The Chance to Dance

ENCOURAGEMENT is due Fredrika Keefer and her mother for taking on female cultural stereotypes and an often harmful overemphasis on body image.

Fredrika is a nine-year-old dancer, who this holiday season, played the lead role of Clara in the Pacific Dance Theater's performance of "Petite Nutcracker." Her mother is also a dancer, who runs both a dance school and dance company.

You might think Fredrika an ideal candidate for the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School, where dancing careers are launched.

But think again. Before she could even show school officials her talent and ability in an audition, she was dismissed as having "the wrong body type." Later the school relented and gave her an audition, but she was among the 71 percent of those who tried out and were rejected.

Her mother is suing the school. She's basing her suit on a law passed seven months ago by San Francisco voters. It bans discrimination against people based on height and weight.

Fredrika, a fourth-grader already participating in the ballet's Dance in the Schools program, is currently 4 feet, 9 inches, and weighs 64 pounds - pretty average for her age, but not the tall, thin profile preferred by the school.

The ballet gets more than $500,000 a year in public monies from the city, which could strengthen the discrimination case. Yet the need for rigor in an organization with the exceptional reputation of the San Francisco Ballet is obvious. The question is whether the body-type requirement for its school goes too far in the demands it puts on young girls, who still are developing. The ballet's Web site has this detailed description: "The ideal candidate is a healthy child with a well-proportioned body, a straight and supple spine, legs turned out from the hip joint, flexibility, slender legs and torso and correctly arched feet...."

The school has not said much in its defense, other than a spokeswoman's comment that "this is a school that trains professional dancers."

If the ballet could prove that only tall, slender people can be successful professional dancers, Mrs. Keefer might not have a case. But exceptions to that standard aren't hard to find. Take Ted Shawn, or Mark Morris, each of whom shattered the myth of the slender, ethereal Balanchine dancer, proving the popularity of dancers with attributes other than a "classical" appearance.

The lawsuit will sort out whether the ballet school, with its public funding, can adhere to its body-type standard for screening applicants. But broader questions are raised by this case. Among them is society's preoccupation with overly thin female bodies, which sends unfortunate signals to at least some parents and impressionable young children.

As people strive for excellence in arts like dancing, or in sports for that matter, it's well to remember what underlies good performance: a love for the activity and a passion for practice - not just a so-called "perfect" body.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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