era, when women portrayed ethereal sylphs and fairies in gossamer tulle. As technique became increasingly refined, softness or roundness was seen as interfering with the creation of sleek, harmonious lines.
Many blame George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet, for ballet’s enduring cult of thinness. For him, Jennifer Homans writes in “Mr. B: George Balanchine’s 20th Century”: “Fat or too much flesh was an obstruction. It got in the way of seeing.”
In the commercial realms of Broadway and the entertainment industry, the issue dovetails with more mainstream fatphobia. Musicals and movies tend to feature impossibly lean and toned bodies, especially if those bodies are moving. The ideal of aesthetic uniformity, as in the famous kick line of the Radio City Rockettes, has also been used to justify height and weight requirements.
Greta Gleissner, a former professional dancer whose bulimia spiraled out of control when she was a Rockette in the late 1990s and early 2000s, now frequently works with dancers as a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. “As you walk in the door of most dance classes, you’re already less than human,” she said. “You are a body.”
The body is subject to constant evaluation by teachers, choreographers and directors. Though some attributes are beyond dancers’ control — the shape of feet, the length of limbs — weight is often seen as fixable, creating conditions for eating disorders to develop.
“When I was dancing, I constantly felt less-than,” Gleissner said. “But there was one thing I could change: I could be thinner.”
Just as conventional diet culture has been rebranded as wellness, dance has developed its own camouflaging vernacular. That language tends to emphasize self-care and athletic fitness — which can be insidious because professional dancers are elite athletes.
“I’ve heard it said every possible way,” said Kathryn Morgan, a former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. “‘You’re not in shape.’ ‘We’re worried about your health.’ ‘You don’t take pride in your body.’ ‘I need you to improve your lines.’ It’s all these little code words, but everybody knows: They’re talking about weight.”
The optimistic read on New York City’s law banning weight and height discrimination is that it will prompt noticeable change in dance, particularly its approach to hiring. In an emailed statement, Candace Thompson-Zachery, the director of programming and justice initiatives at the advocacy organization Dance/NYC, expressed hope that it would transform audition and casting processes.
“Dancers will have a tool in their pocket to challenge casting decisions,” Thompson-Zachery wrote, “and producers and directors will have to develop rubrics that ensure talent is the most prioritized factor for casting.”
Legally speaking, however, there may be hurdles. The law includes an exemption for when height or weight may interfere with the essential requirements of a job. But what are “essential requirements” in the highly subjective world of dance?
Arguments that dancers need to be smaller because of the art’s physical demands are persistent, though often untrue. “You hear things like, ‘Ballet dancers have to be thin the way basketball players have to be tall, because physics,’” Morgan said. That way of thinking, she added, ignores the many other variables at play. For example, a larger dancer who is strong and has a good center — the ability to support and balance one’s own body — can sometimes be easier to partner.
Discrimination cases are generally difficult to argue in court. “You need a smoking gun,” said Khiara M. Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a former professional dancer. The array of aesthetic judgments involved in dance casting and hiring scenarios can make them especially difficult to parse.
“The dancer alleging, ‘You’re not hiring me because I’m too big’ — it’s hard not to imagine an artistic director coming back with, ‘No, it’s because your technique wasn’t strong enough,’ or ‘No, it’s because I didn’t like the way you approached the character,’” Bridges said.
Michigan, Washington State, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco passed laws banning size discrimination in recent years, though no tidal wave of dance-world reform has followed. Still, Bridges believes that the growing legal momentum — New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar measures — is at least spurring meaningful conversations in the dance community.
“I think the discursive effect of the law is going to be impactful, if not the practical effect of getting different bodies onstage,” she said.
And true change does already seem to be underway, catalyzed by a new generation of dance leaders, size-positivity movements and a broader push for equity in the arts that grew out of the pandemic.
Even New York City’s largest dance institutions have made progress. New York City Ballet faced body-shaming allegations as recently as last year, but it has reconsidered its approach to weight questions under the artistic leadership of Jonathan Stafford and Wendy Whelan, whose tenure began in 2019. Protocols now promote sensitivity and confidentiality during conversations about body issues; a press representative for the company added that most of those conversations are now conducted by the wellness team, rather than artistic staff.
Ryan Donovan, an assistant professor of theater studies at Duke University and the author of “Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity,” has been encouraged by developments in Broadway theaters, too. “If you go to a Broadway show today, you are more likely to see a diverse array of bodies — bodies that match the diverse kinds of bodies in the audience,” he said. The Rockettes, which declined to comment, loosened height requirements for dancers slightly last year.
Educational spaces, where most dancers encounter oppressive body standards for the first time, are also evolving, with some dance schools now employing wellness staff. Armstrong’s company, Pretty Big Movement, leads training workshops regularly at the Ailey School and elsewhere, creating welcoming spaces for dancers of any size. Gleissner said that teachers who once might have turned a blind eye to students’ eating now reach out to her with concerns, extending an ethos of care beyond the classroom.
Morgan believes that an increased focus on mental health will be key to combating body ideals that she says will persist even if external pressures fade. “I was dancing my best and feeling my best, not at my lowest weight,” she said, “but when I was in the best place mentally — when I was happy.”
Some see dance’s inability to make room for diverse bodies as, ultimately, a creative failure. Armstrong remembers talking to a dance colleague, one of Beyoncé’s choreographers, when she was feeling discouraged after a string of unsuccessful auditions. “He said to me, ‘They just don’t have any vision,’” adding an obscenity for emphasis, she recalled. In an art form about bodies, she said, a variety of shapes should offer possibilities, not problems.
Others look forward to the day when a dancer’s size is no longer the story.
“The hope is that maybe at some point you will be able to go to a performance and see a dancer who is not teeny-tiny, and it will be unremarkable,” Bridges said. “Because in dance, the real question is artistry; the real question is skill. And one’s body has a wildly imperfect relationship to the building of those things.”