• Zoe Phillips

Sacrifice and Sanity: Children in Dance

There should be room for mental balance without physical injury.

In 2011, a 12 year-old girl sat in her desk chair facing away from a computer in a dimly lit California bedroom. A film crew recorded as she worked on math homework. Later, the same girl stood in a dance studio, her small frame covered in only a blue leotard and pink tights and her right leg lifted at a 180-degree angle. Her arms rested delicately in ballet’s fourth position, and she balanced her lifted body on only the ball of her left foot.


The girl was Miko Fogarty, a featured dancer in the 2012 documentary “First Position” by Bess Kargman, which covered the lives of seven children, ranging in age from 10 to 17, in their pursuit of success at the Youth America Grand Prix ballet competition. The award-winning film shed light into the unknown world of blistered toes and broken dreams that is a ballet student’s reality.


Though the 90-minute documentary offered many gems of insight into the pressure placed on children in pursuit of success in ballet, Miko’s story might be the most interesting. By the time “First Position” was filmed, she had already begun homeschooling in order to allow more time for ballet classes. Her family had moved houses to be closer to the dance studio and her mother had hired a stretching coach to build on Miko’s existing elasticity. Her young body was well on its way to being molded into an idealized vision of the perfect ballerina: thin, stretchy and strong. Beyond the physique, though, she was truly an exceptional dancer. She could balance and turn with tantalizing precision and her arms moved through the air like graceful droplets of water in the gentle wind. She performed with unprecedented strength and grace beyond her years, and in doing so caught the attention of millions of fans. Videos of her competition appearances garnered international attention and her Instagram account accrued hundreds of thousands of followers. In every sense of the word, she was one of ballet’s first “influencers.” She was also, in every sense of the word, a child.


But young Fogarty didn’t seem to mind. In the movie, she told filmmakers, “I think I’ve just had the right amount of childhood and the right amount of ballet.” She was content with the long hours, sore muscles and lack of sleepovers. She loved it that much. This isn’t a foreign concept to dancers — smile while you lift your head, point your toes, turn out your feet and you’ll be on your way to finding a job.


That’s what Fogarty did — in 2015, she joined the corps de ballet of England’s prestigious Birmingham Royal Ballet. The world sat back and waited. We figured it’d be a year, maybe two, before she climbed her way to prima ballerina. But 12 months later, Fogarty was nowhere to be found. Her Instagram sat untouched and her stage appearances were nonexistent. She stayed in the dark for several years before reappearing as a junior at the University of California, Berkely, studying biology. She’d completely started over.


Most of the ballet world, shocked as they were, supported her drastic shift. Many still follow her pre-med journey with as much fanfare as they did her ballet, invested in her success no matter where she finds it. This has been heartwarming to watch, and Fogarty spoke openly about her appreciation for the positive reactions. Nevertheless, her story remains an interesting perspective on the darker side of children in dance.


Ballet favors the young. Whether this is good or bad is often beside the point — above all, it is necessary. As choreographers push for increasingly diverse and athletic movement, dancers push for more strength, more flexibility, more speed, more grace. They ask as much (and even more) of their bodies as NFL players, and one can only do that for so long. An athlete only has so many seasons before their body is too tired or too broken to keep going. With that limit in sight, the inspiration to start as soon as possible is strong. Dancers will typically join a company toward the end of high school; often, promising candidates will be offered contracts at 16. To get to a professional level by then, most ballet students start training before the age of five, usually as early as three.


This dedication is often glorified through depictions like “First Position,” in which audiences oggle the lives of performative glory led by children decades younger than them, but behind the stage curtain there is often more to the story. When Miko Fogarty reappeared after her hiatus, she told stories of serious eating disorders, sexual abuse from her childhood ballet teacher and a distinct lack of joy that started long before she quit.


Ballet’s reliance on the historically thin lines of a human body makes eating disorders unfortunately common (though we have recently seen an increase in prevention education), and the skewed power dynamics borne out of over-traditionalized non-verbal classroom atmospheres leads to a heartbreaking number of stories in the #MeToo era. Plenty of people write about this.


Among these issues, as important as they are, I notice one that is harder to discern: the construction of a child’s reality. For dancers like Fogarty, ballet becomes synonymous with life at a very young age. Rehearsal quickly becomes more important than school and social lives are replaced with technique class. In “First Position,” 12-year-old Fogarty told the world that “most kids my age, they’re not 100 percent sure what they’re going to do, but I know I’m going to do ballet for the rest of my life.” In the context of the film, this statement was inspirational. She was working hard — most likely harder than you. She was dedicated, driven and focused. But she was also not even a teenager yet. She had never consciously lived in a state of not knowing what one wants to do.


As a woman who lives in constant fearful excitement of my life’s unknown opportunity, hearing young Fogarty speak with such confident tunnel vision makes me deeply sad.

The dance industry does this a lot. Teachers push students to stretch more and balance longer all with the end goal of becoming a professional. In doing so, ballet dancers are never given the chance to find themselves at a time when identity formation is at its peak: adolescence. In doing so, we create exhilarating athletes with gorgeous physical capabilities, but we do not create artists. We do not give students time to develop the one concept that makes dance dance. As a result, we’re left with thousands of students onstage at competitions performing pieces wrought with emotions that they themselves have never experienced. It’s misguided, hollow and annoying to watch.


I don’t intend to reflect on Fogarty’s life for her. Perhaps this path was exactly what she needed, and there is nothing wrong with having changed careers. To see anyone taking control of their happiness is a success story to me. That said, I believe there is and always should be room for life alongside dance. In a YouTube series on New York City Ballet, principal dancer Sara Mearns once said it took a debilitating back injury to give her the chance to become an adult. There should be room for mental balance without physical injury. Balance, as Mearns acknowledges, is a prerequisite for artistry. By forgetting to encourage artistry, we disable dance students in ballet and life. Just as we construct and reward a world of dedication, then, we must construct a world of freedom, too.

I originally wrote this article for The Michigan Daily. It was published on January 27th, 2020.

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!