SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Kathryn Morgan has had a love for dance all her life. She’s good at it too. At age 17, she was hired at the New York City ballet, where she soon became a soloist. She was living out her dream. But then at 21, she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
“In very layman’s terms, your body attacks itself and as a professional athlete, it was terrifying because my muscles started to disintegrate, my hair fell out, and I gained 45 pounds in six weeks," Morgan said. "Which as a ballerina is not a good thing.”
It’s when she got back into the dance world seven years later that she realized a huge problem in the industry had not gone away.
“You still have to be exceedingly small," Morgan said. "You still have to fit that mold and the standard is so extreme and I just didn’t fit that.”
Morgan says roles were taken away from her and she was told awful things about her body. She says body shaming is something almost every dancer can relate to. Its impact is harmful and long-lasting.
“I have people saying, ‘dear Kathryn, I’m 12 years old and I’ve been on a diet for three years and I’ll never look like that, my dream is to dance but I think I’m too big.’ I’ve had 55-year-old women message me and say, ‘I have an eating disorder from when I was a ballet dancer at 16 and I’m still dealing with it at 55,’" Morgan said. "I have personal friends that I danced with growing up who will never go to the ballet again because of the experiences they had.”
For years, Morgan says ballet dancers have been expected to live and die for the art form, which jeopardizes their physical and mental health.
“It’s a very hierarchy-based system where the person at the front of the room is literally God and they will determine your career, they will determine the roles that you get, and if you don’t please them, that’s it.”
Morgan says it’s time for this toxic culture to change.
“It’s time we have to start challenging our eyes and what we think is the standard," Morgan said. "Why is it like that? Because that’s how it is in ballet. Ya know, it’s time to start challenging that viewpoint.”
One dancer who already has been challenging that viewpoint is Bailey Ann Vincent. She’s the artistic director of Company 360 – a body-positive dance company.
“We do not discriminate with the dancers we hire based upon the skeletons that they were born with – so size, height – those things aren’t a factor whatsoever because I feel our skeletons don’t determine our ability to move an audience,” Vincent said.
Vincent says she hires based off of technique, talent, work ethic and role modeling.
“If I’m considering who am I gonna give this big role, I’ll truly think ‘who’s the dancer who’s always reaching out to the other dancers and making them feel welcome, who’s the one who’s always in the corner doing a step that they’re not good at four, five or more times,’” Vincent said.
Vincent says dancers of all shapes, sizes and abilities need to speak out to end this misperception of what strength and beauty is. She applauds Kathryn Morgan for using her voice for change.
“There’s this culture of silence that we all have quietly accepted because we were told the generation before us had to deal with that," Vincent said. "To see someone speak to it, it was just invigorating.”
Morgan says skeptics will say there’s an element of physics to ballet and that’s why it’s valuable to be thin. However, she believes there’s a happy medium.
“I think the problem with ballet is that often times body type is the first thing we look at," Morgan said. "We don’t look at the artistry first, we don’t look at the talent first and it’s starting to dampen the industry because so many of us can’t get that small and so the problem is you lose your talent pool.”
The first step of change is talking about it.
“The second step is having teachers who are more aware of phrasing in their classes – how they say something to their student – there’s a big difference between ‘pull your stomach in’ and ‘support with your core,’" Morgan said.
Both Morgan and Vincent agree change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen as dancers now become teachers in the future. If you personally have experienced body shaming, this is Morgan’s message for you:
“You are worth so much more than what you look like in the mirror, you are worth so much more than the size that the tag says in your pants," Morgan said. "That’s not what makes you a good human being. It’s what’s on the inside, it’s how you treat other people. Are you being a role model for other people? Are you going after your goals and dreams? That’s what defines you. Not what you look like in the mirror.”