Tuesday 27 June 2017

Orla Barry: Should my daughter go back to ballet?

My daughter has been attending ballet classes for years and always loved it. This last term things have changed.

For a couple of weeks I didn't realise that she would get suddenly sick on the same evening as the class but after a call from her teacher I noticed that she had missed nearly all her classes this term.

I've asked her about it and she says she's just lost interest and was genuinely sick. I would believe her if she hadn't dedicated so much of her time to ballet for so long. She often talked of wanting to pursue a full-time career in dance. I'm worried because her academic record has slipped a lot too in the past year.

Her dance teacher told me that she noticed she has put on weight over the summer months and told her she may have to diet. I'm furious but I have no idea whether this is the problem. She has always been a little prone to weight gain but is by no means overweight. I think it's hugely irresponsible to say this to a 14-year-old girl. Meantime, she says she doesn't want to dance anymore.

I've watched her dance for years. She is very good and I would hate if she gave this up over such a comment. However, I don't see any way of raising the issue without making a deal out of it, nor do I want to force my dreams on my daughter.

THE world of ballet is one that remains at a distance from the rest of society I suspect. Telling a 14-year-old to diet, particularly one that has no weight problem, is an irresponsible comment. However, when did you last see a ballet dancer larger than a size 10? The career of ballet involves years of weight watching. Besides she has hit an age where moods and interests change. It could simply be a case of growing up.

It seemed to be a sort of rite of passage for years for every young girl to attend ballet. I guess much of it was driven by the delight of parents seeing them kitted out in the little leotards or dancing on stage. I wonder now is ballet the right dance option for children.

It requires such strong reserve and elegance that I wonder if a child's boundless energy would be better suited to more casual or expressive forms of dance. It's a beautiful discipline and magical to watch but it's most definitely not a career for most of us. Natalie Portman depicted a fairly messed up world in Black Swan but there are enough tales of eating disorders to indicate this is a big issue.

I attended ballet for years through to my late teens and would hear countless comments about dieting from the teacher and fellow dancers. If someone gained weight this would be remarked upon or if they dropped a couple of sizes praise would be immediate.

This, by the way, was very much amateur ballet. Monica Loughman, one of Ireland's very few professional ballerinas, has talked about the pressure put on young girls not much more than your daughter's age at the Perm ballet in Russia to lose weight. Many would barely eat for days. I say this not because this may be the current issue worrying your daughter but that this will be a reality into the future. You cannot possibly pursue a career in ballet without being consistently aware of body size.

The question for you is what has caused this change of heart. Raise the issue of weight with your daughter and you've opened a can of worms. Ignore it and the problem could exacerbate. Teenagers do suddenly reject interests they pursued eagerly through their childhood. Peer pressure plays a part, there might be new interests to explore or there could be the sense that this is no longer for her.

You say you don't want to force your dreams on to your daughter so I assume it was your idea she go to ballet. Maybe she needs to test out if this is for her. Was she attending these classes for herself or for you? Not attending class for a term or a year won't radically change things.

If you accept her desire to give it up for the moment and suggest she think about it again in a year's time, she may well come to the conclusion herself of what is right for her. Forcing her to attend class will achieve nothing. She will resent you for inflicting parental pressure and resent the class she doesn't want to attend.

Broaching the issue of weight gain or dieting is difficult. That said, I can't imagine any 14-year-old girl is not now in some way aware of body size. There are ways to bring up the subject without ever mentioning ballet or dieting. How healthily does she eat for example? Gaining weight at that age as a teenage girl is very common and puppy fat can be lost easily again. Look into the family's dietary habits and see if you can approach the subject as a wider issue involving all family members.

Many people have completely skewed notions of their own size. Body image is a big issue among teenage girls and boys and despite calls for more realistic sizes in the modelling and entertainment industries role models remain slim and often impossibly thin.

Only the music industry seems to have embraced a broader range of sizes and even these are the exceptions. You will find yourself becoming more aware of her view of herself and her size as her teenage years continue so this is not an issue that will just disappear.

You can't decide what is right for her whether in the form of extracurricular activities or a future career. Perhaps a trip to a professional ballet would tell you if she has really bored of this discipline.

You could also suggest that she try a different dance style that might suit her better now. Many ballet dancers turn to contemporary dance as they tire of the ordered life of ballet and its restrictions on size. It can also be great fun which is really what her hobbies should be about.

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