CriticalDance Forum

Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum
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Author:  Emma Pegler [ Sat Jun 02, 2001 1:48 am ]
Post subject:  Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Ballet Independents’ Group Discussion Forum<BR>Held at Royal Festival Hall on 24 May, 2001<BR>Discussion topic – ‘Ballet – Body – Image’<P>The Ballet Independents’ Group (“BIG”) was founded by Susie Crow and Jennifer Jackson. It organises regular discussions on topics relating to ballet which anyone can attend. Emma Pegler summarises the issues debated at the most recent BIG discussion forum. <P>A panel of experts assembled in a reception room overlooking the Thames at the Royal Festival Hall to open the debate on the question of body image in the ballet world: Julia Buckroyd, teacher and researcher at the University of Hertfordshire and welfare consultant to vocational dance schools, Maina Gielgud, ballerina and former Artistic Director of the Australian and Royal Danish Ballet companies and The Right Hon. Baroness Warnock, philosopher, and mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. <P>What had prompted the debate was the Keefer case. In November, 2000 Krissy Keefer filed a complaint with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission against the San Francisco Ballet (“SFB”) on behalf of her daughter, Fredrika. The complaint alleged that Fredrika, aged 8, had been refused admission to the San Francisco Ballet School (the “School”) on the basis of body type, and that this was in contravention of a recent City law enacted to prevent discrimination based on height or weight by any organisation receiving City funding. The School does not receive any such funding but SFB benefits from the City’s ‘Grants for the Arts Programme’. The complaint, which is a serious one because, if substantiated, could lead to the revocation of City funding from SFB, is still pending. The facts of the case were summarised by Susie Crow and the panel was asked to open the debate by addressing two main issues: the physical aesthetic of ballet - what it is currently perceived to be and how might that evolve - and what are the responsibilities of schools, ballet companies and even the dancers themselves in determining that aesthetic.<P>Baroness Warnock defended the right of the School to adhere to its published criteria for entry. Julia Buckroyd agreed that dance schools are entitled to select candidates based on their own established criteria. However, this does not mean that those criteria are appropriate nor that they should not change, being too rigid and clinging to an outdated view of the image of ballerina. Is it necessary for ballet for the dancer to be a specific shape or size and what are the limits of shape for basic competence in the dance? This, Buckroyd believes, does not only touch emotional issues such as poor self-image, but also physical issues: a woman who is too thin will not menstruate and will be at a much higher risk of osteoporosis.<P>Maina Gielgud also defended the SFB School – its published criteria for entry are streamlined to prepare pupils for the main company and for the aesthetic that the director seeks in the dancers. If that is its goal, the School has the right to determine which physique has the highest chance of success in being selected for the company. That then begs the question – could the school be broader in its goals and train dancers for other companies (in the recognition that only a few of the pupils will find places in the company) where the aesthetic for body type may be less exclusive, less rigid? Ms Gielgud, having been in both camps – dancer and selector of dancers - was able to illuminate the discussion with direct experience. There is a greater emphasis on polished performance in dance today over drama, bringing with it the search for the ‘perfect body’. As a result, in the selection of young dancers, matters such as ‘turn-out’ are given precedence over musicality and natural aptitude for dance. Personally, whilst satisfying herself that visually a child could become a classically trained dancer, Gielgud prizes imagination and that need to dance in a child, over physical aptitude. Without those qualities, the audience will not be interested in the finished product. <P>The emphasis on physical aptitude is such that Gielgud believes that neither she nor many of the great dancers of the past would be successful in entering a good ballet school based on current criteria. She cited the fashion for the ‘six o’clock’ legs and the fact that once the audience’s eye develops a taste for the extremes of physical aptitude, it is hard to modify that. (Of course there is a whole lobby in the ballet world that despises the undignified splitting of the legs in this way, which they believe has robbed ballet of its grace and dignity, but many people are impressed with this athleticism and consider those without it to be inferior dancers.)<P>The debate that followed concentrated on the ‘ballerina’ on the basis that it is generally in ballet that the dancer’s body is required to conform to a particular size and shape, and that is much more prevalent for the female than male ballet dancer. Balanchine’s predilection for long slender limbs in his female dancers is well-known, for example, and I, myself, cannot think of too many occasions in which well-developed thighs have been a bar to a male ballet dancer getting to the top of his profession. In addition, young women are much more prone to develop eating disorders as a result of trying to maintain a slenderness that a healthy body cannot support.<P>I was impressed with the diversity of the 30 or so people that had attended the forum –a psychologist who specialises in eating disorders, a physiotherapist with the Royal Ballet, dance teachers and lecturers, a recent graduate from the Royal Ballet School, former Royal Ballet principal, and choreographer, Lynn Seymour, and various people with no real direct experience of dance but with a budding curiosity, to name a few. It meant that the discussion evolved well and touched on all issues involving the body image of dancers. <P>It was generally thought that, on the strict interpretation of the nature of Krissy Keefer’s complaint, the case could not easily be substantiated. The published criteria for entry into the school are: “The ideal candidate is a healthy child with a well-proportioned, slender body; a straight and supple spine, legs that are well turned out from the hip joint, and correctly arched feet. The child should also have an ear for music and an instinct for movement”. These criteria do not specifically mention height or weight, which is the basis for Keefer’s complaint. There has also been speculation in the media that Krissy Keefer’s background as an activist in feminist issues, may be the motive for putting her daughter in a position where she knew she would fail, thereby providing the opportunity to challenge the accepted norms for the ballerina’s body. Of course this overlooks the fact that Fredrika had a scholarship for SFB’s ‘Dance in Schools Programme’ enabling her to take some classes at the School; we cannot accuse the mother of taking a total outsider into the ballet environment, knowing that she would fail. A dance lecturer from San Francisco defended the seriousness and integrity of Krissy Keefer and a lecturer at Roehampton further defended Keefer’s stance, believing that it raised the need for a broader education in dance schools.<P>The panel and assembled forum agreed, however, that, whether or not Keefer’s case is successful, the School’s published criteria illustrate the sad truth that for ballet schools, an aptitude for dance is secondary to physical aptitude, which, in itself, prescribes a particular body type. The criteria of the School suggest, for example, that there is such a thing as “correctly arched feet” and, if the child “should also have an ear for music and an instinct for movement”, having a natural ability to dance is clearly a secondary consideration. It was recognised that determining whether an 8 year old has innate talent and will be a good dancer is difficult, but then determining the child’s figure after puberty is equally difficult.<P>Lynn Seymour widened the debate, making the point that, aside from the problems presented for the dancer vis a vis the prevailing body image, it is counter-productive for the dance world in general; a dance school that places uniformity of body over creativity may ensure that only bodies that can withstand the rigours of the training are selected, but that will inevitably mean that potential choreographers and directors would be lost if they do not have the ‘perfect’ dancer’s body. Schools do not only produce dancers – they are also the training grounds for the creators of dance. In other words, it is the responsibility of dance schools, companies and their artistic directors to recognise that the school is not just a pool of bodies from which to select the perfect dancer for their company – selection for schools should therefore embrace more than a uniform idea of the perfect body.<P>A teacher from London Studio Centre shared his experiences of selecting dancers, believing that teachers do not have the gift of prophecy as to how well a dancer will progress. The Royal Ballet physiotherapist explained that a dancer with what would generally be perceived as a physical weakness and therefore bar to success, can, with hard work, improve and compensate for those weaknesses and become an outstanding dancer. So, it is also incumbent on the dancers themselves to realistically control their bodies, not to push them by trying to attain the unattainable and thereby perpetuating the idea of a perfect body type, but to play to their strengths and work to overcome any weaknesses. Of course, overcoming weaknesses will depend upon a good teacher recognising such weaknesses, but, as in all walks of life, those with the greatest struggles often become the most successful artists, driven on by sheer determination. A dance teacher from Lewisham College pointed out that there is a responsibility on teachers to build the instrument of dance – the body - and not just teach the steps and style.<P>A great deal of the debate about the dancer’s body is predicated on the fact that the elite ballet schools are searching for the stars of tomorrow for their companies. In reality only two or three pupils will progress from the Royal Ballet School into the company each year. Where do the others go? Should such schools be providing a broader education, preparing the pupils in the knowledge that the majority will have to seek positions in other ballet companies, pursue other types of dance, or indeed live a life outside of dance? If only a few are ultimately selected for the company, need all pupils selected for the school be of the rigid body type that it is expected will progress to the company – should the schools be allowed to function just on the lines of creating a large pool of uniform dancers from which to draw the lucky three? Should dance schools provide a broader education, both in dance, so that the dancers can move to other forms if not successful in getting into the main company, and generally?<P>The forum allowed the free-flow of all ideas related to body image in the dance world. It came to no firm conclusions or recommendations, but I think that is appropriate – it raised the issues in a controlled and objective way, heightening awareness of the pressures on young dancers and supporting the idea that dance is about dance; the perfection of the instrument of dance should not become paramount.<P>A full transcript of the proceedings will be available. To obtain a copy, e-mail Susie Crow at or Jennifer Jackson at<P>

Author:  Emma Pegler [ Sat Jun 02, 2001 2:12 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

This message was accidentally deleted before - I understand there wers 4 respondees whose messages are lost. Could they please re-post.....many thanks

Author:  Basheva [ Sat Jun 02, 2001 5:36 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Trying to remember what I said here.....<P>In my preparation for my article which appeared in the February issue of Dance Europe Magazine, I talked to Ms. Keefer (the mother) and while she certainly is an activist she is also a knowledgeable dance teacher. She stated to me that she sees this as a wedge issuein an activist sense. She was also upset that she didn't feel that the children were judged in the audition on the dance technique/knowledge that they already had.<P>I also spoke to the San Francisco Ballet School and mentioned this issue of judging the children on their dance technique. As I understood the spokeswoman's response, she said the school does not judge the existing technique that a child might have. They would almost rather that the child comes to the school as a clean slate. I find that quite understandable. <P>She also told me that the school does not have concrete height and weight requirements. And the school, as stated in Emma's article, does not receive public money.<P>I did, however, like Lynn Seymour's comment in the above post about the fact that many who are given the opportunity to benefit from such formal dance training, might not necessarily use this training directly for eventual performance.<P> Even though classes emphasizing choreographic skills might not be given as part of the school's curriculum , there are students who become choreographers - or teachers - or artistic directors. So there are many benefits to such formal training, that don't require a specific body type. And the ballet world benefits greatly from these people too.

Author:  Stuart Sweeney [ Sat Jun 02, 2001 6:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Many thanks Emma for taking the trouble to write-up the discussion.

Readers might be interested that BIG used the criticaldance topics on the Keefer affair as a background for the discussions. Here are the links to those discussions:

And a discussion based on the Lewis Segal article:

<font size = -2><center>(Edited by salzberg to fix link)</center></font>

<small>[ 08-11-2002, 06:03: Message edited by: salzberg ]</small>

Author:  Emma Pegler [ Sat Jun 02, 2001 7:16 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Thanks for your comments, Basheva. I think a clean slate is one thing, in terms of not having or needing rehearsed technique, but what Maina Gielgud said about what she looks for in a dancer really struck me - that need to dance. Training a dancer from scratch could overlook that some peoploe just have Factor X in their ability to dance - how do you flush that out in an 8 year old, do you think?

Author:  Azlan [ Sun Jun 03, 2001 7:09 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Hmm, an interest statement made by George Will about the US courts' interpretation of the American with Disabilities Act (ADA):<P> <BLOCKQUOTE><font size="1" face="Verdana, Arial">quote:</font><HR>And what of the mother who today is suing the San Francisco Ballet, charging that its weight and height standards illegally discriminate against her daughter ? Suppose the daughter's physical attributes count under the ADA as ``disabilities" in the context of her preferred profession. If that seems unthinkable, you have not noticed all that has been swept into the category ``disability'' under the ADA. What ``reasonable modifications'' of the Ballet's standards might Justice Stevens improvise? By what principle should the Ballet's standards survive while the PGA Tour's do not?<HR></BLOCKQUOTE><P><A HREF="" TARGET=_blank><B>More</B></A>

Author:  Azlan [ Sun Jun 03, 2001 7:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

BTW, Emma's original post has been e-published on our Features page, along with a couple of photos:<P> <A HREF="" TARGET=_blank></A>

Author:  Basheva [ Mon Jun 04, 2001 5:06 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Emma - that "need to dance" does not get flushed out - it comes pouring out. I have seen it in those as young as 5. I call it the "Mozart" syndrome. A child walks into the class and the eyes are already dancing. The dance is already there, within, awaiting release.<P>It is a readily ignitable, visible fire, it only awaits opportunity.<P>I think that the Americans With Disabilities Act is a fine idea, but poor legislation. It was poorly written, in my opinion. But, then I am not sure that such a piece of legislation could be written to deal with all tests to its meaning. Legislation is often truly realized when it is tested.<P>As with most things in the course of human events, the push and pull of meaning and usage will always be tested. And should be.

Author:  Belinda [ Mon Jun 04, 2001 7:54 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Oh, bummer. My post was lost. I just wanted to let everyone know that Ms. Krissy Keefer herself is going to moderate a forum on body image as part of the Lesbian and Gay Dance Festival, which she co-curates. Her panelists will be Arnel Alcordo, Brian Fisher (dancer with ODC), Judy Smith (artistic director, Axis Dance Co., a physically-integrated group), and Marina Wolf (a freelance journalist). It takes place July 1 at 4 p.m. at SOMARTS, 934 Brannan St. @ 9th St., San Francisco. So for Bay Area folks who would like to meet Ms. Keefer for themselves, maybe even throw out some tough questions . . . should be interesting, to say the least.

Author:  Ballet Neoclasico [ Mon Jun 04, 2001 11:05 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

This metter is very important ,I apologize my self but I must write in spanish:<BR>Vivo en un pais cuyo biotipo esta muy alejado de los estandares generalizados para el ballet en el mundo,yo mismo he sufrido discriminacion y rechazo a pesar de mis cualidades fisicas,por ello comprendo perfectamente el asunto en debate.Creo que detras de las particularidades del caso K.lo que subyace bien en el fondo es la incapacidad del sistema social para dar igualdad,justicia y dignidad a todos los seres humanos.<BR>Existe una profunda contradiccion entre la naturaleza del ballet y los criterios de seleccion de escuelas y agrupaciones.No se puede pretender realizar una actividad cuyo resultado y alcances son enteramente subjetivos partiendo de establecer criterios objetivos.<BR>De ningun modo debemos justificar la discriminacion,pero tampoco nos podemos enganar,el ballet es extremadamente exigente, peligrosos a largo plazo para quien no esta fisicamente dotado.Este ultimo criterio no debemos confundirlo ni usarlo indebidamente:La discriminacion es discriminacion sin importar de que se le disfrace.Les recuerdo que aqui los sujetos en cuestion son menores.<BR>Propongo;<BR>1-Las escuelas deben incorporar a su estructura estudios propedeuticos para establecer si un aspirante menos dotado puede desarrollarse a futuro.En cada caso canalizarlo en el sentido mas apropiado.<BR>2.-Revisar los criterios aplicados para seleccionar aspirantes.Hacerlos equilibrados ycoherentes aun cuando sean estrictos<BR>3-Crear alternativas dignas para los rechazados<BR>4-Difundir una cultura de respeto por la dignidad humana en todas las areas del ballet.<BR>La escuela crea las condiciones y el artista nace , alli si ha de nacer alli o en otro lugar si ha de nacer mas tarde.Ninguna escuela pude pretender formar artistas,menos si nos lleva a discutir en tan penosos terrenos como son la discriminacion y la anorexia.

Author:  Emma Pegler [ Mon Jun 04, 2001 12:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Muy interesante, Ballet Neoclasico. Entiendo bien sus recomendaciones para las escuelas que ensenan la danza. Dos preguntas - de donde es usted y, todavia esta estudiando la danza?<P>For those of you who do not read Spanish, Ballet Neoclasico was speaking of discrimination that he/she (lo siento, Neoclasico - no se si vd. es bailarin o bailarina!!) has suffered in terms of selection for ballet and gave us recommendations for the better and wider training that could be given in dance schools, whilst decrying the standard body types which are the main basis for selection to the schools. I asked Ballet Neoclasico whether he/she still dances and where he/she is from.....

Author:  Ballet Neoclasico [ Tue Jun 05, 2001 6:52 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

We invite you to visit us: <A HREF="" TARGET=_blank></A>

Author:  Basheva [ Tue Jun 05, 2001 7:16 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

I don't speak/read Spanish - but that is a really nice website.

Author:  bunhead [ Tue Jun 05, 2001 8:33 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

As a dancer who was trained at SFB school I have been very interested in the Keefer case and the debate it has inspired. The administration of the school is different now than it was 10 years ago when I was a student there, but the attitude seems not to have changed much. The prevalance of eating disorders in that shcool was overwhelming when I was a student there, and having an eating disorder was consistantly rewarded by the administration. When I was a student there I often felt guilty that I wasn't anorexic or bulimic, I felt that I must not be dedicated enough if I wasn't able to make that ultimate sacrifice for ballet. The students who were very underweight were awarded special scholarships and were the obvious favorites of the administration. I can't tell you how many girls in that school were bulimic, I would say maybe 40%, and I know of 4 in my age group, (out of maybe 30 girls within 5 years of myself) who were sick enough to be hospitalized multiple times, one girl who died, and others who were never able to maintain a professional career because companies later decided they were too skinny (!) or becuase of injuries related to an eating disorder, usualy stress fractures that would not heal. And I'm not counting all the girls who suffered from low self esteem and body image problems related to wanting to be super skinny. The funny thing was, the teachers at that school seemed to genuinely love their students and not want them to get too skinny, I remember one teacher who would call a girl's home telling her and her mother that she had to eat more that she was worried the student was becomming to skinny. But that girl was still awarded a prestigious scholarship that same year. A few years later, the company got rid of that same girl saying she was too skinny. The girl was hospitalized a few times because she became too malnourished to function, and eventualy had to give up dancing all together. The teacher herself was later fired. Other schools seem to have a different attitude, and are still able to turn out many professional dancers. The Ruth Page Foundation School in Chicago, for example, has graduated many dancers who now dance professionaly around the world. Taking class there you are surrounded by beautiful, healthy girls who seem happy in thier bodies and filled with the joy of dance. Maybe not having a company directly affiliated with the school helps somehow, and Larry Long, the director of the school and a treasure of a teacher, seems to be as proud of a student of his who goes on to get a master's degree in art history as he is of one who is an apprentice at Boston Ballet. I'm not sure what the merits of Keefer's case really are, but SFB school has churned out a lot of very sick girls, and if anything could be done to change that, I would be all for that. It seems to me that something has to be done to focus on eating disorders in ballet schools, and that girls who are suspected or known to have such disorders should be watched and disciplined as stringently as those with "weight problems." Dancers are often told they need to lose a few pounds, but are rarely called to task for looking obsurdly thin. I'm not talking about simply slender girls, I'm talking about the ones that are walking skeletons with big bloody calouses on the knuckles of their index fingers that develop from rubbing against their teeth while puking. Girls like that are dancing all over the country, and nobody seems to care! In my own company there are a handful of girls who are so obviously sick I can't believe that the various physical therapists and doctors who see them regularly haven't perscribed some sort of helpful program for them. I guess that for these girls, it seems to be too late, as their habits are so well established, but for young girls in school it seems like something should be done.

Author:  trina [ Tue Jun 05, 2001 9:48 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Keefer Case and Body Image - BIG Forum

Bunhead...I am shocked, saddened and momentarily speechless. I knew this existed, but not this widespread, according to what you've said. This CERTAINLY makes me look at the Keefer case in a new light. <BR>PS. What are you doing now? How are you doing...body, head and heart?

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