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Beneath the Feathers: What Black Swan Says About Dancers

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Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis' strong acting brought Golden Globe nominations and Oscar buzz to their new film, Black Swan, but more importantly, the pair's grinding, slavish devotion to training for their roles as top ballerinas is bringing to light the pressure, tears and constant paranoia that real-life dancers so often face in pursuit of the art.

Ignore the chatter about their (brief and actually chaste) love scene, and you'll hear Portman and Kunis discussing the grueling work they put into both learning the required dance moves and getting into typical dancing shape. And on screen? You witness the dark passage in pursuit of perfection that Portman's character travels down.

Portman says she trained for five to eight hours a day, every day, for an entire year. Kunis got one day off -- for her birthday -- during three non-stop months of training and filming. Each actress lost twenty pounds, and the results were obvious: Portman at times appears skeletal in her leotard, while Kunis has never seemed thinner. Think that's extreme? Try being a real dancer.

Beginning in early childhood, ballet and contemporary dancers devote their lives to the art. But when they're not performing, dance is less an art than extreme sport, with often times unrealistic expectations, driving dancers to their physical and mental limits -- and beyond. The result, far too often, is a loss of an inner self that so few outsiders can see.

Portman is seen purging what little food she eats -- salad she nibbles, her own birthday cake she rejects -- and it's not an uncommon occurrence amongst dancers. In 2006, International Journal of Eating Disorders found that 83% of ballet dancers have some sort of eating disorder. But even more prevalent is the mental impact on dancers.

At a young age, Taylor Gordon has seen it all. A freelance dancer, Gordon is a 22-year old pirouetting blaze of energy, accomplishment and aspiration. For the past two years, she featured in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, logging 17 shows a week as a member of the constantly moving ensemble. That in addition to working with other dance companies, taking several classes a day, running a prominent blog... oh, and earning both her undergrad and graduate degrees. Suffice to say, she's known a lot of dancers in her life.

"I think overwork and depression have been issues I've noticed even more than eating disorders, including in myself. It's like, I just can't take enough classes, I just want to be so good, and you get to a point that you're taking 3 or 4 classes a day and you're getting worse because you're so tired."

And, for them, getting worse is not an option.

"You're never perfect. That's the thing about Natalie Portman. She's constantly searching for this perfection, and there's never perfection. And we're constantly striving for that and that just keeps the work piling up," she told me.

And just like Natalie Portman, she's seen the work consume people.

"It's really hard to have that perspective when it's so much about you, it's so much about your physicality, and its a huge part of yourself," Taylor admitted, not excluding herself from the discussion. "Your whole self image is ballet, it's a very narrow minded profession... your whole world is about ballet, and if you have a bad class or don't get that part, your whole world comes crashing down."

Evan Namerow, a former dancer turned well-known blogger (she writes DancingPerfectlyFree.com) and marketing director of Gallim Dance, echoed that problem of confused self image.

"I think Black Swan showed how the internal dance conversation that Portman's character had with herself literally bled into the rest of her life," she told me. "There was no separation between personal and professional, and her quest for artistic perfection crushed any other interests in her life. To a certain extent, professional dancers spend so much time on stage or in rehearsal -- and so much time with other dancers -- that the distinction between personal and professional is blurred."

But while dancers often have type-A personalities, the sheer lack of productions to dance in and companies to dance for make their fears very real. And overly strict coaches and directors don't help. In 'Black Swan,' Vincent Cassel plays a domineering director that squeezes the best -- and life -- out of Portman. They're ruthless, too, often treating dancers as expendable pawns.

"Nothing's ever stable in ballet. Even if you have a job in a top company, it's not guaranteed for next year," Taylor lamented. "Someone is coming up that is better than you and you're over, you're done... and because of that you're fighting and fighting, no matter how good, how skinny you are, you're constantly in a fight with yourself."

While Black Swan occurs on the professional stage, Namerow thinks the paranoia comes from a far deeper place.

"At any age, pressure in the dance world can come from teachers, directors, other dancers, or parents, but ultimately I think the pressure is from oneself," she says. "The desire to be flawless might be rooted in a comment from a teacher or a casual remark from a fellow dancer, but that can linger for so long that a dancer converts it to self-criticism, and then self-pressure."

Of course, it doesn't just happen because of in-studio stressors. It's a lifestyle that dancers commit to, and the outside world can have just as great an impact.

"Dancers make countless sacrifices from a very young age, whether it is moving away from home to study at a prestigious school and therefore giving up a 'real' childhood," Namerow told me, adding that other smaller yet still devastating sacrifices included "abandoning other interests in order to focus solely on dance, or putting friendships or relationships on the back burner during a busy performance season."

Gordon confirms; she said she "knew [she] was going to be a professional at six years old."

However, it's that lifetime dedication and commitment that answers the question I've implicitly begged: why pursue ballet, if it's such a punishing, taxing and sometimes, in unhealthy environments, damaging past time?

Like all art, it comes down to self expression. A way of communicating one's self in such a restrictive world.

"For me, dancing was an incredibly unique form of self-expression. Without speaking, the body becomes a focal point and its movement is entirely open to interpretation," Namerow told me. "In a way it's more subtle than singing or acting. Although it can be a collaborative effort or something shown to an audience, I often felt/feel like dancing is/was an ongoing conversation with myself -- with both mind and body."

So, how do we balance the sacrifices we see in 'Black Swan' and the very real and vital outlet for self expression that dance provides? Can we find a way to manage the universal giving of one's self that all artists go through, without fostering crisis in those who so often give everything to the art?

To Gordon, it's all about awareness, an understanding between the dance world and the greater audience.

"I think that from an outside perspective, people really think of ballet as pink tutus and sparkles and sugar plums, it really is not... And I think it's good for people to understand that we're fighting so hard for what we love, because it makes it more relatable instead of being an elite art form that no one knows much about, and that's how the art form dies, people don't appreciate it or don't relate to it."

Let's hope 'Black Swan' can start that conversation, for both dancers and all the new ballet fans it created.