The shape of a ballerina: Who's to say?

If you want to get people's attention in this citadel of American liberalism, just yell discrimination.

But a case roiling San Francisco right now has created such a thundering response that its resonance goes beyond the hilly echo chamber this city can sometimes become.

Here's why (and Hollywood script writers take note): The case involves a Hallmark-cute nine-year-old girl, a proud and outraged mother, and the cruel social stereotypes that can dash a young girl's dreams of becoming a ballerina.

Fredrika Near Keefer is a talented young dancer - not terribly surprising given that her mother, Krissy, has been involved in professional dance for much of her adult life.

But when Fredrika boldly asked to audition for the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School, she was summarily rejected for, as Krissy Keefer says, not having the right "body type." In effect, she was sized up rather than asked to audition by dancing. And dismissed.

Fredrika's mother promptly filed a complaint with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, charging the partly city-funded ballet school had violated a new local law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of height or weight.

Ms. Keefer's complaint is the first seeking to apply the new statute, providing critics of the law with plenty of "told you so" ammunition.

But even if the complaint fails, it has hit a chord and aroused a lot of reaction. Coming into play are complaints about society's seeming obsession with skin-and-bone female bodies, a contemporary standard that is imposed at an ever-younger age and is based on nebulous notions of "style" and "fashion."

Echoes of past stories

If that's not enough, the issue has served to remind ballet fans of the ugly side of the life of a ballerina.

A few years ago, a member of the Boston Ballet died, partly as a result of an eating disorder. (Her mother filed a wrongful-death suit against the ballet this year.) Before that, famed American ballerina Gelsey Kirkland lifted the veil on the ballet world's off-stage drug abuse and weight obsession in her book "Dancing on My Grave."

It all has provided a powerful backdrop to the case of Fredrika.

The San Francisco Ballet School has kept a low profile since the controversy erupted, but shows no sign of backing down. "This is a school that trains professional dancers," responded a spokeswoman for the school when the complaint was filed. "We are not a recreation department."

Fredrika's mother explained her position recently at a packed press conference that drew members from the national and international media.

"I'm requesting an audition process that is more than just eyeballing an eight-year-old and guessing what they're going to look like," she said.

The eruption in left-leaning San Francisco has been strong. Last week, the San Francisco Chronicle ran nearly a full page of letters.

"The body type that has become the 'ideal' and is being touted by the San Francisco Ballet is unattainable by normal humans and is perverse," wrote one sympathizer.

Another troubled follower of the story put it this way: "No one is asking that mediocre dancers be admitted to the program, only that exceptional dancers with shorter bodies not be kept out."

'Dumbing down' the arts?

Still, not everyone liked the idea of requiring the ballet school to change its standards.

"Let's not dumb down our arts," wrote one reader. Agreed another: "Any school or organization that folds under this PC bullying deserves what it will eventually get - weakness, mediocrity, and extinction."

Normally, the dimensions of a young girl, who auditioned at age 8, would not be worthy of note. But in this case, let the record show that Fredrika is far from overweight. She's an average-looking kid, just not the long, lean type that the ballet world favors these days.

Supporters have been quick to point out that ballet is a slave of fashion, like everyone else, and its own history shows no particular linkage between body type and artistic ability. Famed dancer Anna Pavlova was what today would be called a "full-figured" woman.

Nonetheless, don't try to tell top-flight ballet troupes that they should attempt to lead a sociological change in fashionable body types. They're having a hard enough time drawing crowds as it is.

As with all stories, this one has intersections that go beyond the main character. Fredrika's mother has been active in opposing the rapid economic development of the city, a process that has squeezed out many nonprofit arts groups and is threatening to do so to the Dance Mission, where she is director.

Keefer has used the case to bemoan the shrinkage of dance options for people like her daughter, making what she sees as the unfair standards of San Francisco Ballet School all the more damaging.

Lest anyone feel too sorry for Fredrika, she's moved on, as children do so well. "I'm sad that I didn't get in," was her matter-of-fact response when asked how she felt about not joining the San Francisco Ballet School.

Meanwhile, she is busy playing the lead part of Clara in a children's version of "The Nutcracker." The performance opened this past weekend and is put on by a dance theater that is glad to have her.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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