*You can listen to an audio version of this on the Balanced Ballerinas Podcast*
A fellow dance studio owner recently penned a question about ballet uniforms in a forum on Facebook. This was a private forum so I won’t go into too much detail about the specific post, however she referenced a recent article on ABC news that explores young girls thoughts about uncomfortable uniforms that may deter them from participating in sport or other activities.
Now I know ballet isn’t necessarily a ‘sport’ however one can argue for the sake of this context that a leotard and tights could be seen just as uncomfortable as wearing a skirt to play tennis or white shorts to play women’s football (hello that time of the month!)
However it could also be argued that if we’re talking about ballet in a sporting context, that it’s more akin to aesthetic sports like gymnastics or ice skating. Could you imagine a gymnast doing what they do in anything but a skin tight leotard? Could you imagine an ice skater performing in a piece of clothing that’s loose and (for lack of a better word) table cloth like? I actually don’t know, maybe. But I know that there would be some hazard issues with those kinds of uniforms for those kinds of sports…
Anyway, the article referenced a recent Victoria University study that found many girls drop out of sport or choose not to engage in physical activity because they feel embarrassed about putting their bodies on display or not adhering to societal standards of beauty.
What I found interesting was that the study found the types of fabric used in these uniforms was important. However the young women between 12 and 18 years of age also agreed that uniforms needed to be functional rather than fashionable. And that’s where my question begins. Is a ballet leotard and tights tradition, fashion or functional?
I often find myself arguing in circles WITH MYSELF whilst pondering the topic of ballet uniforms. As an owner of a predominantly ‘ballet’ studio I find it difficult to comprehend a class full of mismatched or ‘baggy’ uniforms. But then I think, just because I’m conditioned to be intolerant of such a sight doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. Perhaps I should do more to be inclusive. Perhaps I should be less lazy about coming up with more inclusive practices.
But then ballet does require a uniform that allows the teacher to see what is going on anatomically. The amount of times I have picked up on scoliosis or other issues that could not have possibly been picked up if the child was wearing a t-shirt would astound you. Yes, artistry and performance quality is first and foremost but I don’t think you could make a fair and accurate assessment of a students alignment if the student is wearing a t-shirt and shorts in their ballet exam.
Despite having a predominantly ‘ballet’ focussed studio, I have many shapes and sizes in my classes. Because this topic has also been on my mind for quite some time, I like to concentrate on my choice of words and teaching practices (mainly because I’m not sure about how to tackle uniform) and that has served me well so far. I like to point out our ‘strong calves’ and ‘muscular thighs’ that help us jump high and spend lots of time talking about our posture as a ‘power pose’ to exude confidence. I also like to casually show my tween and teen students a photo on Instagram of a celebrity (that’s a little curvier!) rocking a leotard and go, “Wow how strong and amazing does she look! You guys would rock that leo for the end of year concert!” Just imagine me showing them a photo of Beyoncé absolutely killing it in a leotard…
However I can see how fellow dance studio owners – if you’re not the ‘ballet teacher’ at the studio – don’t necessarily have control over the language used in class. It’s up to whoever you’ve hired. And that can be really tricky. You don’t want to control someones language or spoon-feed them narrative. You want it to come out organically. Naturally. So it needs to be deeper than that and come from a culture you’ve systemically created at your studio.
But then, what about beyond the studio? Even if I was to allow students to wear t-shirts and leggings or other non-traditional ballet attire, what happens when they want to sit a ballet exam or audition for a pre-professional program, summer school or company? If they weren’t wearing traditional ballet attire to begin with because it made them uncomfortable, then they’re REALLY not going to be comfortable going into that situation for the first time wearing a leotard and tights. But then, is that a non-argument because young students going into those situations are probably all about the leotard and tights? Honestly, I don’t know.
Then on the other hand (see, I’m about to argue against myself!) I teach eight adult ballet classes per week with students wearing the kind of class wear that one would see in a professional ballet company – a mix of activewear, warm up gear or full ballet get up! And nothing makes me happier than seeing these women (and occasionally men) comfortably taking ballet class wearing what makes them feel amazing. It’s never even occurred to me to set a uniform for my adult students.
So why then are uniforms important for younger students? Well there’s a couple of reasons, but most notably (in my opinion) is the fact that uniforms ensure students are on a level playing field. Confused what I mean by this? Well say you have a Pre-Primary Ballet class of 5-6 year olds and one student shows up in a Target leotard that cost $10 and another shows up in an expensive Tutu Du Monde creation worth $210 – what do you think is going to happen amongst the little ballerinas? They’re 5 and 6 so of course they all want the sparkly, expensive one and then how does a parent explain that they can only afford the Target option. Why put them in that position?
When students maturity and understanding of how the world works is limited and especially when they’re in that awkward tween and teen phase (where comparison is at the forefront of their minds!) I’d rather help manage or avoid the situation completely by providing a high quality, but reasonably priced uniform that’s mandatory.
But also, nothing makes me happier than seeing a beautifully groomed class of young ballet students. Fact! And I’m sure many ballet teachers around the world would agree with me on that one. But then it’s not about our happiness is it? Or is it? Happy teacher, happy students? Or is it the other way around? See how confusing this argument can get if you think about it deeply…
At the end of the day, I think uniforms serve an important purpose for younger students. I believe they significantly contribute to the art of discipline and good grooming that ballet is so well known for instilling in young children. It’s one of the reasons why some parents enrol their child in the first place. But then my whole philosophy is breaking down the elitist barriers that often come with ballet and surely re-examining the uniform is part of breaking these down…
Now this is usually the part where I tell you I found the answer or have come up with a solution. I’m sorry to break it to you, but I haven’t. I’m still (obviously!) sorting through it in my own head. However I have made some small (but apparently impactful!) decisions in my own studio…
About a month ago (coincidently on International Women’s Day) I sent the following email to about 500 parents and friends of my younger students…
Something has been on our minds for a very long time…
We don’t want anything to stand in the way of our dancers becoming the women they’re meant to become. We also don’t want our female dancers to feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
As a studio it’s important for us to be proactive instead of reactive and as part of the dance world it’s important for us to respect tradition whilst simultaneously moving into the future.
We’ve always been very thoughtful about the uniform our students wear. One of the reasons why students can’t wear just any black leotard is because the one we’ve chosen has thick, supportive straps, double lining and is made of comfortable fabric.
However we’ve noticed that some of our older students would prefer even more coverage and a leotard that can be worn without bra straps poking out. We get it, they still want to look and feel balletic!
When young female students who study ballet have their period, they often wear jazz shorts over their leotard during that time of the month. Whilst it doesn’t seem to worry the girls too much, it has always felt like an advertisement to the class that they have their period and occasionally a student trying to be helpful will say loudly, “Hey you forgot to take your shorts off!”
These issues are prevalent throughout dance studios across the world. However we want to make some simple changes that might assist parents of young female dancers and of course the dancers themselves…
Miss Georgia thinks deeply about inclusivity and how to teach students to love, respect and value their bodies. She even did a whole Balanced Ballerinas podcast episode about period positivity! It’s a topic she doesn’t have all the answers to (yet!) but is incredibly passionate about.
What we’d like to talk about with our students at classes this week;
- Regardless of wether students have their period or not, they will be allowed to wear the studio black skirt over their studio leotards for the ENTIRE ballet class.
- Students who would like more coverage and the option of wearing a bra under their leotard can wear a beautiful cap sleeve leotard which we will make available at reception.
- In case they didn’t know, we always have period products (pads, tampons and liners) on the top shelf in the bathroom.
We realise that an outsider to the world of ballet wouldn’t really consider these changes or announcements groundbreaking. Nor are these changes perfect. However we feel the subtlety of these small changes amongst delicate issues with our teenagers will most certainly be a step in the right direction.
If you ever have any thoughts, feelings or concerns please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Oh! And Happy International Women’s Day!
As you can see, I didn’t pretend to have all the answers. I let the parents and families know that we were continuing to think about these topics, process them and most importantly evolve with action. It’s also obvious I’m still very much in two frames of mind, wanting to do more but also maintain the tradition of a beautiful ballet uniform.
One thing I did mention in the email was that I think DEEPLY about teaching students to love, respect and value their bodies. I think this is key…
Yes, we can allow a student who is uncomfortable in their body to wear a big baggy t-shirt but what does that accomplish? I think it only superficially solves the problem. I’d rather work on why the student feels the way they do and help them reclaim their self worth through language in class, guidance outside of class and very careful consideration of the society that constantly tells us we’re not good enough, skinny enough or pretty enough. In other words, create a shelter and space at your studio that works on all these things holistically from different angles.
I think all my students are beautiful. I think I tell them all the time, but I could probably do it more. And on that topic, it’s important to not only compliment their new hair bow, but also their strong bodies AND kindness. I don’t actually believe in not giving compliments about appearance. If a student has obviously put a lot of thought and effort into their grooming for that class, I’ll tell them. I see their face light up and not only is it a confidence booster, but it also inspires the other students to take pride in their appearance. I think the important part is ALSO complimenting their kindness. When I see a student do something nice for another student or teacher, I always make an effort to say how kind hearted they are. This again inspires other students to act similarly.
So what’s my advice to other studio owners or teachers? I think it’s all about being proactive rather than reactive. Don’t wait until you have a ‘problem’ with these things and instead brainstorm how you can make your uniform more inclusive or comfortable whilst maintaining the aesthetic of ballet. Have conversations with your students! I know mine really love their leotard and tights, but just wanted a little extra coverage to be able to wear a bras or not be so obvious at that time of the month. They seem pretty satisfied now with the small changes I’ve made and in six months time that may change and we can have the conversation again. Baby steps!
Sometimes I think we forget to just talk to our students…
As you can tell, I argue with and against myself on this particular topic about ballet uniforms. Continually striving to be self aware at every point and question why I think or feel a certain way. And I think if you combine that with small but significant actions that’s all we can continue to do.
The dance world has come far in regards to the dancewear market. It took too long, but we finally have different shades of tights and shoes so darker skinned dancers don’t have to prescribe to the lily white look. Dance publications are more aware of body shaming language and are increasingly inviting conversation about diversity in ballet. And through the power of social media we are reclaiming our bodies and celebrating being yourself. It’s wonderful.
Ballerinas are seeing all colours, sizes and abilities now through the power of social media and I myself need to be hyperaware of what I share. As a white, cisgender female I need to actively not just share photo’s of people who look like me. As someone with an audience, I need to ensure I’m actively being more inclusive. And honestly, I don’t think I’ve done an amazing job of it, so I do endeavour from here on to do better. But I think if students can see themselves and are encouraged to be themselves (regardless of what they’re wearing) we’ll be in a better place and have students more comfortable in a leotard and tights.
Anyway, to finish I wanted to share a reply to my email from one of my students. I actually had a lot of beautiful replies from clients when I sent out that email, but this one really touched my heart…
Dear Miss Georgia,Although I didn’t get a chance to talk to you after ballet this evening, I would just like to express my gratitude and thanks towards the recent uniform changes. The little changes I am sure are going to make a big difference in how comfortable and supported I feel in class. Thank you for being kind and considerate and compassionate in everything you do. I am blessed to have a ballet teacher that is as passionate and thoughtful as you.