Ballet Body Narratives

Pain, Pleasure and Perfection in Embodied Identity

by Angela Pickard (Author)
©2015 Monographs VI, 190 Pages


Ballet Body Narratives is an ethnographic exploration of the social world of classical ballet and the embodiment of young ballet dancers as they engage in «becoming a dancer» in ballet school in England. In contrast to the largely disembodied sociological literature of the body, this book places the corporeal body as central to the examination and reveals significant relationships between body, society and identity. Drawing on academic scholarship as well as rich ballet body narratives from young dancers, this book investigates how young ballet dancers’ bodies are lived, experienced and constructed through their desire to become performing ballet dancers as well as the seductive appeal of the ballet aesthetic. Pierre Bourdieu’s critique of the perpetuating social order and his theoretical framework of field, habitus and capital are applied as a way of understanding the social world of ballet but also of relating the ballet habitus and belief in the body to broader social structures. This book examines the distinctiveness of ballet culture and aspects of young ballet dancers’ embodied identity through a central focus on the ballet body.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Chapter 1: Ballet, Bodies and Becoming
  • Chapter 2: Ballet, Body and Bourdieu
  • Chapter 3: Thinking through the Body
  • Chapter 4: Body, Capital and Habitus
  • Chapter 5: Ballet Bodies in Pain
  • Chapter 6: Gendered Experiences of Pain
  • Chapter 7: Ballet Bodily Pleasures
  • Chapter 8: Pleasure, Power and Perfection
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Ballet, Bodies and Becoming

I Am a Dancer

I have become a dancer through a process of construction that began in early childhood. I was taken to ballet classes at a young age by my mother who claimed it was because I was always moving or ‘jiggling around’, as she put it. I remember that I started to really enjoy it at about 9 years old. At this time I was participating in a number of other activities – gymnastics, theatre group and swimming – but I preferred ballet. I do not remember wanting to be a professional dancer but ballet (and other genres of dance) did eventually encompass every aspect of my leisure time as I decided to reject the other activities and engaged in an increased number of classes, preparation for examinations, rehearsals, performances and an ongoing practice of steps and combinations. I do not remember being persuaded or coerced overtly to do this; I believe that it was my choice. The codified vocabulary of ballet steps were taught in French and English, with classical music played to accompany the class. I learned particular ways of being through ballet. I learned about the ideal ballet aesthetic of perfection and the discipline that is involved in attempting to achieve this. I experienced teaching methods that treated my body as a ‘petite fighting machine’; I pulled up, extended and stretched my body to achieve the necessary and purposeful tension and softness to carry the illusion of weightlessness and to express vulnerability. I learned about the ideal ballet body; I was deemed to be ‘naturally petite and slim’ by my ballet teacher at age 11. This physique fitted with the pre-requisites for ballet training. Such a physique was unobtainable for some of my peers so some were engaged in a daily struggle to reconcile the ideal ballet body shape with their own body shape and size ← 1 | 2 → through a regime of restricted food intake from about age 12 onwards. I never dieted or even contemplated it. As I became a teenager and moved onto pointe work I witnessed that many of my peers were engaging in patterns of disordered eating behaviour so that they felt lighter en pointe. I remembered questioning this on many occasions. Now I realise that I could not have possibly known how they felt or how they viewed their bodies because my body fitted with the expected dimensions and proportions of the idealised ballet body in shape and size.

In ballet class there was a uniform of a tight fitting leotard that accentuated my body shape in a particular colour that signified the structured system of teaching and learning and the level of ballet that I had achieved: pink, then light blue, dark blue, cerise and black. The leotard was worn with pink ballet tights that accentuated the shape of the legs. My long hair was pulled away from my face and worn in a bun hairstyle that took a long time to do and involved using numerous hairgrips and hairspray as I had fine hair. The shoes that I wore were soft ballet shoes that I had in pink leather, red leather and black leather (I loved my red leather shoes because I loved the film The Red Shoes and my black ones because they were the most comfortable) and, of course, my pink satin pointe shoes. I loved the smell of my ballet shoes and the ritual of getting them out of my bag, unravelling the ribbons, putting them on, dancing and then putting them back into my bag. I remember receiving my first pair of pointe shoes as a Christmas present from my parents. I spent a long time just looking at them, touching them, smelling them and trying them on, dancing a bit and then taking them off again. Pointe shoes signified an achievement: that I was a ballet dancer.

I felt that I fully committed to ballet after being told by an examiner at age 13 that I was ‘naturally talented, with good feet and lovely, expressive arms’. This afforded me much attention from my teacher, which again many of my peers could not obtain. I was highly successful in assessments and auditions. I considered myself good at ballet – I could do it; I was alert and enthused by ballet, I picked up movement patterns and new vocabulary easily into my movement memory. I could execute the movements easily and express them fully. I looked forward to my ← 2 | 3 → classes. I was doing a lot of ballet at this time so I had to be organised in order to make sure that I could fit in my homework and occasionally see non-ballet friends, go to parties and so on. I was often invited to do social things with non-ballet friends, which I had to decline due to ballet commitments. I was not as interested in pop music, the cinema or parties or shopping as they were. In my mind I had more in common with and plenty of social interaction with my ballet friends at ballet class and at the theatres during performances. I enjoyed this social aspect before and after the class or performance, which involved getting changed together, giggling over costumes and make-up, chatting and sharing snacks and drinks. My ballet friends and I were also very tactile with each other, for example, often hugging and kissing each other when we met or when we said goodbye. There were no boys in my ballet classes as they were taught separately, although I did interact with boys during rehearsals and performances and when I did pas de deux work.

I used to ritualistically bash my pointe shoes to soften them so that they might be more comfortable and would often put resin on the soles to stop them slipping on the floor. I do not remember anyone preparing me or warning me about the discomfort and pain that I would feel once I started pointe work but they also did not tell me about the pleasure either. I could not possibly have known the consequences of regular, intensive training on a body so young and that aches and pains would be with me into adulthood. Occasionally I hated the way ballet class went because I felt clumsy and uncoordinated if I was having a ‘bad’ day. On these days I did not want anyone to watch me at all. Other times I loved the ballet class and felt as though I could do anything. Once I was using pointe shoes regularly they signified both the pleasure and pain; the pleasure of the achievement of being able to dance on my toes, the amazement that my family and non-ballet friends expressed when I showed them, and the euphoric feeling when I jumped and turned and moved through large spaces was incredible; then there was the pain of blisters, rubs and strain. The hard, physical and painful process of learning ballet and especially en pointe was actually, often, not at all beautiful or perfect. Nevertheless, I was sure that the love/hate relationship that I had with ballet meant that I ← 3 | 4 → enjoyed the challenge and that I wanted to do it: after all, I was good at it. I loved the way it made my body feel, what I could do with my body and how my body looked. I did not complain or question why it was painful and uncomfortable, why I was regularly looking forward to doing something that was painful and uncomfortable; I just accepted that this was an important part of the activity and being me. Eventually my feet and body seemed to harden and I did not feel any pain. My body was pulled up, I was flexible, muscular with amazing posture and verticality with a flat stomach, my spine could arch, my legs could unfold with long lines, my pointed feet showed a banana-like curve, my arms and hands were expressive and my jumps were high and elegant. When I watched ballerinas on stage or screen I imagined that they were me. I lost myself in the fantasy of ballet. I was driven to dance; when I performed the feeling was addictive and seductive, as was the audience applause. I felt that I was demonstrating what my body had achieved and it felt powerful.

Ballet became engrained in my body. My body is ballet, it is in my posture and alignment and in my mannerisms, in the way that I carry myself, sit, stand, speak and eat; I am precise. The world of ballet that I inhabited was predominantly white, middle class and feminised. Geometric ‘perfection’ was evident at my core. Ballet shaped my body and my mind as it shaped my perceptions, motivations and actions. I saw myself as different to non-ballet female friends because I was not interested in the things that they were; I would not have dreamt of putting a poster of a pop group on my wall as a symbol of who I ‘fancied’; I was not interested in ‘getting a boyfriend’; I did not wish to imagine or talk about a future ‘when we’re married with children’. I developed focus, determination, self-discipline, resilience and a high pain threshold. Ballet was all encompassing and I could not imagine myself in a domestic capacity, cleaning, cooking or looking after others; ballerinas do not do these things.

I had an intense relationship with ballet and performed as a dancer for over twenty years. During this time I suffered emotional and physical pain and injury as well as elation and joy. However, I also had opportunities to train in and perform a range of other dance styles, such as in the field of contemporary dance, which widened my understanding of what my body ← 4 | 5 → could do, how my body could look and how my body could be treated. I suggest that my description and reflections on my embodiment as a dancer are not unusual or unique. They will resonant with those who also committed and specialised in an activity from an early age and continued this commitment through to adulthood. Others will have also engaged in rigorous training and body modification, as I have, and will have experienced intense pain and pleasure along the way.

However, there did come a time when I decided that I did not want to do as much ballet anymore, I did not want to be constantly told what to do, where to be and how to act or feel. I have not rejected ballet, as I still engage with ballet – I teach ballet technique, lecture, watch, research and occasionally perform ballet. After dancing, performing and teaching, I have now developed a career as a dance academic. My position as an ex-performing ballet dancer and now a lecturer and spectator of ballet is that my construction of self is deeply embedded in the social world of ballet. I suggest that now, however, I can also examine ballet with greater awareness and a more critical eye.

This book began as reflections on my own embodied identity. Through such thinking I became interested in how the social world of ballet shapes the young ballet dancer’s body because commitment to ballet tends to begin early in life. So this book offers an exploration of the relationships between the social world of classical ballet, the bodies of young ballet dancers and embodied identity. I suggest that this book is unique in that it is an account of a longitudinal empirical study of the lived experiences of twelve young ballet dancers as they engage in ballet training and develop as dancers. The embodied practices of dancers afford aesthetic and skilled accomplishment, but more critically they provide a powerful means for analysing the existing cultural and social ideas in the construction of self and identity and how dancers attach meaning and value to experiences. I have undertaken this study as someone who knows about the social world of dance and, in particular, the social world of ballet as a dancer but also as a dance academic. It is hoped that this book will interest and contribute to sociology of the body, ethnography, dance and cultural studies. ← 5 | 6 →


VI, 190
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
ballet and the body the body, society and identity Pierre Bourdieu classical ballet dance and gender
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VI, 190 pp.

Biographical notes

Angela Pickard (Author)

Angela Pickard is Director of Teaching, Learning and School Experience in the School for Music and Performing Arts and Subject Lead for Dance at Canterbury Christ Church University. She has performed, created, taught and presented dance as a dancer, choreographer, teacher, advisor, consultant and academic. She has worked with a number of choreographers and artists in a range of projects across a multitude of venues in Kent, London and Europe and she is currently Artistic Director and choreographer of Canterbury Dance Company. Her research on ballet, the body, Bourdieu, identity, gender, talent and pedagogy has been widely disseminated. She is also Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Research in Dance Education.


Title: Ballet Body Narratives