Ballet competition culture: are we putting young dancers at risk?
A statement from Christopher Powney, Artistic Director of The Royal Ballet School
Competitions have long been a platform where student dancers can enjoy positive experiences and learn from sharing with like-minded, passionate young people. Many top professionals speak of how competitions gave them life-changing opportunities and a place at one of the world’s most prestigious schools or companies.
Students gain so much more from their experience than just the chance of winning. Competitions are about meeting people, making new friends, comparing differing teaching and dance styles, measuring standards against international peers and being taught by some truly inspirational teachers and coaches.
In recent years there has been a huge growth in international ballet competitions. This should surely be a good thing, benefiting more students with the opportunity to compete and be seen. This is, for the best part, true. I have, however, been concerned about the impact it is having on the students and parents. A student's training is now so often being fast-tracked for these competitions in a way that I believe can be unhealthy. Ballet requires so much more than the physical and technical ability to execute a step or series of steps. I am not alone in feeling that some competitions foster a culture that fails to encourage the development of artists – where technique is emphasised over artistry and students seek to reach extremes before they have mastered the basics. We see audiences agog at the elaborate physical tricks on display. That audience should be looking for an expressive dancer trying to communicate emotion, dynamics, musicality, storytelling ability, alongside an accomplished, clean technique relative to their age. Isn’t this what the art-form is truly about?
This fast-tracking could potentially cause serious psychological and physical damage. Ballet institutions like ours are learning more and more about the body and mind of our students and constantly researching how to develop healthier and more resilient dancers. As educators, I believe we have a responsibility to these young people and as an industry, a duty to adapt or make changes when we see something potentially harmful is going on.
Alarmingly there are some teachers encouraging girls, as young as 9, 10 or 11 to perform variations en pointe, with some competitions permitting this. Pointe work is a defining addition to a girl’s ballet technique and requires great foundation strength. The top training schools only begin pointe work at the age of 11 (occasionally 10), after reaching the appropriate strength required. Ideally this follows three or four years of demi-pointe work and careful training, over several years, thereafter. Therefore, permitting 9 to 13-year-old students to tackle these variations, in a pressurised environment, is very worrying. There is a substantial difference between pointe work exercises in class and the level expected within a variation.
Some competitions permit young boys to perform a pas de deux at similar ages as well. Just consider how vulnerable the shoulder joint and back are when not yet fully developed or stable. In most good schools, boys start partnering carefully at 14. Why push these young bodies earlier when the risks of injury are so great? There is no good reason why the process should be fast-tracked for the purposes of the child to win a competition.
A young dancer can be pushed so hard that they burn out at 14 or 15 because they have been performing in so many competitions since they were 9, 10 or 11, sometimes travelling all over the world. I have seen this happen on more than one occasion; nobody gains from this.
I appreciate that some schools find themselves in a trap. Students and parents often believe that the schools producing the most winners of competitions are the best schools. Parents then decide to move their child, thinking that they will receive better training. This can be a total contradiction. To win a competition and subsequent recognition, a teacher/school has to dedicate considerable time to the training and perfecting of competition variations which invariably takes away from essential foundation training. Some schools require pre 16-year-old dancers to train between six and eight hours a day, six, even seven, days a week to perfect their solos. If all this time is dedicated to only a few steps within a particular variation, then the learning of other vocabulary and skills are neglected.
What about academic education? I have heard that some children have their academic education reduced to just a few hours a week. All children should have and deserve a good academic education. Fitting in any meaningful academic study surely becomes an issue if most of a child’s day is dedicated to ballet training. Not only will academic subjects help them after their dance career, but a thinking, educated dancer also makes for a far more successful artist.
Most top ballet schools schedule just three or four hours’ ballet training a day for under 16s, five days a week, encouraging rest at weekends. In order to grow healthily in adolescence, the body needs rest to avoid long-term and irreversible damage. If a child’s energy is used up training intensely for such long hours, then there is little left for growth and mental focus. Good training is about building the foundation blocks carefully and steadily so that dancers can achieve their full potential and longevity in their career.
Through years of experience, responsible competitions maintain robust criteria and approaches to ensure the expectations of a competitor are aligned with ethical and smart training and the latest research in physical and mental health.
A good example - the Prix de Lausanne competition only allows dancers to enter from the age of 15 upwards, making sure entrants are sufficiently physically developed to perform demanding vocabulary. This makes complete sense when the expectation is to practise and perform what is essentially a professional soloist or principal dancer’s variation. Even the best professionals can be challenged by these variations. At this competition the dancer’s classwork is also given great attention, offering another, possibly more informative and valuable aspect of the dancer’s standard and potential during their training years.
Competitions can be a great platform for dance students to gain valuable experience. However, we must, as an industry, review the expectations and pressures placed on young children, especially when this may impact on their health, growth and training cycle. While dancers will always be at risk of injury, I believe it is our duty to put in place strict criteria to protect children and to ensure that the artistic and technical vocabulary we ask for is age-appropriate.
I am encouraged that so many ballet leaders, teachers and coaches are proactively trying to address this. I hope that now, and into the future, we can all promote what we consider to be healthy, nurturing and in the best interests of the young people we care for.
Christopher Powney, Artistic Director, The Royal Ballet School