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Ballet Body Narratives

Pain, Pleasure and Perfection in Embodied Identity

Angela Pickard

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.
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Chapter 8: Pleasure, Power and Perfection



Pleasure, Power and Perfection

‘I feel that I’m at my best when I’m feeling pain just where I can bear it but I’m on top of it … At the end of the class or performance, if I’ve felt the pain but it hasn’t bothered me then I feel so good and I get goose bumps. It’s sort of fun really and I want the feeling again and again.’

— LIE, 15 years

In a previous chapter, I raised the notion that there may be pleasure and power to be experienced in enduring pain and I will now examine this further. To begin with, the body in ballet is determined by its successes but also by its limitations so when the dancer exceeds their past limitations, whether in terms of technique, body shape or size, pain threshold or in conveying artistic intention, they embody the value of achievement, which is also linked to capital and status. Bodily lived limits are constantly tested and expanded within the social world of ballet where pain is viewed as a route to enhancement or development as evidenced in the social construction of ‘good pain’, ‘nice hurt’ and ‘bad pain’.

In the social context of the ballet class I suggest that a simplistic pain/pleasure dichotomy is inadequate because bodily limits are explored out of an apparent desire from the young dancer to do so, in order to move beyond the normal or previous self. This...

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