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Illustration by Clara Juong

Balletcore: A Story of Hyperfemininity, Europeanness, and the Ultra-thin

Balletcore: the fashion trend of silken pointe shoes, tulle skirts, and leg warmers. Is its potential comeback in 2023 a good sign?

Of the few things I am absolutely sure about, I was definitely not the only girl who dreamt of being a ballerina at the tender age of four. Elegant and artistic, ballerinas were, to me, the epitome of beauty and pride. So I asked my mother to take me to various dance classes, my head full of the pirouetting beauties in Barbie of Swan Lake. A few classes later, walking home with my head down and my ligament almost torn in my attempt to do a split, I realized for the first time in my life that beauty takes a grave price, and perhaps a dark curse may always accompany the effortless elegance of Princess Odette. I swiftly switched to Flamenco.
At 21, when I have become an audience member instead of a performer, I read about the Tiktok aesthetic of #balletcore. Originating from the style of ballerinas on stage and during rehearsal, the trend considers pointe shoes, tulle skirts, bodysuits, Ugg boots, and legwarmers a prime representation of feminine refinement. According to The Zoe Report’s interview of Los Angeles-based stylist Olivia Ivey Bannock, “balletcore explores über femininity, body, movement, nostalgia culture, and comfort”. She further cites the influence of 90s nostalgia and Y2K culture on the younger generation as a reason behind the trend’s sudden popularity, while New York–based stylist Madeleine Jones sees it as a “natural evolution from athleisure”.
As soon as I searched it up, my Pinterest account started flooding with pictures of models in leg warmers doing stretches — the overall aesthetic was carefree, comfortable, yet gorgeous in their macaron-colored, waifish daintiness.
Is there also a dark curse accompanying the revival of the trend this time? Fascinated by the phenomenon, I nonetheless have some doubts about its semiotics and implications. After all, ballet dancers don’t look like that "in the wild", out of the rehearsal rooms and off the stage; this might have less to do with the dancers, but more with the genre itself. In the unreality deep within the frills and silk, what truth lies underneath?
Ballet dancers have long complained about the incessant body-shaming and perfectionism in ballet culture — one does not seem to have much leeway when it comes to this genre of dance. Whereas other more contemporary dances may be allowing for more body inclusivity, ballet seems strict in its adherence to its roots in 17th century France as an elite court activity, with a beauty ideal of pale skin, waifish figures, a certain height that does not exceed a limit for feminine beauty, long neck, high curves, and a small head. “Anyone who's been in ballet as a child would have the memory of being told not to tan their skin over the summer holiday because “dancers need to have pale, white skin,” and not eat too much because “you have to keep your shape,” writes dietician Fumi Somehara.
This is worrying, precisely because it can easily become yet another indication of the comeback of ultra-thin fashion from the 1990s, famously coined as “heroin chic” after the death of photographer Davide Sorrenti from overdose, and heralded by figures such as supermodels Kate Moss and Jaime King. Sparking public outrage with the headline “Bye-bye booty: Heroin chic is back” in Nov. 2022, the New York Post shed light on the resurgence of the trend, whereas others have criticized the article for labeling women’s body as trends, if not plainly glorifying the ultra-thin. While the balletcore aesthetic does not need to have a connection with the heroin-chic, its obsession over the thin body in the guise of femininity and grace may readily give the heroin-chic trend more momentum and affirmation. Just because it looks innocuously pink now, does not mean it is okay.
The other worrying aspect has to do with the colonial legacy of ballet. Historically, ballet was never an innocent genre when it comes to nationalism and racism; its association with the Eurocentric ideal of ivory whiteness and its status as elite “high art” — in contrast with the “grotesque”, foreign “other” — means that it has inevitably been embedded into the colonial narrative of the superior and inferior peoples. In fact, all other dances are measured against the backdrop and standard of ballet. Researchers further suggest that ballet could be a “materialization of privileged forms of whiteness and the refraction of imperial domination,” where "skinny disciplined bodies associated with middle-class whiteness became imbued with a higher institutional value,” marginalizing all other bodies with racial implications. Lyndsey Winship of The Guardian, in discussion of the historical limitations of ballet and the contemporary attempts to override them, also mentions “the orientalism of La Bayadère, Le Corsaire and Scheherazade, the Chinese (“Tea”) and Arabian (“Coffee”) variations in The Nutcracker, and the character of the Moor in Petrushka, originally played in blackface” as some of the colonial legacy that ballet has to address.
To be fair, arguments can still be made about the potential subversiveness of balletcore — after all, hasn’t the equally ultra-feminine Lolita fashion [made a statement of rebellion] ( against the male gaze, restrictive social roles, and the confines of adult life? Even if hypersexualized Lolitas may still cater to the male gaze, and even if Lolita originates from the equally racist French Baroque style, it ultimately carves a unique space for its supporters to develop a personal identity. Perhaps balletcore could do the same. However, one should not ignore its colonial legacy, its reinforced tradition of body-shaming and a fervent pursuit of the ultra-thin. Ballet is beautiful as an art form. It should not be a semiotic sign of the superiority of a skin color or a body shape, nor should our love for it be an unconscious effort to approximate that ideal — by choosing to embody this style with our diverse bodies and by actively advocating for inclusivity, we are engaging in the severely needed dialogue on fashion decolonization and the deconstruction of conventional beauty standards. Beauty takes a grave price now, but it does not have to.
Zhiyu Lindy Luo is Senior News Editor. Email her at
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