Performing Femininity: The Discipline and Training of Ballerinas


In most cultures there exists a set of practices which define a woman as feminine, such as a graceful walk or a slim figure, which remain qualities which the woman must consistently and actively aspire to. However where do such practices originate and how are they maintained? While undoubtedly societal expectations and the negative consequences of not upholding accepted standards of femininity contribute to a woman’s quest for to be feminine, the actions behind these behaviors feel natural and are largely unconscious. This feeling of a freedom of choice while still upholding accepted standards of femininity remains the result of discipline, which deals with the set of self-imposed rules that become ingrained in a woman’s decision making process, and precede any choices about dress or behavior. In particular female ballet dancers experience a heightened sense of discipline towards the feminine, as a result of the expectations ballerinas must meet not only as a woman, but also as a professional in an industry which values an epitomized version of femininity.

In his book Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison, Michel Foucault argues discipline proves to be a productive process, rather than a restrictive one. Through training and reinforcement, disciplined practices come to guide the way a person thinks and behaves by assisting in the decision making process. For this reason discipline does not cause a person to feel restricted, but rather that their actions are productive in reaching an end goal. To illustrate this idea Foucault offers the example of the soldier, whose body is like that of formless clay that is slowly constructed into the form of a soldier whose behavior becomes “the automatism of habit” (Foucault 135).

Much like soldiers Foucault describes, female ballet dancers begin are trained to execute ballet steps in a very specific way with the ultimate goal of these behaviors becoming automatic. In addition to receiving training in terms of ballet technique, female ballet dancers are taught the importance of maintaining a dainty feminine figure. For this reason ballet uniforms become an important aspect of a young ballerina’s training. Young ballerinas are given specific guidelines for how to do their hair and what to wear to ballet class. The leotards and tights dancers are required to wear encourages conformity among the class, as well as while making it easy to spot the dancer’s physical imperfections. Such measures train a young dancer to value a slim figure and feminine proportions, and consequently the importance of such traits eventually becomes a part of their thought process.


Young ballet dancers in class, their uniforms enforce conformity while emphasizing the importance of their slim physique.

As a female ballet dancer’s training progresses, the concepts of femininity and a slim figure require constant discipline, however the efforts made to achieve these goals begins to feel natural. Yet however natural these behaviors  feel, author Sandra Lee Bartkey in her article “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power”,  argues that such actions merely represent the “artifice” of femininity. Bartkey explains that this desire for femininity is largely self-imposed and while it may feel to women that their decisions are under their control, their efforts are guided by discipline which precedes a woman’s ability to actually choose. More specifically Bartkey maintains that there are three main disciplinary practices through which woman’s behavior is guided towards the feminine: size and configuration, posture and movement, and using the body as a surface for adornment (Bartkey 95). These three disciplinary practices prompt women to strive for a slim figure, move in a manner that is graceful and modest, while also subtly conveying eroticism, and to look young and beautiful. As a performance art, size and configuration, posture and movement, and the body as a surface for adornment become especially important to ballerinas for such disciplines are central to the success of their careers.


Size and Configuration: Ballet dancer’s are expected to maintain a slim figure throughout their dance careers. This is reflected in the ballet costumes and leotards ballerinas are required to wear. Costumes are only made in small sizes and most often highlight a dancer’s figure. Additionally ballerina’s must be lightweight for the male dancer’s to lift them, which emphasizes their femininity and daintiness.


Posture and Movement: Female ballet dancers must wear pointe shoes while they dance to make their legs look longer and leaner. Pointe shoes make dancing more difficult and painful, however the ballet dancer must still make her movements look effortless and feminine. Similar to high heels, pointe shoes change a woman’s posture and movement, but the painful footwear is expected is expected of ballerinas because it heightens their femininity.


The Body as a Surface for Adornment: Most classical ballet costumes for female ballet dancers involve heavily ornamented tutus and jewelry. For performances women’s bodies are used as a surface for adornment to increase the visual appeal of the show and to please the audience. While these costumes are just to be worn during the performance, ballerinas are expected to carry the same sense of elegance and femininity in the studio.

Many young, slim, beautiful, and feminine professional ballerina’s have been produced from these disciplinary practices, which has lead to a blurring of the line between ballet dancer and model. The frequent crossover between fashion designers and ballet companies, suggests that ballet dancers are not only expected to uphold their role as a ballet dancer, but also that of a model.


Example of a collaboration between Valentino and the New York City Ballet, which illustrates how both ballet companies and designers benefit from the physical appearance that results from the disciplined lifestyle of a ballerina.

Furthermore the whole idea of a ballerina lifestyle has proven to be appealing to consumers, which has made it necessary for female ballet dancers to carry forth their discipline for ballet in all aspects of their lives. Elizabeth Wissinger explains in her article “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society” the necessity of  models (and by extension ballerinas)  to live the type of lifestyle that consumers want to partake in through consumption:  “By working hard to produce the image of living the ‘model life’, workers in this industry model a lifestyle that is then packaged and sold to consumers as an experience that can be had for the price of their attention” (Wissinger 273).  As ballerina’s are becoming increasingly involved with advertising, the ballet dancers are expected to maintain not only the model life that Wissinger explains but also the perfect ballerina life that consumers now want to buy into.

Picture of professional ballerina Yuan Yuan Tan in a Gap advertisement. Ad suggests that as a ballerina, Tan is able to “perfect” most aspects of her life. Exemplifies how a ballerina’s life is combined with a model’s life.

The crux of the issue remains that in order for a ballerina to find success she must meet the most extreme expectations of feminine beauty, which inevitably leads to the perpetuation of a value system that idealizes an unattainable feminine form. While certain physical qualifications are needed to meet these goals, it is the costuming and ballet uniforms which most outwardly project the feminine expectations of a ballerina. Moreover the recent increase in collaborations between designers and ballet dancers demonstrates the inherent connection between success and upholding feminine expectations in industries attempting to sell a dream or a particular lifestyle to consumers.


Works Cited

Bartkey, Sandra Lee. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prison. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York, Random House, Inc., 1975.

Wissinger, Elizabeth. “Modeling Consumption: Fashion Modeling Work in Contemporary Society.”  Journal of Consumer Culture 15 June 2009: pgs 273-296


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