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Dance can improve the health and happiness of people of all body shapes – but too often those who don’t conform to the professional ideal are shut out, and that’s a great shame

There is, I think, a very serious point at the heart of Channel 4’s new three-part reality show, Big Ballet. That point is not about being fat or being thin. It’s about differences in gender attitudes to work and leisure that go back centuries. Not that any of this is intentional or explicit in the show, which, if last Thursday’s opening episode is anything to go by, follows the formula of an established contemporary genre. The contention of the show’s presenter, the former Royal Ballet principal dancer Wayne Sleep, is simply that anyone and everyone should have access to classical ballet as a means of enjoyment and exercise, however they look. He’s right. Why not?

The reason why not is complex. It’s that such an attitude is alien to the culture of ballet. From the crown of its bun to the tips of its blocks, ballet is a high art, with its goal the achievement of aesthetic perfection. It is decidedly not just for fun, mere entertainment or simple exercise. Every ballet teacher is a talent spotter, surveying her crew of little girls in pink tutus in the hope of spotting another Darcey Bussell. If she spots a boy, then that, of course, is an even bigger deal …

True, every amateur football coach is also a talent spotter, surveying his crew of little boys in Manchester United strips in the hope of spotting another George Best. The difference is that no one would ever dream of putting together a reality show in which a bunch of tubby men and a couple of tubby women struggled valiantly towards their socially unacceptable ambition of taking part in an amateur five-a-side match. That happens all the time.

In some respects, the reasons for this are obvious. Visual perfection is an integral aim of top-level ballet, while it’s just one of the glorious by-products of top-level football. Only those with the potential for perfection can go to ballet school. If you’re too fat, too tall or too short (though Sleep himself defied the latter rule), then you’re out. The high incidence of eating disorders among dancers suggests, counter-intuitively, that you can never be too thin.

What’s not obvious, however, is why ballet should be so single-mindedly in thrall to professionalism, while football comes in all shapes and sizes, accessible to all. Given that so many little girls want to go to ballet classes, and that it’s good exercise, why is it that dance remains so peripheral to physical exercise at school, for example? There’s obviously a big gender element here, but maybe it’s even bigger than we quite realise.

Ballet originated in Renaissance Italy, solely the preserve of aristocratic amateurs, and spread quickly to other European courts. It was France that professionalised ballet, and founded the first ballet school in the 17th century. Crucially, all this occurred at a time when it wasn’t acceptable for educated women – aristocratic women – to work. We all know that during this period young men took the parts of women in plays and that as women did start going into theatre, it conferred on them the exceptional status described so well in Mrs Jordan’s Profession, Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dorothea Jordan, the 18th-century actor. Actors were given a cultural dispensation to be more socially free than other women – they could have lovers, be single mothers, and so on, when typically women just couldn’t.

For a ballerina, though, a racy love life and the regular pregnancies this tended to create surely wouldn’t be quite the thing. Perhaps here lie the origins of that highly circumscribed selection process, whereby girls are selected or rejected at a young age for careers in ballet – whisked away to strive for perfection almost in the manner of nuns, living a cloistered life dedicated to art, but denied the freedoms of other female theatrical artists. It’s notable that neither of Britain’s prima ballerinas assolutas, Alicia Markova and Margot Fonteyn, had children.

It’s certainly a theory that fits with that great melodrama of ballet, Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film, The Red Shoes, in which Victoria finds it impossible to choose between ballet and marriage. More recently, Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film The Black Swan explored the idea of a dancer being haunted by a more confident and liberated double, which could be read as being the woman the ballerina had been obliged not to be.

These psychological melodramas are disliked by ballet professionals perhaps precisely because they contain uncomfortable truths about the origins of the profession and the restrictions it sought to place on women. Ballet professionals tend to be very touchy when it is suggested that the prevalence of anorexia in ballet dancers is an aspect of the febrile pressure placed on them. But since eating disorders are often interpreted as being indicative of a refusal to embrace womanhood, this too makes sense.

Looking at the show in this light, Big Ballet becomes quite radical, a challenge to ballet as a grand, brittle repository of ambivalence about women, in which perfect females express archetypal femininity by rejecting such definite aspects of womanhood as the ability to procreate, itself associated ridiculously closely with “getting fat”.

The close scrutiny of female bodies is much debated, with endless discussion of the detrimental effects on young women that such exposure has. The media’s obsession with “losing that baby weight” is particularly irksome. It’s as if 17th-century ideas about women and ballet have been writ large, with women who wish to wear figure-hugging clothes or put on a bikini for the beach being warned that reproduction will put it all in jeopardy. Mothers with young children continue to find it a challenge, being accommodated at work during those years, to the lifetime detriment of their careers. But what women are “allowed” to look like is only the superficial aspect of a much more deep-seated impulse to control how women are “allowed” to behave.

So good on the women who want to do ballet for fun, even though they are not the shape that is deemed perfect for it. Like all fat people, they lay themselves open to ridicule by the shallow, unhappy and mean. If they’d been encouraged to exercise via dance at school, rather than forced to do the sport that so many schoolgirls loathe, then there’s every possibility that they wouldn’t have piled on the pounds in the first place. It’s weird that the enthusiasm of little girls for dance isn’t used at school as a conduit to a lifetime of fitness and exercise. This, too, may date back to the days when an education at a school was the preserve of males.

The pursuit of professional ballet as a high-art form must always have a pre-eminent place in human culture. But ballet should be more universal, too, embracing amateurs with gusto. Ballet, in short, could and should be much, much bigger. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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