Nov 21, 2023 - News

Dancers blame Richmond Ballet for eating disorders in $21M lawsuits

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Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Two former dancers at the Richmond Ballet are accusing the institution of setting dangerous body weight standards that harmed their health.

What's happening: In a pair of lawsuits filed in Richmond Circuit Court, the dancers say the company required them to maintain a "dangerously unhealthy weight" to qualify for roles.

  • They allege the pressure led to eating disorders and a cascade of health problems, including the loss of their menstrual cycles.
  • The two lawsuits seek a combined $21 million in damages.

Of note: Richmond Ballet, which is the official state ballet of Virginia, denies the allegations in court filings.

Why it matters: Eating disorders are a long-running issue in the world of classical ballet, which often emphasizes the attainment of an ultra-thin "ballet body."

Details: The lawsuits have been working their way through Richmond Circuit Court since last year. They allege the ballet acted negligently and intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the dancers.

  • The two plaintiffs have so far been allowed to proceed anonymously, though the ballet argues their names should be made public as part of the proceedings.

Zoom in: One of the dancers attended Richmond Ballet's school from ages 6 to 15, per court filings. A second was a member of the ballet's trainee program for adult dancers pursuing a professional career.

  • The lawsuits allege the ballet's artistic staff set an "optimum Body Mass Index" for each trainee upon entering the program and that staff reserves the right to terminate trainees if they are unable to maintain that BMI.
  • The lawsuits describe regular public BMI assessments and allege artistic staff regularly gave students and trainees "fat talks," telling them to eat "like little squirrels."
  • Also, staff warned dancers who gained weight after being cast in roles that they would be replaced if they didn't lose weight, and students as young as 10 who didn't meet the ballet's "skinny body" standard received what were commonly referred to as "fat letters," the lawsuits allege.

The other side: The ballet has denied all of the above allegations and has argued that, even if they were true, the conduct described wouldn't violate state law.

  • During a hearing earlier this month, the ballet's lawyer, Lindsey Lewis, argued that the ballet setting weight requirements for a role is "no different than an actor being asked to undergo a body transformation."
  • The ballet argues it had no legal duty to provide for the dancers' emotional wellbeing and happiness, noting the trainee was an adult and the minor student was under the care of her parents.

What they're saying: The ballet's communications director, Carrie Bilek, declined to comment on the specifics of the lawsuit.

  • "We note only that we will vigorously defend the exceptional reputation of Richmond Ballet and our extraordinary artistic team, who, for more than four decades, have provided a safe and supportive environment for aspiring professional and recreational dancers alike," she said in an email.

The dancers are being represented by Jason Hart and Melissa Hague of the Joel Bieber Firm, which did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

The latest: The ballet argued that the cases should be dismissed during hearings on Oct. 25 and Nov. 2.

  • The parties are awaiting rulings.

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