The Lucky Favorite?

November 28, 2001

Thanks to the popularity of Black Swan, featuring Natalie Portman as the tortured ballerina Nina Sayers, I get asked a lot of questions by non-ballet people (pedestrians), about the actual experience of being a ballet dancer.  The same thing happened after Center Stage came out–all of a sudden, everyone was interested in what the world of ballet was like, and if it bore any resemblance to the worlds these movies created.  Most people are disappointed when I say no, not really.  Those movies exaggerate every thing, and every stereotype about ballet to such an extent that I can’t really draw many good comparisons.  But talking to a friend about Portman’s performance the other day made me realize that there was something that was accurately portrayed in both films:  The sometimes negative consequences of being “The Favorite”.


As a ballet student, I was never really singled out by my teachers as being especially talented or gifted.  There were several girls, though, who were, and at the time I was very jealous.  I envied the attention and extra advice they got from teachers, the admiration they got from the other students, and saw in them potential that I never recognized in myself.  It’s an experience that, unfortunately, I’m sure many of you have had.  A few of these girls got the ultimate encouragement: they and their mothers were told that they “had what it takes”, and were sent to audition at professional schools that would prepare them for a career in ballet.  How hard it was not to get that blessing myself. 


This feeling lasted until the girls started coming back and visiting us at their old stomping grounds, and I saw and heard what the results of all this favoritism had been.  One girl had started pulling her hair out because of the stress she felt from being pressured to be perfect, and another had fractured her back, a result of the physical strain she was under.  These two had been favorites at my studio, and had ended up paying a price for it, since being placed on a pedestal by our teachers had not prepared them for the competition they would face at their new school.  I see Nina, and Maureen from Center Stage, as facing this same dilemma.  Singled out as particularly talented and gifted, they push themselves hard to live up to these labels, with painful results.  Not being a favorite can actually be a good thing, since it leaves the decision about whether you want to pursue dance up to you, and makes you work harder towards your goal.  That way, when you achieve it, you’ll draw lots of confidence from knowing that your own strength got you there–not someone else’s expectations of you.