From the Russia-based Big Ballet Company.
Can fat people dance ballet? Yes.
My own experience attests to this. As I recounted in one of my earliest posts about “who can dance,” I was not the sveltest swan on the lake when I first began. During this period, if we use BMI as a guide, my weight fluctuated throughout the “overweight” category, occasionally inching into obese (I didn’t really think I was, since I was running 5 miles every other day or so). But those were the numbers, and they were sobering indeed. These days, according to the BMI scale, I am in the “normal” range, although close to its upper limit. I’m working my way down. Having been quite heavy and having still danced, and now being not quite as heavy and still dancing has given me some insights regarding the question of being overweight and adult ballet. That was a wreck of a sentence, but bear with me.
1. If I am fat, can I dance ballet?
Yes, by all means. If you are just starting out with ballet, and are feeling a little intimidated by its professional image, never fear: what you see on the stage does not translate directly to the classroom. In my experience, non-professional adult dancers have bodies that span the entire spectrum of size, color, age, everything. When you first enter the studio, you are neither expected to be–or should expect to be!–stick-thin. Remember that by this point in your life (I’m assuming you are in your late teens or older), your chances of a professional ballet career are nil. This is a good, wonderful thing: you’re dancing for the sheer pleasure of it, so why be concerned about what you see on stage? Get in there and dance.
2. How big is too big?
There’s no upper limit on this. I’ve definitely seen girls who were probably well over 200 lbs. in intermediate level classes. They did fine, and no one stared. I’m not really a fan of the “Fat Acceptance Movement” as such, but I do agree with the notion that size should not restrict the kinds of physical activities you’d like to engage in, as long as these goals are medically safe. Some ballet steps can strain the knees, for instance, so if you are very overweight and just starting out, I would not recommend that you do any jumping in class, and avoid or modify your grand plies (you can just do a simple demi plie instead). After you build muscle strength after many many classes, then you might give jumping a go.
3. What should I wear?
Be aware that ballet sizes tend to be on the small side. If you are trying on attire in a dance shop, don’t despair. Most dancewear caters to aspiring young dancers–these girls and boys are bound to be rather twiggy in their preteen and teen years. Natalie carries a great line of plus size dancewear (try Discount Dance), including a lovely 3/4 sleeve leotard that I wear still today (they also have plus size dance skirts!). Capezio carries XL and XXL tights. It’s wise to pick the bigger size whenever you’re unsure–comfort trumps vanity. If the plus size stuff is still too small (believe me–they do run small!), workout leggings and tights and a form-fitting top would do just fine. Dance slippers come in all sorts of sizes–best to go to a dance shop to try these on for your first foray. I wouldn’t advise a beginning dancer to use coverups, although I did so when I started out of self-consciousness. You could use a simple t-shirt as a cheap and simple solution, but again, in the long run, coverups will slow your progress.
4. Will my teacher ignore me/pick on me because of my weight?
A good teacher won’t. This is particularly true of teachers who specialize in teaching adult beginners. In my experience they are almost universally accepting, accommodating teachers. And think of it this way: if they antagonized their beginning students, they would empty their studios and therefore lose income. It’s in their best interests to be accepting of all kinds of body types. Remember also that being “picked on” or corrected in class is a GOOD thing, because it means the teacher sees potential. I won’t say that there aren’t meanspirited teachers out there, but they tend to stay away from beginners in any case.
5. Can I dance in pointe shoes?
While I would encourage anyone who wanted to try ballet to give it a go no matter what their size, this is one area where I would hesitate. If you are a beginner, and are taking a dedicated 3+ classes a week, then pointe might be in your future 2 or more years down the line. But if pointe is a real goal of yours, then weight loss should be an important goal as well. Dancing en pointe–even for tiny dancers!–is very rough on the bones of the feet and the ankles. Many professional dancers–the thinnest of the thin, more often than not–have arthritis in their feet by their mid-twenties. Dancing en pointe is painful, especially for adults who have not been groomed their whole lives for it. The more you weigh, the more your feet will suffer: this is simple physics. Now it is true that some teachers will make allowances–allow a slightly overweight dancer to go en pointe. I had one teacher encourage me to try pointe back when I was quite overweight. But there is a greater chance of injury for dancing en pointe when overweight, so I decided to hit a lower weight before I give it a shot. Some–dare I say most–responsible teachers will not let their students take that risk.
Dancing en pointe is mostly about having very strong ankles and feet, and one can have those elements even when overweight, but the more weight there is to support–the more strain gets placed on those ankles and feet.
Also, I realize that my photo above is of an overweight woman en pointe, but this dancer is obviously a professional, and I would hazard to say that dancing en pointe isn’t the safest thing for her, either.
6. What if I gain or lose weight? What should I expect?
If you lose or gain weight, your dancing will not automatically improve. Your center of balance will change. If you have maintained a weight for a long time while training in ballet, and then suddenly lose or gain weight, you will experience a general sense of wobbliness, and your turns will likely feel “off.” For me, after the initial adjustments for wobbliness, weight loss did help my turns a bit in that it was faster and easier to get up into releve.
7. Will ballet help me lose weight?
In a word, no. Not if you are a beginner. These classes are simply not rigorous enough to burn the same number of calories that, say, running would. This is because beginning classes are often so much about vocabulary and getting basic steps, alignment, and technique down that you’re not going to burn up the calories that a very advanced dancer would.
That said, somewhere down the line when you become more skilled, ballet will be an excellent calorie-burner, surpassing even running or aerobics, but that’s not in the cards for beginners. Ballet is good for muscle definition, especially in the legs, but not necessarily for weight loss. (Unless it’s accompanied by a cut in calories and supplemented with other cardio exercise).
Ballet–like all physical activities!–is not the exclusive realm of the young, skinny, whatever. It’s whatever you make of it. And as an adult, you’re in the unique position of crafting your own experience in dance, free from the much stricter expectations imposed upon young pre-professionals. A few extra pounds won’t stop you from having the time of your life!
If you have any other questions, experiences, or thoughts to share regarding weight and dance, please leave a comment–if it’s a question I’ll add to the FAQ.