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Toll of ballet is high enough on kids even without competitions, says author and former dancer

This week, hundreds of young dancers are gathering in Phoenix for and event known as the the “American Idol of ballet” — the Youth America Grand Prix.

At stake are scholarships to ballet schools and spots in some of the best companies. But Alice Robb says ballet is competitive enough as it is. 

Alice Robb is author of the book, “Don’t Think Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet.”

She left ballet at 15, after attending the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York. The Show spoke with her more about her experience in ballet and what she loved about it.

Full interview

ALICE ROBB: I fell in love with ballet when I was a child. I started in, you know, kind of baby ballet classes when I was 3 years old and it became a huge part of my life until I quit at the age of 15. There was so much that I loved about it. I loved performing. I mean, some of my happiest memories are from the Nutcracker and just, you know, moving to the music, and I loved the kind of the discipline of it and the friendships and the intensity. I mean, those were there, there are dark sides to some of those things, but they were also very compelling.

So you were at the School of American Ballet in New York from age 9 to 12, right. Tell us a little bit about, about getting there. Was that a really big achievement already at such a young age to just be in that academy?

ROBB: I mean, it felt like one I was very aware of SAB, because I was living in New York, and I knew someone who was there and I knew that she had been in the Nutcracker and I'd been to the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center and like, seen the kids on stage. So I actually auditioned three times before I finally got in, I was maybe more determined than talented, but I was just so excited when it eventually paid off. It felt like exactly where I wanted to be.

And, you know, they really made a big deal of the fact that all of the professional dancers in New York City Ballet had gone to SAB. So it felt like I was on this amazing track that I would just climb up the ranks from year to year and then, and then I'd be a professional ballet dancer.

Yeah. Yeah. So we'll talk more about what happened after that in a moment. But tell us first, so there, there is like a world of dance of ballet, that is like explicitly competitive, in which you're dancing in competitions, right? But this is not what you were doing. Talk about the sort of innate competitiveness of it though, regardless of that.

ROBB: We weren't encouraged to compete in places like YAG. But, you know, every day sort of felt like a competition because we could see each other. We were in class with the same people every day. We could see who was progressing, who was getting attention from the teachers, which usually took the form of corrections. But we saw those as, you know, any attention was positive. And who was getting the best parts in the ballets when there were children's parts. So things like Nutcracker and a handful of other ballets.

And yeah, I mean, I think it must be so much harder today, when kids have social media and they're not comparing themselves just to the other people in their class, but to everyone around the world and also the best possible versions of them. So I wasn't dealing with that 15 years ago but it was still very intense.

Yeah, very competitive. There's also a lot of pressure, it sounds like from parents, from families, on young people in ballet who you've spoken with and on you as well, right?

ROBB: Well, I think that whether it's explicit or implicit, I think kids are so aware of the sacrifices that their parents are making, whether you know, to take them to class, come to their shows, whatever support they're giving, and then from teachers as well, I think it's hard to say how much of a factor this was in my own short ballet career. But I really noticed it as a, as a journalist in my 30s. I've done some interviews with teenagers who have quit recently. And one thing that really stood out to me and that I found kind of devastating was that so many of them talked about the guilt they felt not just their own disappointment but the guilt of letting down their parents and their teachers.

And even if I'm not talking like, you know, crazy stage moms, dance moms. But I think just, just kind of regular parents who are maybe making financial sacrifices or maybe something's being taken away from their siblings like there, I think kids are so aware of that.

Yeah. Yeah. Talk about the physical toll that ballet put on you like it sounds like like in many competitive sports, you know, of other kinds like you would kind of go through the pain, you dance through the pain.

ROBB: Yeah, I mean, ballet is such an unnatural thing to do. People always think about, oh OK. Dancers have to be thin. Sure. But that's like the tip of the iceberg. I mean, there's also the turnout from the hips, this kind of rotation in your hips, the arches of the feet, flexibility of the joints. There's just so many ways that you can not have the ideal body and, and then have to compensate, another thing about that is you start when you're so young and you kind of fall in love with it so young and you don't really know how your body is gonna develop. So things could be chugging along fine. And then you go on point at 10 or 11 or 12, when you're deemed strong enough. And then you could find that actually your feet, the way your feet are built, makes point even more painful than it does for other people. And just the nature of point is that you're putting the entire weight of your body on the tip of your toes. So it's, you know, it's never going to feel amazing, learn to cope with it. But yeah.

But there are real questions there of, of body image, especially for young girls and of, of like what it means to be a girl like this idea of traditional femininity, right?

ROBB: Yeah, I mean, this was something that I thought about a lot while I was working on my book. It was one of the kind of central questions of it was why, you know, I was 28-29 when I started working on it. I hadn't danced in over a decade. I was fully immersed in my career as a writer, but I still felt like ballet had this hold on me, and I would still sort of look up on social media, the girls I had danced with, and I was still kind of, I could still get obsessive about it and kind of feel like I had failed for not becoming a dancer.

And I realized as I was working on the book, that part of that was because I think dancers are seen as these kind of paragons of femininity in our society where they're perfectly thin and beautiful and they might be in pain, but you could never see it on their face. They're always kind of smiling and looking pleasant. And I mean, of course, in ballet, women don't speak in the classroom, we also didn't speak. So there are these kind of feminine, stereotypically, feminine traits are taken to an extreme in ballet. And I think that really influenced my idea of like what an ideal woman was supposed to be.

So, I mean, I wonder like if you're looking at the world of ballet today as you do from this outside point of view. Now, as a journalist, you mentioned social media before, like how different do you think the world is now? Or are there even like additional challenges you think these young people are facing in that world that you didn't even have to deal with even though it was really hard for you?

ROBB: Yeah, I mean, I do think certain standards have gotten a little bit softer. I think the leaders are becoming more aware of things like eating disorders and the need to take time off when dancers are injured, although they still, of course, put lots of pressure on themselves to hide injuries. But yeah, I mean, I, I see accounts of, you know, parent managed accounts of 10, 11, 12 year old dancers. So I think the competition is just getting, it's starting younger and younger and I, I think it would be really hard to kind of maintain a sense of fun in that environment, or it could be.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.