Ballet, an Empowering Embodied Experience

A Feminist Phenomenological Analysis of Ballerinas’ Bodies

Pauline Dirven

Publicatiedatum: 3 juli 2020


How can ballet offer women an empowering experience? At first sight, it might seem that the centuries-old practice of romantic or classical ballet limits women’s opportunities to transcend gender norms. [1] As feminist readings of ballet have suggested, balletic performances often force women into feminine stereotypes. Consider for example that ballerinas perform gender notions of slimness and fragility, are objectified by a (male) audience and become restricted in their movements as choreographers and ballet teachers tell them what steps they need to make and how they need to perform them. [2] It seems that, by practising ballet, the female body becomes a docile object, i.e. something that – almost like a marionette – follows the orders of the choreographer or teacher, the rules of the art form and the gender norms of the society at large. From this perspective, the body of the ballerina is a thing, an instrument, that can be shaped and moulded to reflect gendered stereotypes.

Perceived as such, ballet offers women few opportunities for empowerment or emancipation. Indeed, as feminist phenomenologist Iris Marion Young has famously illustrated, female objectification negatively influences how women experience their bodies and their selves. It leads to a situation in which women become alienated from their bodies, neglect to make full use of their bodies’ capacities and make movements ‘smaller’, to ensure that they do not inhabit ‘too much’ space. Following the description of ballet that is given above, it would seem that the ballerina is the pre-eminent example of such a restricted bodily subject. However, it is not self-evident that this seemingly conservative gender performance equals a limited bodily experience.

This article inquires how white, Western ballerinas [3] experience their bodies in the seemingly stereotypical female environment of ballet – characterized by tutus, fairy-like figures, and tragic love stories. Bringing together various phenomenological studies on dance, I argue that ballet offers women a practice that can potentially empower them, instead of one that stifles them. To be more precise, perceived through a phenomenological lens, ballet becomes a practice that can offer women a space in which they can feel strong, capable, whole and able to fully inhabit and experience the space around them. Before I conduct this analysis, I first give a short overview of the literature that suggests that balletic practice objectifies the female body.

The ballerina’s body as an object?

Marxist-feminist dance historians argue that the objectification of the ballerina’s body has its origins in the nineteenth century, the heyday of the romantic and classical ballet. They point to the theatre’s and dancer’s financial dependency on the middle-class audience to explain why ballerinas became sexualized and exploited. Dance historians Abigail Solomon-Godeau and Lynn Garafola describe that around the 1830s European theatres [4] became private enterprises, dominated no longer by the aristocracy, but by the upper-middle class. As theatres became financially dependent on selling season tickets to a bourgeois audience, the latter gained a powerful position, as the maintainers of the theatre. [5] Conscious of their new role, these wealthy spectators began to see the theatre and everything in it as commodities, including the ballerinas. According to Solomon-Godeau, ‘the new arrangements tended to encourage and institutionalize a situation in which wealthy and powerful men could regard the corps de ballet as a sanctioned flesh market’. [6] This meant that the bourgeois audience objectified and sexualised the dancers. The bodies of ballerinas had become objects of male, bourgeois desire and exploitation.

In contemporary performances of ballet, the body of the ballerina becomes less a commodity and more an object mirroring gender constructs. [7] Feminist dance scholars have argued that gender determines how male and female dancers move. [8] Christy Adair explains

whilst women are required to be more supple in their legs and backs men are expected to achieve spectacular jumps and turns. (…) Whereas the strength and control which the women require is hidden by the apparent ease in their performance the strength and control which men need for jumping is displayed. [9]

Anna Aalten adds that the big movements of the male dancer make him seem active and allow him to inhabit a lot of space, whereas the subtle techniques and small movements of the ballerina make her seem graceful and weightless, like a fairy or a ghost. [10] Moreover, in the words of Helen Thomas, ‘the ballerina in the pas de deux [11] has often been treated as a passive object, whose function was to be manipulated, dependent and supported by the male dancer’. [12] For these scholars, the balletic movements reduce the ballerina to a passive, delicate object. [13]

Turning the attention away from the gendered movements of the dancers towards the way they work with their bodies, some scholars claim that the objectification of the female body is accomplished further through its instrumental use in the ballet training. [14] Adair claims:

The self-discipline dancers acquire enables them to strive and reach the standards required which are initially imposed by the teacher’s discipline in class. The hard work, repetition and structure of the daily class frequently result in ‘unthinking’ dancers, trained to accept unquestioningly the professional requirements. For women, this structure mirrors women’s expected role as passive rather than active in society. [15]

In this process of disciplining their bodies, dancers are thought to unconsciously shape their bodies, not only along gendered expectations but also according to the rules or ideals of the art. [16] Ballerinas try to forge their bodies into an internalized balletic ideal, by ‘forcing it to overcome biological boundaries and stimuli, such as pain and injury’. [17] This then leads dancers to objectify their bodies:

through history ballet dancers came to look upon their bodies as tools that can be stretched, bent, starved or whatever to push the boundaries of the technique so that today many ballet dancers think of what they can do to their bodies as though they were objects. [18]

In this instrumentalist reading, the balletic practice becomes a form of discipline that requires the dancer to view her body as an object that can be shaped to fit the expectations of others.

All these readings of ballet have in common that they view the dancing body as a passive object. Below I will consider to what extent this influences the bodily experiences of dancers. To answer this question, I turn to feminist phenomenology.

Feminist phenomenology: a theoretical framework

Phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty analyse bodily experiences of the world. [19] The point of departure of Merleau-Ponty in Phénoménologie de la perception is that ‘our corporeality is always the perspective from which we engage with the world’. [20] This means that every relation a subject has with the Lebenswelt, the world in which we live, is mediated by our bodily-being-in-the-world. [21] Consequently, ‘there is a world for a subject just insofar as the body has capacities by which it can approach, grasp, and appropriate its surroundings in the direction of its intentions.’ [22] In other words, the body is the viewpoint from which the subject experiences the world. The possibilities that are open for a subject in the world depend on the ‘mode and limits of the bodily “I can”’, the sense that the body can carry out specific tasks and functions. [23]

This perspective not only influences the conceptualisation of the world but also of the subject that knows the world. In Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, as the body is the medium through which people experience the world, corporality becomes an essential part of the self. [24] More to the point, Merleau-Ponty’s perspective on the relation between a person and the world implies that subjectivity is not, as modern Cartesian thought stated, located in the mind or consciousness, but in the body. [25] Subjectivity rests on the premise that as a subject ‘I am’ my body, and that I/my body can move in the world. For a body to be able to sense this and thus to perform a motion properly it needs to exist in unity with itself and its surroundings. [26] This interpretation of the body presupposes that it is not just an object or an instrument. Instead, the body is part of a person’s subjectivity.

Feminist and postcolonial scholars have added the concept of culture to this perspective. They illustrate that not only the body’s characteristics (for example the abilities of the five senses) but also the social-structural situatedness of bodies frame embodied experiences. [27] This perspective was taken up by Iris Marion Young, in her pioneering work on feminist phenomenology. She describes how the objectification of the female body negatively influences women’s embodied experiences. First, women do not have the sense of unity of their bodies Merleau-Ponty described. Approached as an instrument, the female body becomes ‘overlaid with immanence, even if it moves out toward the world in motions’. [28] This means that women tend to use only one part of their bodies when they perform a task, while the rest of the body remains stagnant matter. Their embodied experience is fragmented. Moreover, it leads to a situation in which women become alienated from their bodies. Second, the feminine body underuses its real capacity. The body simultaneously aims to achieve a goal with an ‘I can’ and ‘withholds its full bodily commitment to that end in a self-imposed “I cannot”’. [29] Third, female bodies are in discontinuous unity with themselves and their surroundings. [30] Consequently, women use a smaller space than is physically available to them. [31] According to Young, these limitations result from the objectification of women and the interconnected threat to the female body of being invaded and getting hurt.

In this reading, the objectification of the female body negatively influences the embodied experience of the self. This raises questions about the ballerina’s embodied experience. Does the objectification of her body inevitably lead to the dancer’s discontinuity with her surroundings and her alienation from, fragmented experience of and believe in the incapacity of her body?

Embodied experiences of ballet

Considering the literature on ballerina’s bodies, it might seem that the dancer’s experiences match Young’s description. Dancers’ bodies are, after all, objectified twice, both by the audience and by ballerinas themselves in their instrumental approach to their bodies. However, the objectification of the dancing body is more complex. Dancers do not simply experience their bodies as instruments, but more importantly, as something through which they can experience their selves and their surroundings. Therefore, dancers are not prevented from inhabiting a lot of space, experiencing their bodies as a whole and considering themselves as strong, capable professionals.

Experience of bodily strength and capability

As is observed by dance and sports researchers, during a ballet class, the dancers practice movements and positions. Contrary to what some researchers have suggested, these exercises do not limit the dancer’s embodied experience but instead offer them an opportunity to experience their bodies’ strength. As Aalten argues in one of her later works, ballerinas experience these strict regulations as ‘a challenge rather than a straightjacket’. [32] Ballerinas need to exercise great physical strength to achieve balletic ideals, while ‘in western culture, physical strength and femininity are believed to be incompatible. (…) Physical achievements are associated with masculinity.’ [33] As a consequence, ‘in ballet, the emphasis placed on technical prowess and virtuosity of the ballerina counteracts the stereotyped images of gender.’ [34] In balletic practices, through the challenge of executing difficult movements, ballerinas are encouraged to use the full capacities of their bodies and even to move beyond them. [35] Indeed, they do not consider their bodies as something fragile that they need to protect from pain, but instead ‘consider pain a part of their profession and often experience it as a positive feeling (push the body to its limits)’. [36] By challenging their bodies, ballerinas thus develop a strong sense of their bodily capacities.

Contrary to what might be expected, the presence of an audience, that can also objectify the dancer, does not weaken this sensation. As dance historian Alexandra Carter points out, this assumption derives from a one-sided perception of the audience. The public is not just passively receiving a visual image but is actively interacting with the ballet in a kinaesthetic manner. [37] The members of the audience are embodied subjects who experience the balletic art through their bodies. It tends not to escape the audience that balletic performances are physical challenges. Indeed, already in the nineteenth-century, newspaper articles demonstrated this awareness of the audience by reflecting on the hard training programmes of ballerinas that involved painful and difficult exercises. [38] Therefore, the audience’s presence does not stifle the dancer, but instead the ‘attendant hypnotic reflection [of the display of physical strength] in the audience suspend [the ballerinas] in a state of continuing power’. [39] In other words, the performance of their bodily expertise in front of such an audience can strengthen the dancers’ bodily sense of their strength and capability.

Experience of the bodily unity

Not only is the experience of the training practice different from what various dance scholars have suggested, but the performance of these exercises is also more complex. While scholars have argued that the objectification of the dancing body happens as ballerinas picture the ideal balletic body in their minds and view it in the mirror, in reality, the training experience is not only visual. This focus on the visual results from the researchers’ position as spectators and their tendency to limit their focus to the ballet class. In dance literature, there is a demarcation of dance spaces. Scholars either restrict their focus to the theatre or the ballet studio. Separating both balletic spaces is problematic as it simplifies the dancer’s experience of her body and space. Indeed, for dancers, the experience of the ballet studio and the theatre are closely linked. On stage, they remember what they have learnt in the studio and during the training, they anticipate their future performative experience. The latter means that during ballet practices, they work on their ‘stage presence’; [40] they imagine that there is an audience watching them and they try to limit their use of the mirror because on stage they need to feel whether their movements are right and are not able to check them in the mirror.

Nuancing the importance of the mirror, it becomes possible to illustrate that dancing bodies are not simply tools, but sites for full embodied experiences. Following this line of thought, ballet exercises should not be seen as practices that lead to the body’s objectification, but as opportunities for dancers to explore the workings of their bodies. [41] Inspired by phenomenological theory, Dorothée Legrand and Susanne Ravn explain that dancers not only consider whether their movements look right, but also contemplate whether they feel right. In this sense ‘what is perceived from within and from the external ideal body are constructed in a tandem where “each influences the development of the other”’. [42] In a similar line of thought, Jennifer Jackson rejects the idea that dancers engage in a thoughtless practice of drilling and instead argues that dancers have to be aware of their body parts, coordinate themselves, make choices and understand ‘the principles and qualities of movement’. [43] Indeed, through balletic practices, dancers are not simply using their bodies as instruments but explore how their bodies can inhabit specific movements.

Moreover, ballerinas’ bodies are not only sites to be explored, but they are also the perspective from which they experience the environment. Through dancing, the body becomes ‘a source of worthy experiences and possibilities’. [44] As Legrand and Ravn argue, dancers experience their surroundings through their movements. This is evident, firstly, in the way dancing shapes how ballerinas make use of the space around them. Dancers are thought to fully inhabit and make use of the physical space available to them. They need to be aware of the whole space around them, to be able to quickly move from here to yonder and, to be able to perform their movements to the fullest, they claim the space they are in by making big movements. Secondly, dancing offers ballerinas the opportunity to experience music through their bodies. As Legrand and Ravn explain, ‘dancers hear through their moving bodies more than through their ears’, as they feel/hear to which steps the music ‘refers’. [45] In these ways, dance does not simply offer ballerinas the experience of having a body but, as they develop a sense that they are connected to the world through their bodies, allows them to come to grips with the idea that they are their bodies.

This sense of bodily subjectivity becomes heightened when the dancers reach the point of bodily know-how. That is the point when they no longer have to think about how they can make their bodies move, but their bodies have become habituated. The dancers no longer have to fragment their bodies and focus on the workings of specific bodyparts but can experience their bodies as a unity. As Aalten claims, a fragmented instrumentalization of the body is only a first step, necessary to achieve the techniques through which dancers can experience ‘the moment when it all comes together’, i.e. the moment when dancers ‘exceed the discontinuity of body, mind and emotions’. [46] The dancers’ instrumental approach of their bodies is temporary and functional, it offers them the opportunity to develop physical skills that allow them a full embodied experience of themselves and the space they inhabit.


The phenomenological lens, when adequately applied, offers dance scholars a theoretical framework to interpret ballet as a potentially empowering practice for women. Dancing offers ballerinas the opportunity ‘to negotiate social ideology relating to female fragility and challenge the assumption that masterful or skilful behaviour is not for women’. [47] It allows them to make full use of their bodily capabilities, explore their bodies, develop physical skills that give them a sense of bodily unity and experience the environment they inhabit through their bodies.

It might seem that ballerinas would perfectly adhere to the restricted and frail embodied experience Young described as characteristic for objectified women. Indeed, as the literature suggests, ballerinas objectify their bodies in the training practices where they try to mould their bodies into ideal movements. However, I have argued that these balletic exercises do not distance the dancer from her body or limit her embodied experience. First, because the ballerinas do not experience these ideal movements as a straightjacket, but as a challenge, that offers them the opportunity to push their bodies’ limits and exercise great physical strength. Second, to learn specific movements the dancers cannot force themselves into an ideal body, but must instead explore how their bodies function and how it feels to dance these figures. Third, instead of being alienated from their bodies, ballerinas experience their surroundings corporally. In this way, dance does not simply offer ballerinas the experience of having a body but, as they develop a sense that they are connected to the world through their bodies, allows them to experience that they are their bodies. Fourth, this sense of bodily subjectivity becomes heightened when the dancers overcome the practice phase and achieve bodily know-how. These four embodied experiences show that for ballerinas dancing is a performance that offers them a sense of physical strength and skill, the bodily ‘I can’ and allows them to explore their bodies’ workings and engagement with the environment, the bodily ‘I am’.

In this paper, only the gendered dimension of ballet is taken into account. Further research should take up the questions of ethnicity and sexuality to inquire whether only particular privileged women become empowered in the balletic environment. Moreover, historical analysis is necessary to see whether there exists a long tradition of empowering experiences of ballerinas or that contextual changes, such as the emergence of the feminist waves, the emergence of new dance and theatre traditions or the integration of women in sports culture, have altered ballerinas’ embodied experiences.


[1] Romantic ballet is a genre that developed from the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. In this genre the ballerina is envisioned as a being from another world, such as a fairy or a ghost, and therefore she has to convince the audience that she is light as a feather. Late nineteenth-century classical ballet is closely related to romantic ballet, but distinguishes itself by its emphasis on the technical aspect of dance. [2] See: Lynn Garafola, ‘The Travesty Dancer in Nineteenth-Century Ballet’, Dance Research Journal 17/18 (1985) 35-40; Abigail Solomon-Godeau, ‘The Legs of the Countess’, October 39 (1986) 65-108; Anna Aalten, ‘Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, in: Kathy Davis ed., Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body (London, 1997) 41-59; Helen Thomas, The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory (New York 2003); Susan Foster ‘The Ballerina’s Phallic Pointe’, in: Susan Foster ed. Corporealities: Dancing Knowledge, Culture and Power (London, 1996) 1-26. [3] Romantic and classical ballet are types of dancing that were developed and continue to be primarily practiced in the West. Until recently, the ideal balletic body was white. And while recently steps are taken towards the inclusion of dancers from different ethnic backgrounds, racial casting and discrimination in ballet are still profound. These themes are too important and complex to include this small paper. See: Nyama McCarthy-Brown, ‘Dancing in the Margins: Experiences of African American Ballerinas’, Journal of African American Studies, 15 (2011) 385-408. [4] Especially those in Paris and London. [5] Garafola, ‘The Travesty Dancer’, 35. [6] Solomon-Godeau, ‘The Legs of the Countess’, 25. [7] Sally Banes, Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (London 1998) 11. [8] Christy Adair, Women and Dance: Sylphes and Sirens (London 1992) 15; Banes, Dancing Women, 11; Aalten, ‘Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, 41-58; Thomas, The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory, 111. [9] Adair, Women and Dance, 15-16. [10] Aalten, ‘Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, 41-58. For an example on the difference between the male and female movements see: Ewaasia, ‘Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov – Giselle second act II pas de deux’, YouTube Video, 8:57, 23 August 2010, [11] Duet between a man and a woman. [12] Thomas, The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory, 161. [13] Aalten, ’Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, 54. [14] Adair, Women and Dance, 15; Aalten, ‘Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, 48; Thomas, The Body, Dance and Cultural Theory, 111. [15] Adair, Women and Dance, 15. [16] See: Sophie Merit Müller, ‘Beyond the Body’s Skin: Describing the Embodiment of Practices’, in: Michael Jonas et al. ed., Methodological Reflections on Practice Oriented Theories (New York 2017); George Alexias and Elina Dimitropoulou, ‘The Body as a Tool: Professional Classical Ballet Dancers’ Embodiment’, Research in Dance Education 12.2 (2011) 87-104; Anna Aalten, ‘“The Moment When It All Comes Together”: Embodied Experiences in Ballet’, The European Journal of Women’s Studies 11.3 (2004) 263-276; Andrée Grau, ‘When the Landscape becomes Flesh: An Investigation into Body Boundaries with Special Reference to Tiwi Dance and Western Classical Ballet’, Body & Society 11.4 (2005) 145. [17] Alexias and Dimitropoulou, ‘The Body as a Tool’, 93. [18] Grau, ‘When the Landscape becomes Flesh’, 145. [19] Silvia Stoller, ‘Phenomenology and the Poststructural Critique of Experience’, International Journal of Philosophical Studies 17.5 (2009) 709. [20] Own translation, original: ‘onze lichamelijkheid altijd het perspectief is waaruit wij op de wereld betrokken zijn’. Antoon Braeckman, Bart Raymaekers, and Gerd van Riel, ‘Decentrering van het subject’, Wijsbegeerte (Leuven 2013) 190. See: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la perception (Varsarley 1968). [21] Stoller, ‘Phenomenology and the Poststructural Critique of Experience’, 175; Braeckman, Raymaekers and Riel, ‘Decentrering van het subject’, 190. [22] Iris Marion Young, Throwing Like a Girl and Other Essays in Feminist Philosophy and Social Theory (Bloomington 1990) 35-36. [23] Ibidem, 36. [24] Joanne Mayoh, Ian Jones, and Sam Prince, ‘Women’s Experiences of Embodied Identity through Active Leisure’, Leisure Sciences 42.2 (2018) 1-15. [25] Young, Throwing Like a Girl, 35. [26] Ibidem, 38. [27] See for example: Sara Ahmed, ‘A Phenomenology of Whiteness’, Feminist Theory 8.2 (2007) 152; Amy Clark, ‘Exploring Women’s Embodied Experiences of ‘The Gaze’ in a Mix-Gendered UK Gym’, Societies 8.2 (2017) 3; Mayoh, Jones, and Prince, ‘Women’s Experiences of Embodied Identity’, 3-4. [28] Young, Throwing Like a Girl, 36. [29] Ibidem. [30] Ibidem, 38. [31] Ibidem, 39-41. [32] Aalten, ‘“The Moment When It All Comes Together”’, 271. [33] Ibidem, 272. [34] Ibidem. [35] Alexias and Dimitropoulou, ‘The Body as a Tool’, 34. [36] Ibidem, 92. [37] Alexandra Carter, ‘Dying Swans or Sitting Ducks?: A Critical Reflection on Feminist Gazes at Ballet’, Performance Research 4.3 (1999) 93. [38] ‘Ditjes en Datjes LXI’, De Maasbode, 5 June 1887. [39] Aalten, ‘Performing the Body, Creating Culture’, 56. Here Aalten quotes A. de Mille, Dance to the Piper: Memoirs of the Ballet (London 1951) 60-61. [40] Müller, ‘Beyond the Body’s Skin’, 134. [41] Dorothée Legrand and Susanne Ravn, ‘Perceiving Subjectivity in Bodily Movement: The Case of Dancers’, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences 8.3 (2009) 403. [42] Ibidem. [43] Jennifer Jackson, ‘My dance and the ideal body: looking at ballet practice from the inside out’, Research in Dance Education 6.1/2 (2005) 31. [44] Aalten, ‘“The Moment When It All Comes Together”’, 271. [45] Legrand and Ravn, ‘Perceiving Subjectivity in Bodily Movement’, 401. [46] Aalten, “‘The Moment When It All Comes Together”’, 274. [47] Mayoh, Jones, and Prince, ‘Women’s Experiences of Embodied Identity’, 4.

Author bio

Pauline Dirven is a PhD candidate at Utrecht University. Her research interests lie in the history of the body, gendered experiences, and performance theory. During her research master she studied gendered experiences of modernity in dance cultures. Her current research focuses on embodied performances of expertise in forensic culture, Britain 1920-2000. She is part of the FORCE project, an ERC funded research project that studies forensic cultures in Europe.

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