Dance of the sugar plum anorexics

A mother sues the San Francisco Ballet School to demand diversity of body type.

Published December 14, 2000 8:33PM (EST)

Last week, as the presidential fracas hogged the headlines and the Middle East fell to pieces, a scintillating bit of news broke without much fanfare: The mother of a little girl in San Francisco sued the San Francisco Ballet School on the grounds that her daughter's rejection from their program violated her (the daughter's) civil rights.

According to the school, Fredrika Keefer, 8, "did not have the right body" to even audition for the ballet school's program. According to Krissy Keefer, the child's mother and the director of a local dance troupe, Fredrika is "exceptionally talented." This clash of aesthetic evaluation caused Keefer to file a complaint with San Francisco's human rights commission. The complaint alleges that the ballet school, which is the recipient of $550,000 in city funds per year, has violated the new San Francisco ordinance that prohibits discrimination against people based on their height and weight.

On the face of it, this dispute has all the elements of a classic "only in San Francisco" brouhaha. It's local. It's liberal. And it's redolent of some of the yuckier modern values that have made this particular place at this particular time the subject of much criticism. (The vast sense of entitlement felt by women like Keefer being only one of the yuckiest modern values that come to mind.) Although in her own dance career Keefer is known as a proponent of socially relevant dance programs, she is not -- alas! -- a great showpiece for modern mommyhood.

Among other things, Keefer has just held up her child's body for critical public scrutiny, heedless of the damage that such a move could do to her kid's psyche. Moreover, she has said she'll drop the suit if Fredika gets accepted to the school, which leads one to believe she is much more of a litigious bully than a social crusader.

Neither of these stances is easy to defend, but even so there are some ways in which Keefer's suit looks perfectly justified. Given that the ballet school takes public funds, what better way to strike a blow for feminism than to sue a place which is busily institutionalizing anorexia in the name of Art, Beauty and Tradition?

The fact is, the San Francisco Ballet School, like all other serious classical ballet organizations, fetishizes women who are thin, willowy and fragile. It is upholding values and standards of beauty that are frankly reprehensible, by creating an atmosphere where there is only one correct female body type -- and that one is all but unattainable.

Says ballet school spokeswoman Diane Kounalakis in defense of the school's policy of weeding out students by their physical attributes: "We are not a recreation department." And she has a point: Recreation departments tend to promote the health and welfare of their attendees. Three years ago, one of the S.F. Ballet school's graduates, Heidi Guenther, died of anorexia while dancing with the Boston ballet. Subsequent investigation has revealed that this tragic scenario is endemic to the field: A recent PBS documentary, titled "Dying to be Thin," singles out ballet as an area rife with eating disorders.

And so the debate over Fredrika Keefer rages on -- and mostly, it must be said, not in the child's favor. Last Saturday, San Francisco Chronicle dance critic Octavio Roca defended the ballet school on the grounds that to lower its professional and educational standards in the name of democracy would merely promote "the mediocre and the bland." "Classical ballet," sniffs Roca, who trained at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, "... calls for superhuman technical training and aptitude as well as for extraordinary qualifications. That is why so few people are able to do it."

The Keefers, he implies, just want their own way, which they are couching in political terms for the sake of expediency. And this may be so. But his argument (and that of the ballet school) is equally disingenuous. Roca calls the school's strictures against chunky girls "responsible, moral and correct," but a close analysis shows that the school's attitude is not so much elitist as merely hard-boiled.

Surely there are plenty of ballet schools with less-stringent admission policies, where even chunky children are imbued with a love of the art of dance; and where the goal is to help girls reach their own dance potential; but the San Francisco Ballet School does not seem to be on that wavelength. It seems instead to be bent on churning out a line of employable ballerinas, presumably, to its greater glory.

As a former college diver and current high school diving coach, that attitude really offends me. I have been the victim of too many coaches whose job security depended on my performance in the pool not to see through this self-serving attitude; moreover, as the coach of a sport that is just as dependent on height, weight and strength ratios as ballet is, I have my own beautiful theories about the necessity of perfect proportions.

Like ballerinas, divers are entirely at the mercy of the laws of physics, which means that body proportion is a component that can never be ignored. Nevertheless, as a coach, I am constantly confronted with inappropriately proportioned divers: teeny gymnast girls who can't hold the board down long enough to get any spring; heavy girls who fall like bowling balls into the water, and worst of all, my private nemesis, the Tall Skinny Boy.

The Tall Skinny Boy is a menace to any sane diving coach, and yet one year I had five boys pushing 6 feet, each more gawky than the last, including a 14-year-old who stood 6-foot-2. He had feet like soup tureens, a small pot belly and a center of gravity that I swear was in his butt. Everyone who dropped by the pool always said the same thing when they saw him dive: "Why isn't he going out for basketball?"

I'd sigh. "He did go out for basketball this fall. Diving is his spring sport."

For a long time one boy, Jesse, was my most trying pupil. At first he couldn't walk down the board evenly, point his toes, or get into a proper tuck position, and even his most controlled front jump landed him nearly in the shallow end of the pool. The team I coached was loaded with divers, so I could have pulled the plug on him at any moment, and believe me, the temptation was there.

I thought the case was pretty hopeless, but a few months later Jesse won the JV boys' division of our league. The reason? He was the kid who liked diving best, so he worked the hardest and thought about it the most. In the end, he found ways to defy gravity's pull -- by lengthening his last step and shortening his hurdle, for instance. He did dives the way his body type dictated, not the way I was taught to teach them, and that was perfectly OK with the judges.

Of course, Jesse's progress at diving exactly represents the "recreational department" mentality that the San Francisco Ballet School has such contempt for. Their ruling philosophy is much more reminiscent of the Soviet-era sports programs in which the children of Eastern Bloc nations were screened in nursery school for participation in sports. Parents -- then and now -- may wish their children to take part in the rarefied world of ballet as a reaction to the sort of false glamour that surrounds it -- the hazy, pink illusory force field that the balletic powers-that-be have managed to maintain over many years. Apparently, that very mystique is crucial to ballet's survival, for, in order to snake charm the parents of its new recruits, it must remain unattainable: aloof and exclusive, fixated on an ideal that no one can realistically achieve.

Survival, perhaps, is the ballet's justification for what amounts to preserving itself in aspic. But it is a silly justification, and one that is doing it no darn good, because its "pure" method and exalted standards are not calculated to produce artistic genius. Artistic genius, as dancers like bipolar Nijinski, stocky Anna Pavlova and built-like-Mack-trucks Mikhail Baryshnikov and Mark Morris have proven time and again, comes not from a slender physique, but from some inner place of inspiration. It comes from the heart, the brain and the soul.

Is it possible to tell from a single audition if an 8-year-old -- one who does not conform to the ballet school's strict demand for "a well proportioned body, a straight and supple spine, legs turned out from the hip joint, flexibility, slender legs and torso and correctly arched feet" -- has this extra fire? Perhaps not. Maybe Fredrika Keefer, who recently starred in her modern dance troupe's production of the Nutcracker, has it, and maybe she doesn't. I don't think the ballet school should admit her on that off chance, but I do think their policy of not even auditioning girls with the "wrong" bodies is as shortsighted and as wrong-headed as the East German policy in the early 1970s of feeding female Olympic swimmers loads of steroids to ensure their phenomenal growth in strength and size.

After all, some of those girls won medals, but many others didn't. Win or lose, their health was permanently impaired, their children born with defects, their government and mentors (eventually) covered with shame, and really, all for nothing, for as often as they won, they were beaten just as frequently by athletes who grew up training part-time through the recreation departments of America.

Of course ballet is not a sport, and its performers don't take steroids. (They take laxatives and purgatives and amphetamines, instead.) But if ballet wishes to claim the higher title of Art instead of Athletics, there is even more reason to believe that an unconventional, even oddly shaped practitioner -- a ringer, in fact -- could add some indefinable element of grace or meaning to its annals. The history of art has shown that this is always the case.

Besides, the opposite of uniqueness -- in body type, in technique, in movement and in personality -- is conformity. The San Francisco Ballet School may be well within its rights to exclude Fredrika Keefer from its ranks for not conforming to its ideal, but to the true artist, conformity is sterility, and sterility equals death. Perhaps that's why the public has fallen away from ballet in the last century, turning to warmer and more expressive art forms instead. The public may not know much about dance, but it knows when the starved, disciplined and perfectly plastic motions it is watching are the moves of automatons rather than artists.

By Gina Arnold

Gina Arnold is a columnist at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of the book "Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense" (St. Martin's Press).

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