Body shaming abuse at top ballet schools

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When abuse is mentioned, it is often associated with physical acts of violence or threatening statements intended to harm or injury another person. However, body shaming can also be abusive and has been exposed again recently by two former dancers who have said there is a long-running “toxic” culture of body-shaming and bullying at two of the UK’s most prestigious ballet schools – Royal Ballet School in London and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.

It is generally accepted that ballet dancers must be slim and athletic in order to fulfil the roles, and ballet school training involves a gruelling programme akin to that of a professional athlete. However, over the years the industry has developed a reputation for eating disorders and associated mental health concerns, and there has been criticism of the casting of extremely-thin ballerinas in lead roles.

Former dancers who attended the schools over the past two decades have made a series of claims about their treatment including:

  • Being regularly body shamed by teachers
  • “Coded” language being used to encourage weight loss
  • Being congratulated by teachers on losing weight, causing eating disorders to spiral
  • Experiencing bullying from teachers

Ellen Elphick, 30, spoke to the BBC; Ellen spent five years at Elmhurst Lower School but it was always her dream to win a place at the Royal Ballet School. She succeeded and started at the Royal Ballet School in London in 2009, when she was 16. Ellen says within her first two weeks she was body-shamed by her ballet teacher, who positioned her in front of the mirror.

“She said to me, ‘if I had a knife, this is what I would cut off’. And she literally cut my entire bum off, kind of all of half my thigh, basically, and then a third of my calf.”

The former pupil told the BBC she felt ashamed and was filled with hate for her body – and says her eating disorder spiralled after this encounter.

The BBC spoke to more than 50 ex students of these schools who attended between 2004 and 2022. Both schools dispute the accounts given to the BBC but also said they were working hard to change the culture, and put health and wellbeing at the forefront of their priorities.

It is vital that the ballet world changes, and that those who abuse their position of trust and the ballet schools that employ those individuals are brought to account. Body shaming must be accepted as a form of abuse which can cause life long serious psychiatric consequences.

You can contact us if you have been affected or have any information about alleged abuse at ballet schools in England or Wales.

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