I Was A Sugar Plum Fairy In The Nutcracker–And Then I Left Ballet

sugar plum fairy dance

The pink and silver tulle tutu was purchased for an unspeakable price from a professional ballet company. It was considered a prized possession of my hometown studio, and although I was the fifth woman to wear it, sitting in costume was forbidden. I remember standing backstage dressed in sacred tutu, rhinestone tiara, and worn-out sweats before making my stage entrance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. I was seventeen.

Six months prior, I had undergone surgery on both shins. It was the last option in dealing with a stress injury following an intense year studying dance professionally with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Before that, I studied with American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Met, and North Carolina School of the Arts. The condition was teeth-gnashing painful and I was eager for the relief of surgery. Post-op, I felt great. Physical therapists declared me “fit for ballet” after hours of exercises and a vacation spent walking on sandy beaches. Then I was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Apathy was my primary response, followed by sharp pangs of guilt. Sugar Plum Fairy is arguably the classiest prima ballerina of the current era and I had labored to acquire her technique. Thanksgiving holidays were extended Nutcracker rehearsals for a decade of my life–a four-hour dinner break followed by dress rehearsal at the theatre. Many hours of my adolescence were sacrificed in pursuit of the gilded fairy, and I’d finally caught her. But I wasn’t ecstatic. I was apprehensive, burdened with a repeating thought, “This shouldn’t be me–I don’t want to be here.” And it wasn’t just because of my shins.

Truthfully, I had grown leery of ballet by the time of my surgery. The faults of ballet are common fodder in this screen era- audiences have seen the masochistic pursuit of perfection in Black Swan, gender discrimination in Billy Elliot, and (though not strictly ballet) television shows such as Dance Moms and Abby’s Ultimate Dance Competition dramatize the most deplorable elements of competition. Bodies are judged according to an aesthetic of lean lines, setting standards for limb length, height/weight ratio, foot arches and skeletal mechanics. Classical ballet narratives are notoriously heterosexually centered and divide power along gender, race, and class lines. Partnering choreography places men as weight-bearing supporters meant to showcase the female form. As a dance student, I was told that this choreography celebrated the feminine. Yet it can also exemplify patriarchal dominance and control.

Divisions are reflected behind the scenes, too: Economic constraints exclude many lower-income students from attending enough quality classes to reach their full potential. And the class hierarchy isn’t lost on audiences, either; ballet is still perceived as an art form of the exceptionally talented, or the middle-upper class.

How boringly antiquated.

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    • Hannah

      Beautiful article.

      • Elizabeth Atwell

        thank you, Hannah!

    • Dani

      I have lukewarm feelings about this article. Not once did you ever mention having *fun* while dancing. I trained my entire life to be the best ballerina I could be and even though I was good, I never made it to the coveted Sugar Plum role when I was 17. I remained in the corps de ballet. Did I up and quit? No. Have I ever been the coveted role? No. I kept dancing because of one reason – I loved it. I still love it. Sounds like you were dancing for all the wrong reasons to begin with and are over analyzing reasons for teaching it.

      • Elizabeth Atwell

        I appreciate your comment, Dani. You nailed part of it- I stopped dancing when it was no longer enjoyable or mentally healthy for me to continue. What came as a surprise to me is that I love teaching dance, and grew to love dance again by teaching it. How do I reconcile teaching something I found unpleasant/unhealthy? I do it by teaching ballet (and all movement disciplines) as anatomically whole as I can, honoring individual students’ capabilities, teaching non-competitively, and teaching history while encouraging critical thought and creativity. I have grown to love movement as my craft in this way.