Point Park denies existence of 'fat list' for dancers
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It's no secret that dancers face heavy pressure to be thin.
At Point Park University, like other schools with dance programs, a student tipping the scales too far risks getting a reminder about diet, since a svelte frame is seen as necessary for both the rigors of training and audience expectations of beauty.
Just the same, the school and its well-regarded dance program are in the uncomfortable spot this week of fending off complaints that they have taken the poundage issue too far.
Simply put, Point Park says it does not have what some on campus have dubbed a "fat list" of its dance students.
The issue stems from a sheet with student names posted in spring 2008 inside Lawrence Hall, where dance majors congregate. It instructed the group of about a dozen mostly female dance students, without explaining why, to see Peter Merz, assistant professor and head of ballet, those familiar with it say.
Whatever ill feelings may have ensued from those individual talks simmered below the surface until this past week, when the student newspaper, The Globe, revealed the list's existence in an article that included complaints from unnamed current and former dance students.
Asked about it, Mr. Merz told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he cannot divulge details of private conversations with students, though he did not dispute that weight was a topic at the meetings.
He said he neither created the list that carried his name, nor asked that it be posted.
"I would have rather scheduled the meetings individually with students," he said. "I honestly don't know who posted the list."
He said what's been lost amid the criticism is the fact that there are very real expectations about physical conditioning and aesthetics that aspiring dancers will face as they look for work. He said faculty try to give students a realistic sense of what to expect.
"Certain body weights are necessary to become employable," he said. "It's also a safety issue."
He said a dancer not in proper physical condition is more vulnerable to knee, ankle and foot injuries. "Especially for women dancing en pointe," he said.
The concern is not just excessive weight but any sign that someone is dieting to a point that is unhealthy. Mr. Merz said whenever weight is raised, he provides a student with contact information for a nutritional expert.
University officials yesterday declined to answer further questions about the list or its origin. Ronald Allan-Lindblom, dean of Point Park's Conservatory of Performing Arts, issued a statement that did not mention the list and instead said the school's holistic approach to dance instruction includes access to a mental health counselor, nutritionist, athletic trainers, physicians and nutrition coursework geared to dancers.
"We expect our dancers to be physically fit so that they can avoid injury and condition themselves for a sustainable career," he said.
Nicole Mullen, 22, who graduated from Point Park's dance program this spring, said one of her friends, a ballet student, was on the list.
"She was told that if she wanted a certain role she needed to lose a certain amount of pounds, and once she did, she needed to maintain it," said Ms. Mullen, of Basking Ridge, N.J. "I don't know what the number of pounds was. It was shocking to me that this tiny thing was told to lose weight. It did not seem necessary to me and a bit over the top.
"It definitely affected her. She was constantly aware of it and tended to worry about it a lot more."
Ms. Mullen said she's aware of weight pressures, especially in ballet, but she added there should be less focus on it in an academic setting than in a professional dance company.
"Even if they're larger, they're still in shape," she said of students studying dance at Point Park. "They take care of their bodies."
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department in the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., said physical conditioning is important, but not all students there are the ideal weight. In his more than three years with those dancers, "There has been maybe one or two instances where their weight has changed to a noticeable degree."
He does not approach the student, instead letting a therapist raise the subject. "I don't want it to come from an authority figure," he said.
At Point Park, students had varied views about the list. Some saw the issue as no different than weight requirements facing any student-athlete. Others framed it as an example of undue pressure students, in particular women, face about appearance.
Most said the dance department has a right to raise the issue, though most questioned posting any sort of list.
Carleigh Dettorre, 19, a sophomore biology and psychology major, said like it or not, dance students will discover that "you're not going to get a job in the industry unless you look a certain way."
First Published October 29, 2009 12:00 am