Ballet Takes a Healthy Turn at Canada’s National Ballet School

The old cliché that ballet dancers are neurotic anorexics is being broken at Canada's NBS with nutrition education and a zero-tolerance policy for unhealthy eating behaviours.

Photography: Maude Arsenault

Photography: Maude Arsenault

Time to perfect your chignon: ballet-inspired hair and makeup is one of fall’s biggest beauty trends. Variations on the iconic ballerina’s topknot made waves at both Prada and Diane Von Furstenberg, as did bold strokes of stage-worthy makeup on cheeks, eyes and lips. The graceful art inspires not only our primping preferences, but our wardrobe too—something that New York’s Museum at FIT is celebrating with a new exhibit. Opening September 13, Dance & Fashion showcases nearly 100 costumes and dance-inspired designs from the likes of Christian Dior and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci.

But while fashion designers idealize dancers, filmmakers mythologize them—often darkly. The 2010 film Black Swan, which saw Natalie Portman portray a psychologically disturbed dancer, played into old misconceptions, says Mavis Staines, artistic director at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.

“I was really saddened by Black Swan because it felt as though it pulled us back into some of the clichés about all ballet dancers being neurotic and inevitably dealing with some kind of mental or emotional disorder or a combination of them,” says Staines.

The film’s depiction of disordered eating irritates Emily Mittelstaedt, 16, a student at NBS. “The whole anorexia and ballet duo is a stereotype that should be broken. It happens in ballet. But it isn’t just in ballet.”

Thanks to Staines, however, the connection between disordered eating and ballet has been broken at NBS, replaced by an emphasis on health and wellness. In her 25-year tenure, Staines has radically altered the culture at NBS, providing nutrition education to students and instituting a zero-tolerance policy for unhealthy eating behaviours.

Graduates of the NBS, Felix Paquet and Hannah Fischer, both are now with the National Ballet of Canada. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Graduates of the NBS, Felix Paquet and Hannah Fischer, are both now with the National Ballet of Canada. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Her passion for pioneering change is rooted in her own experience as a dancer in the ’70s, an era that saw famed choreographer George Balanchine set the tone and declare that a woman could never be too thin. “There wasn’t even a standardized name for anorexia or bulimia then,” says Staines. “But they were certainly issues.”

“We don’t experience any pressure to be thin here at the school,” says Mittelstaedt, who notes that students are educated on how to properly fuel their bodies as athletes.

That healthy sentiment is echoed by Rachel Bar, 30, a former dancer with the English National Ballet and the Israel Ballet. A graduate of NBS herself, and now pursuing her MA in clinical psychology at Ryerson University, Bar is so convinced that Staines’ health-first approach can tip the scales that she’s devoted her master’s thesis to examining the changes at NBS and whether they’ve had a positive impact—preliminary results suggest they have.

It’s an impact she’s felt personally. Bar says the initiatives Staines put in place gave her a view of herself and her health that held her in “good stead” when she danced professionally. “I had a different perspective on my body and my health than others and I felt that that was unique,” she shares.

Staines is encouraged by how the larger dance community has embraced similar initiatives, and she’s hopeful the idea will jeté from the world of dance into the greater culture.

Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto was established in 1959. Mavis Staines, artistic director since 1989 and an alumna of the school, danced professionally in the 1970s with both the National Ballet of Canada and the Dutch National Ballet.