Inside the intense life of a Butler ballerina

Butler dancers voice concerns about the culture of the dance program. Graphic by Emma Nobbe. 

EMMA CHAMLEY | STAFF REPORTER | echamley@butler.edu

ALISON MICCOLIS | NEWS EDITOR | amiccolis@butler.edu

Three sources asked to be anonymous and will be referred to using the pseudonyms Veronica, Harriet and Carol. 

Butler’s collegiate ballet program consistently ranks among the top five in the nation along with schools such as the Juilliard School, New York University Tisch School of the Arts and Fordham University. With alumni having performed in some of the best dance companies in the country such as the Boston Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, Butler’s dance program is known for producing quality, professional dancers. Behind the results, however, are a group of struggling dancers. 

Dancer Bodies  

Body image issues and eating disorders are common in the dance community. Dancers are forced to look in the mirror for hours a day, a feat which can cause severe body dysmorphia. Ballet culture has also glorified a certain body type, and although the ballet culture is changing, many dancers end up going to extreme lengths to fit the mold of how a traditional dancer looks. 

Veronica, a graduate of Butler’s dance program who is now dancing professionally, said she struggled with body image during her time at Butler, and said when she gained weight, her professors took notice. 

“I had gained like five pounds over winter break, and I came back, and then we had our yearly assessments that we do,” Veronica said. “And they told me that I was fat now, I needed to see a nutritionist, and they regretted casting me in such a good role. And that is not the worst that I’ve heard.” 

Dancers of all ages can struggle with body image issues, but Veronica said having a grade attached to her performance made her more aware and self-conscious of how her body looked. 

“I became more obsessed with how skinny I was because I had [roles] dangling and my grades were threatened,” Veronica said. “They were lower when [professors] didn’t like me as much, and they didn’t like me as much because of how fat they thought I was. So that caused a lot of stress on me for my physical appearance, and I had never cared that much about the way I looked, to the point of extremities. Every day, every time I sat down to eat, I would overanalyze everything or feel bad every time I ate. Or I’d freak out if I started getting hungry and the only options I had were super fattening and I had dance in an hour. I had to think about those things and I hated that.” 

Sophomore classics major, Hannah Elibol, was a dance performance major her first year at Butler. Elibol said the studio she attended before Butler was generally very body positive. They encouraged a good relationship with food. She said she did not have the same experience when she came to Butler and that her body image and relationship with food suffered. 

“In one of our body placement classes, we had a professor say, ‘Your dancer bodies are coming back, you are getting in shape,”’ Elibol said. “And we had been there for two months and that was two months of hardly having a lunch break in the day or hardly having time for a dinner break and rehearsing and dancing 30 to 40 hours a week. I know I was not at a healthy weight for how my body is built, and I felt like that was almost praised, in some ways, by those teachers.” 

Veronica said the messaging surrounding body image and one’s relationship with food has influenced the department’s culture as a whole. 

“Part of the culture is joking about ‘Oh my God, I skipped lunch today,’ and we all laugh and [say] ‘Oh my God, skinny,’ like it’s funny,” Veronica said. “And it’s become such a normal thing that sometimes we forget where [it’s] stemming from. And we all do it. We are all self-conscious. We all call ourselves fat. That is just something that we do.” 

Reaching a Breaking Point 

Conversations surrounding taking a break, athletic performance and mental health have recently become more prevalent in similar programs, especially after four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles took a break from her sport because of her mental health. But conversations about dance and mental health are less common

According to a 2021 study, between 12 and 26.5% of dancers in Europe have struggled with an eating disorder, compared to between 0.3 and 4.0% of the general population. The same study found that dancers often exhibited high levels of perfectionism, anxiety and depression and low levels of self-esteem. 

Former Butler dancer Harriet finally reached a breaking point with her mental health and decided leaving the program, at least for now, was her best course of action. 

“I’ve been dealing with anxiety and depression for a pretty long time, and just being in that environment was incredibly stressful for me,” Harriet said. “And I felt very alone and like I had nowhere to turn to. And it kind of got to the point where I felt like I needed to leave to like, to save my life, basically.” 

Carol, a current dance minor, said part of the problem surrounding mental health in the program is a lack of education. 

“I just think the professors need to know about our mental health problems, but they also need to understand our mental health problems and that it’s not us being fragile,” Carol said. “We are really struggling with, maybe it’s not even a dance related thing, but we can’t just leave it at the door and come into the classroom … I think the Butler dance professors need to have a mental health workshop so they can understand our problems so that way when we go to them, even if they can’t help us, they can at least understand why we are struggling in class; why we need to take a few days off.” 

Elibol said she had been dealing with anxiety and depression before coming to Butler, but that her time in the dance department did not help. When she confided in her professors about her mental health struggles during her routine dance evaluation in spring 2021, she was not met with a lot of support. 

“The response was, ‘not to trivialize what you’re going through, but don’t let that hold you back. Don’t let that stop you from getting better,”’ Elibol said. “I think if you start any sentence with ‘not to trivialize,’ that’s exactly what you’re going to do. And while I understand the professor’s intentions with that, I don’t think it was a carefully thought-out response.” 

The routine dance evaluation Elibol referred to is a time in the spring when each student has a scheduled time to sit in front of the dance department faculty and hear critiques about what they are doing well and what they could improve on. During the fall semester, students write a self-reflection in which they explain their strengths and weaknesses. This is used during the spring evaluation for faculty members to pull information with which they agree or disagree. 

“Tunnel Vision” 

The intense scheduling within the dance department is another concern amongst some students. Harriet said she knows other students who have schedules that do not line up with dining hall hours, meaning they have to forgo meals or find other options. 

Carol expressed her concern with the intensity of a dance major’s schedule. She said a dancer’s schedule depends on their year in the program, but that typically, dancers take either a jazz or modern class in the morning. Then there are ballet and pointe classes almost all afternoon. The dancers also have rehearsals for their shows on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Finally, there are senior choreography projects where first-year students are part of a senior dancer’s cast. The rehearsals for these performances take place outside of regularly scheduled Butler ballet rehearsal times. Oftentimes they are held on Sunday since that is the only time many dancers are available. In addition to their dance commitments, dance majors must fit in courses that fulfill Butler’s Core curriculum

“I think [scheduling is] one of the biggest problems,” Carol said. “… I know, especially this year, a lot of the dancers are going from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. every night. So it takes a lot out of you … 

There is no time to fit in homework, self care or sleep. I know a lot of my friends, they don’t get to eat lunch. They don’t have time to go get lunch because they have back to back classes from 8:00 to 3:00. So that there’s not really any downtime. And when there is downtime, you’re completely exhausted.” 

Dance professor Derek Reid said he wasn’t made aware of the dining hall issue until a couple of weeks ago, but that the dance faculty is working to find solutions, both within dining services and the dance department. He stressed the importance of communication between students and staff, and said he was always willing to talk to students about scheduling, mental health and other issues they may be facing. 

“We’re figuring that out, I think those conversations are ongoing, but certainly we are aware that that has been an issue,” Reid said. “I just feel bad that we weren’t aware of sooner. I wish that the students had felt more comfortable bringing that forward a little bit sooner but they brought it forward now and we’re addressing it.” 

Carol offered possible solutions to the dance department’s scheduling issues. 

“Always make sure that your dancer has a lunch break,” Carol said. “Make sure that they have a break in the afternoon to get some homework done. A list of things … [maybe] have an extra rehearsal class for side projects so you don’t have to go in on your one day off, so you can actually focus on yourself for that one day.” 

The rigorous dance schedule makes it difficult for students to double major or minor outside of the dance department. Veronica said the dance program expects its students to have “tunnel vision” where they can only focus on dance and put all their effort and extra time into dance. 

Reid said he tries to help students who want to explore additional majors and minors and that students should talk to their advisors early to find out how they can accomplish that goal. 

“I think it is a collaboration between advisor and student,” Reid said. “But most of the heavy lifting is on the student to figure out what is most important and how they can fit those extra classes into their day. It can be challenging, but it is possible.” 

There is a Rubric 

Some dancers have expressed concern and confusion about the grading system within the department. Reid said for in-studio work, there are a variety of elements professors look at when grading their students. Some elements include how the dancer moves their body, how they are able to process and incorporate corrections that deal with their technique within a particular dance style, their artistry, how they interpret roles, their ability to process complicated information related to performance, attendance and attention to detail. 

There are rubrics the professors use which Reid said helps eliminate subjectivity in grading. Carol said even with the implementation of rubrics, she finds it hard to understand the grading system since everybody has different body types and different limits when it comes to their flexibility, not because of muscles, but because of bone structure. 

“The professors are all excited because they’re like ‘We made a rubric. We made a rubric for you to go look at,”’ Carol said. “I don’t think they realize that none of us have good body perception because we all have mental health problems, and so we don’t know how to perceive ourselves anymore and so we can’t look at the rubric and be like ‘Oh yeah, that’s the thing I need to work on’ and then fix it.” 

Carol said she thinks there should be changes made to grading, possibly changing to a pass/fail system. 

“I think because we only get one credit hour for our dance classes or two credit hours, I think it would be more beneficial to make the classes pass/fail instead of letter grading,” Carol said. “Because then it’s like, you are doing good with your body, with your facility, what you can do, you are doing great in class within your own personal restrictions, so you pass. And then failing would be, you aren’t working to your fullest, you aren’t coming to class, all the basic things of ‘you aren’t trying.”’ 

In addition to grading in class, Carol said there are issues around feedback in class. She said sometimes the dancers who are already doing well receive very little feedback, even though they are trying to learn and improve. Veronica said there are issues with favoritism within the program and that she believes this sets certain people up for success and leaves the others to fight for themselves. 

“Everyone is paying to be here and everyone is trying to study and improve,” Veronica said. “And sometimes that shows a lot in parts too and casting where somebody will get so many lead roles, so their résumé is really built up for when they finish college … And I think that they forget sometimes that they are a college program … People are willing to learn to get better, and people are coming here in hopes that at the end of four years, they’ll have a really strong résumé with a lot of great pieces that they’ve performed. And when they choose only specific people for specific roles over those four years and you get jipped, you’re not only losing stuff on your résumé, but you’re also losing self-confidence.” 

Assistant dance professor David Ingram said he was confused about why students hadn’t been open about their experiences in the program. 

“I think that there’s a clear dialogue that’s missing,” Ingram said. “We as a faculty want to have this dialogue. And we would like the students to bring these things to us. In a safe place where they [don’t] feel like something’s gonna happen to them. I don’t know why they feel like they can’t say these things.” 

Harriet said some students are afraid that if they come forward, they could be targeted by professors and their grades could be affected or they could lose valuable opportunities for roles. Ingram responded to similar criticism saying he does not know of any blacklisting in the department and that he does not believe students will get in trouble for voicing their concern.

Harriet said she has felt supported by individual professors in the program, but that the overall atmosphere is not supportive and makes you feel like you will be penalized if you say anything. 

“Maybe there is more support there than students think,” Harriet said. “It seems to need to be a two-way street where the students know that the support is there but they also have to reach out and ask for it.” 

Global Issues 

Many of the problems Butler’s ballet program faces are the result of issues in the wider ballet community. Carol said Butler dancers are not the only dancers going through struggles. 

“Most dance studios and training programs are very toxic,” Carol said. “There’s a lot of mental health problems, there’s a lot of body image issues. The teachers are not great to their students and just a lot of toxicity that can damage a dancer’s psyche and their perception of themselves.” 

This means that many of the dancers coming to Butler are already aware of the problems they are going to face. Carol said that most dancers have a love-hate relationship with the art form that makes it difficult for them to quit. 

“Being in the dance world is like having a case of Stockholm Syndrome,” Carol said. “You have this situation that you willingly put yourself into that damages you psychologically and it kind of hurts your body all the time and you run yourself ragged to the point of exhaustion, but if you aren’t in that situation, you’re unhappy. So a lot of dancers, they have been doing it since they were three or five or eight or whatever, and they literally don’t know what to do with their lives if they are not dancing.” 

Even though she moved on from the department, Elibol said she does not want to bash the dance department. Instead, she wants to start a conversation surrounding some of the issues and said she believes that if they are solved, the program has the potential to be even better. 

“I really do think it’s a great department and the training the dancers receive here is incredible,” Elibol said. “I think, for the department to continue to pursue a new level of excellence, they’re always striving to be the best. And I think one of the biggest ways they’d be able to accomplish that is by being more receptive to mental health and other related issues. I think it’ll make their dancers better artists and better people.” 

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