In many respects, the ideal dancer’s figure is unrealistic: bendier than a Barbie, exceedingly slim yet super-strong, and proportioned to perfection (in ballet, small head, long legs, short torso, high insteps). It’s also devoid of hair. Depilation is a necessary aspect of the profession for swimmers, athletes, gymnasts, and others who work in leotards.
This is true for both men and women. “I shave because it gives me a sense of readiness,” says Eliot Smith, a dancer and choreographer. “I believe it helps me get better body outlines against the stage lights.”
It’s fairly unusual to see parents of adolescent males on ballet message boards inquiring what to do about hairy legs showing through white tights (wearing two pairs of tights or painting over hairs with pancake are two options if shaving isn’t a possibility).
Is there, however, another option? When pole dancer Leila Davis was photographed for an Adidas commercial in March, flaunting armpit hair and toned abs, there were plenty of online critics, but also plenty of fans. There are a few – though few – modern dancers that are OK with their body hair being seen on stage.
“I want it to be normalized,” says Scottish Dance Theatre dancer Jessie Roberts-Smith. Ellie Sikorski, an independent choreographer, views it as part of a larger image.
She adds, “It’s not the first fight I’d pick about the homogeneity of bodies on stage.” “However, there’s something antiquated about dancing, in which your body is policed in certain ways. You’re taught that you don’t have control over your body, and body hair is only one little part of that.”
It’s difficult to fathom untidy hairs popping out on stage in ballet, the world of smooth, pure lines and unachievable precision. “You’ll never see a beautiful tutu princess with loads of armpit hair in classical ballet,” jokes Nancy Osbaldeston, a principal with Ballet Vlaanderen in Antwerp, who squeezes leg shaving and Brazilian waxing into her busy schedule. She recently performed in Andonis Foniadakis’ Palmos, a ballet with bare legs and high-cut leotards. She remembers, “There were definitely some crotchy moments.”
In fact, Osbaldeston believes that hair removal is such an important component of the work that dancers may be allowed to deduct it as a cost. She continues, “I believe someone told me that if you have a good accountant do your taxes, you can write it off.” When Osbaldeston was a member of the English National Ballet, she recalls a lady coming in and waxing everyone as if they were a work lot.
Begoa Cao, a National Dance Award recipient, went through a similar ordeal. “We’d lay down a mat and close the door.” Laser hair removal is also popular. “I like to keep things tidy,” Cao says.
“The idea of not taking it off never occurred to me. If you’re wearing a tutu, the crowd behind you won’t be able to see you. But you’ve got your coworkers, folks waiting in the wings, and those ballet buffs with their binoculars!”
Outside of ballet, though, some hairs may be seen, reflecting a larger cultural change among Gen Z-ers who are comfortable to flaunt their armpits unwashed on Instagram or even colour their body hair. Then there’s Billie, a cosmetic company that sells razors with photos of models wearing boldly hairy bikini lines.
“I feel like we’re getting closer to a world where both are normal,” says Roberts-Smith, who is 26 and keeps her hair natural, which Scottish Dance Theatre approves of. “I haven’t given it a second thought.”
I’m fortunate to work for a firm that values diversity in all forms, including hairless and hairy employees. It needs to take place. One of the most deep differences between men and women, in my opinion, is that we have been deleting portions of ourselves for such a long time, and society has accepted this as normal.
When you think about it, it’s insane, completely insane.” Men, of course, shave their faces, but it’s the distaste with which women’s hair is associated that is so gendered. “There’s a lot of ingrained notions about cleanliness that aren’t true,” Roberts-Smith explains.
Sikorski, 33, stopped shaving her legs when she was 17 years old. “I suppose I discovered that was possible,” she explains, adding that shaving irritates her skin.
People have taken photographs of her when she’s hanging on to an overhead support, so she’s more likely to garner a response on the tube than on stage. However, there is a hirsuteness hierarchy. Sikorski recalls wearing a bathing suit in one of the earliest works she created. “I had hairy legs and armpits, but my bikini line was plucked.”
“I still think the bikini line is a no-no,” Robert-Smith says of the trend toward letting it all hang out, despite the fact that she has a leotard piece coming up and no plans to purchase any Veet.
There are several more hair-related difficulties, the most significant of which being the dancers with afro hair who are informed categorically that it is not suitable for ballet. Last year, French dancer Marie-Astrid Mence discussed this in the film Pointe Black. By comparison, the intricacies of personal grooming may seem trivial.
According to Northern Ballet dancer Aerys Merrill, who has heard similar tales but hasn’t received nasty remarks about her own afro hair, prejudice against afro hair is changing. She danced Clara in The Nutcracker in the United States, proudly displaying her natural hair. “Some companies are more accepting; others want it to be very uniform, with the same slick-back look,” she explains.
Tas Vinolo, 17, who starred in Amazon’s The Show Must Go On commercial last Christmas, used to straighten her hair like Merrill. “Until two or three years ago, I didn’t feel comfortable with my own hair,” she adds. She’s now wondering whether we’ll see ballet dancers on stage with braided hair.
“I’m hoping it will happen.” “I’m pretty sure we’re getting close,” she says, but adds that as a young pre-professional dancer, “I’m afraid to bring that up with my teachers.”
Pina Bausch, the queen of long flowing locks, whether flying around the dancer like an additional limb in 2006’s Vollmond or being used to beat the wicked Bluebeard in her 1977 interpretation of the folk story, is the queen of long flowing locks. Osbaldeston claims she was once passed up for a role because her hair was too short for the choreographer, who preferred it long and swishy.
Choreographers have a vision in mind, and facial hair is part of that image. Sikorski knows of a male dancer who has been fired for refusing to remove his beard.
Smith tells me that he’s gotten more easygoing with his own facial hair, following a trend in the profession that includes dancers with visible tattoos. He believes that as an artistic director, he has an open mind, but that the dancers must seem “presentable” and be willing to adapt to the needs of a specific role.
“I guess it’s a question of whether ballet is a personal expression or whether a choreographer has the final say over how you look,” says dancer James Forbat, who, incidentally, shaves his chest and leg hair for performances out of preference but has never been specifically requested to do so.
A similar argument is made by Sikorski. Do you consider a body as an abstract instrument for creating visual art, or as a person who is inextricably linked to their work? “People think you can abstract a body,” she continues, “but I fundamentally believe you can’t and shouldn’t.” “That’s where a lot of people in the dance world disagree with me.”
However, all of these dancers agree on one thing: everyone’s personal decision should be supported. However, the choice to shave and wax, whether to keep their hair straightened or natural, represents the principles of their respective art forms as well as the larger society.
Osbaldeston isn’t optimistic that any of her female coworkers will give up shaving their armpits anytime soon. “If a boy was holding you under your arms, I would feel bad for partnering,” she adds. “But they have hair there as well,” she observes, “so I’m not sure what the difference is.”
Thanks to Lyndsey Winship at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.