Book Review: ‘Dancing Through It’ by Jenifer Ringer

Dancing-Through-It

Jenifer Ringer, of “Sugar Plumgate” fame and who just retired from her long career with the New York City Ballet, came out with her memoir, “Dancing Through It,” at about the same time as Misty Copeland published her mid-career autobiography, “Life in Motion.” Both dancers faced incredible challenges and hardships in their careers with two top-tier ballet companies in the United States. While Copeland’s big obstacle has been racial discrimination, Ringer’s great stumbling block was eating disorder.

I still remember back in 2010 when the subject of Ringer’s non-existence weight gain issue was blown up by a New York Times dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, who criticized the principal dancer for having “eaten one Sugar Plum too many.” This critique set in motion a sleuth of debates on TV as well as on social media, with lots of ballet fans and non-ballet fans joining in to defend Ringer.

I recall looking at the beautiful dancer while she was being interviewed by Today’s Show‘s host Ann Curry. Nowhere could I find evidence of this extra sugar plum on  her lean body. “How cruel this dance critic was!” I thought. Ringer gave graceful and well-versed replies to Curry’s questions.

At that time, I didn’t know that Ringer had already gone through a few years of eating disorder and depression in the early stage of her career. In this memoir, she chronicled her entire career and took us through the events that led to her weight issues.

We all know that eating disorder is not a rare occurrence in ballet companies—partly due to the demand by the companies themselves on how their dancers should have that specific “ballerina look,” which often means not just lean and long limped but also a kind of boyish figure. This is especially true at New York City Ballet, whose founder, George Balanchine, was known to prefer this kind of “ideal body” to the more womanly figure. However, what actually goes through the minds of the dancers themselves when they are given the pressure not only to achieve technical and artistic perfection but also to keep their bodies so thin that it borders at a point where the strength of the bones won’t support the body weight safely?

Ringer gives us a very detailed look into how she descended from one of NYCB’s up and coming stars to someone who was too heavy to fit into any tutus—and dancing roles for that matter. What I find interesting is that her anorexic behavior was the only way she knew to be able to help her gain any sort of control over a highly stressful life where she could not control the outcomes. She became a professional ballerina at the tender age of 16 and was plunged into the strict demands of the ballet world without any psychological preparation. She was that “perfect girl” who was best in school and was pretty and proper (a Southern ideal) and was “supposed” to have no problems whatsoever. So when life dealt her a big blow, when the ballet master signaled to her that she needed to lose weight, it was a moment of truth that stroke hard, leaving her with little self defense.

Through a long journey—in her case, going back to her Christian faith and, later on, meeting and marrying a fellow dancer James Fayette—she healed herself of the emotional trauma caused by the eating disorder. So when “Sugar Plumgate” happened, she was actually strong enough to face the “attack.” Better still, she was able to transcend her personal problems to become an inspirational force for women—dancers or not—who were struggling with the issue of body image and eating disorder.

Here is a poignant passage about the painful perfectionist conundrum ballet dancers face:

“…our life is spent seeking perfection and correcting infinitesimal errors of line or technique. If something about our dancing is good, we ignore it because it will take care of itself. We fixate on the parts that are wrong. Ask a dancer what her weaknesses are, and she will be able to give you an immediate and very detailed list. Ask a dancer about her strengths, and she has to pause and think about it.”

After reading her book, I actually feel glad that I never entered the ballet profession. I wouldn’t have been able to pass such rigorous tests and would probably have gone through worse nightmares than Ringer did! I have had a close shave with eating disorder and have been struggling with weight issues and body image ever since I was a teenager. Ringer’s story really inspires me. I relate to her spiritual growth as a source of strength, even though I do not relate to her Christian faith. I think if we put aside the religious aspect—which may turn some readers off but which she took the risk to lay it out on the table—her story still serves as a great inspiration for anyone with the same struggles that she went through.

Since the “Sugar Plumgate,” there have been a greater awareness in society on the body image issue, with more discussions leading to a gradual liberation for women from the impossibilities of what the society—or the ballet world in the dancer’s case—deem “ideal.”

See the following articles on artistic endeavors and social movements related to body image:

 

A Ballet Dream… Full of Regrets

Ballet-Studio-in-Dream

I had another ballet-related dream last night–very vivid, probably due to the approaching full moon.

I saw myself riding a bus to get to a place where I would attend a dance audition. The bus passed by a building with a red, old-fashioned script of “YMCA” on it. I pointed out to the person next to me–apparently my husband–and told him that this was a colonial building left behind by the Brits.

Then I arrived, alone, to this gigantic place where there were three huge studios. I walked through the first one, and upstairs to the next. The studio had a high ceiling and portable barres sparsely placed. The space must have been at least 3,000 square feet or larger. It looked like an old horse stable turned into a studio. The surrounding had a rural feel.

A handful of dancers were warming up and stretching before the audition began. I saw a woman doing a complicated movement in a corner. She was dressed in black from head to toe. I felt intimidated and decided that this class would be too advanced for me.

So I walked further to an outdoor “studio,” where I found ballet barres set up on a piece of red mud/sand ground, much like the kind of tennis court ground you’d find in the French Open.  I thought, “How am I supposed to dance on this kind of floor?” while using my right foot to draw circles in the sand, trying to imagine how it would feel like when I had my canvas ballet slippers on.

There was a man standing in a corner, facing a group of dancers who seemed to be getting ready to dance. He looked authoritative, and reminded me of Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet. He must be the ballet master, I thought. So I went up to him and asked if I could join this group for the audition. He nodded his head and signaled me to go join the dancers.

Before long, the ballet master gestured the dancers to start dancing. I was in my leotard and ballet slippers whereas the other dancers, mostly black and Hispanic, were dressed in glamorous and glittery costumes with big feathery headpieces, much like the dancers in a Brazilian carnival. I was confused. Some unfamiliar music was played… some sort of dance music but certainly not classical. The dancers started to dance in unison while I, being the odd one out, didn’t really know what to do as none of the steps were familiar to me. So I started to do my own modern ballet concoction to get through the music. Boy, it was hard! I felt embarrassed and it seemed like the three-minute piece of music would last forever.

At last, the ordeal was over, and I left the studio with my head down. I regretted having changed studio. I regretted not having taken a proper ballet class in the more decent studios indoors with the other ballet dancers. After all, when would I have a chance again to dance in such a gigantic ballet studio? As I left the place, I walked past the wings of a theater. On the stage, I saw my best ballet buddy, dressed in tutu, waiting for her performance to start. Seeing that I had no part in the ballet, I left, feeling bummed out.

I woke up to the sound of torrential rain beating at my windows, remembering every bit of details of my dream, understanding fully what had been released from my subconsciousness… then, lazily, I drifted into another dream.

 

A reason to dance?

My fellow blogger Paulina has posted this interesting post, “A reason to dance?” Here is my response: Dance sets us free, it helps us return to our true nature. It is what children do, and what we adults can do to return to a sort of childhood innocence, where there is no need for words or rational thinking… just enjoyment of the pure being.