Image source, Johan Persson / ArenaPAL
Image caption, Grace says she was told she needed to lose weight
By Mark Daly
A BBC Panorama & File on 4 investigation
Former dancers have said there is a long-running “toxic” culture of body-shaming and bullying at two of the UK’s most prestigious ballet schools.
The BBC has spoken to more than 50 ex-students of the Royal Ballet School and Elmhurst Ballet School who attended between 2004 and 2022.
Many described developing eating disorders, while some said they had been left with mental health problems.
Both schools dispute the accounts given to the BBC.
Every year, hundreds of the UK’s most talented children audition for one of the big vocational ballet schools, dreaming of a career on the stage.
Only the best are chosen and proud parents hand over their children, as young as 11, to live and train at the fee-paying schools to pursue their dreams.
The Royal Ballet School in London is one of the world’s most celebrated, and has produced a string of famous dancers including Dame Margot Fonteyn and Dame Darcey Bussell. King Charles is its president.
Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham is also prestigious. Its patron is Queen Camilla, who visited the school earlier this year as it commemorated its 100th anniversary.
Details of organisations offering information and support with eating disorders, mental health, or feelings of despair are available at BBC Action Line
It is expected that ballet dancers must be slim and athletic in order to fulfil the roles, and ballet school training involves a gruelling programme akin to that of a professional athlete.
But over the years the industry has developed a reputation for eating disorders, and there has been criticism of the casting of extremely-thin ballerinas in lead roles.
Former dancers who attended the schools over the past two decades have made a series of claims about their treatment including:
Being regularly body shamed by teachers”Coded” language being used to encourage weight lossBeing congratulated by teachers on losing weight, causing eating disorders to spiralExperiencing bullying from teachersOne retired ballerina the BBC spoke to has begun legal action against the Royal Ballet School for the treatment she says she suffered there.
The two ballet schools told the BBC they were working hard to change the culture, and put health and wellbeing at the forefront of their priorities.
But the dancers and their families who spoke to the BBC say the schools have been slow to change, and failed in their duty of care to the children and young people they were supposed to be looking after.
Taunted over doughnuts
Image caption, Grace describes the culture at Elmhurst as “toxic”
Grace Owen, 22, says on one occasion at Elmhurst a teacher taunted the class over some doughnuts, which the students had been told were available after a class.
The teacher picked out the thinnest pupil and said only they were allowed to eat one, she says.
“[This was] implying that she could eat them because she was of the right weight, and no-one else,” says Grace, who was 19 at the time.
“Everyone else – basically you’re too fat for them.”
During her graduation party at Elmhurst in 2020, Grace says she and several of her classmates were humiliated by another ballet teacher.
She claims the teacher said: “All you girls, bar one or two people, need to lose weight, otherwise you’re not going to get a job.”
Grace says it made her feel “really unworthy”, adding that all the school actually cared about was “how slim you are”.
She describes the environment at Elmhurst as “toxic”.
“The ballet world is a brutal place but telling people that you’re too fat… I don’t think that’s preparing you for anything.”
‘If I had a knife, this is what I would cut off’
Image source, Johan Persson
Image caption, Ellen Elphick had dreamed of getting a place at the Royal Ballet School
Ellen Elphick, 30, spent five years at Elmhurst lower school but it was always her dream to win a place at the Royal Ballet School.
She succeeded and started at the Royal Ballet School in London in 2009, when she was 16. Ellen says within her first two weeks she was body-shamed by her ballet teacher, who positioned her in front of the mirror.
“She said to me, ‘if I had a knife, this is what I would cut off’. And she literally cut my entire bum off, kind of all of half my thigh, basically, and then a third of my calf.”
The former pupil describes feeling ashamed and being filled with hate for her body – and says her eating disorder spiralled after this encounter.
Ellen had previously developed an eating disorder at Elmhurst, but says her experience at the Royal “broke” her.
“I don’t think I ever really got put back together,” she says.
Ellen says she still suffers the trauma of being made to feel her body was the wrong shape.
Image caption, Ellen wants to see ballet schools be held accountable
Trauma psychologist Gayle Sturrock, who has counselled hundreds of ballet dancers, said: “If you’re told you’re not good enough, you’re useless, constantly… that gets hard-wired in.”
She added, “it can be one comment that causes an eating disorder”.
Ellen went on to dance professionally for four years. She has now decided to take legal action against the Royal Ballet School.
“Am I one of the lucky ones because I still had that career? Maybe? But that doesn’t mean I’ve not been left with life-long issues that I’m just going to have to find some way to deal with,” she says.
Lawyer Dino Nocivelli, who is representing Ellen and a number of other ballet dancers from another school, said his clients have come forward for different reasons. He says some want “an admission that the abuse took place, to hold these schools accountable”.
In a statement, the Royal Ballet School said: “Nothing is more important” than the “happiness and continued wellbeing” of its students and it is “continuously improving and innovating” in order to protect their health and welfare.
It said that when issues arise it has “well-established processes in place to ensure they are addressed swiftly”.
The school said it “strives to work towards excellence” and does so with “integrity and passion.”
‘I ended up in hospital’
Image caption, Harriet felt that the more she lost weight, the more attention she would get from teachers
Harriet Royle was 13 when she started at Elmhurst. She previously had some body image and eating issues, but arrived at the school fit and healthy.
She underwent such extreme weight loss she was admitted to hospital, having been told she may not survive otherwise.
Harriet, who is now 22, says her downward spiral began after an appraisal, when she was told she needed to work on her aerobic fitness.
She believes this was a coded message to lose weight.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I’m able to keep up with the boys, why is my aerobic fitness not good enough to do what the girls are doing?'” she says.
“[It] just didn’t make sense.”
Image caption, Harriet, 22, was in hospital for seven months with severe anorexia
Harriet lost a significant amount of weight and at her next assessment four months later, says she was praised by the school for “doing everything that they’d advised her to do”.
Harriet’s mother, Michaela, told the BBC one of the female ballet teachers had told her daughter to “carry on doing what you’re doing, because it’s working”.
Harriet felt like she was getting more attention from teachers. “It was kind of just validating that what you’re doing is the right thing,” she says.
Her weight loss continued at school and during holidays, and was soon out of control.
Harriet’s mother says her daughter’s extreme weight loss should never have reached the stage where she had to intervene and tell the school that she needed to take her home.
She never returned to Elmhurst and left hospital seven months later.
In a statement, Elmhurst says it promotes “good physical and mental health” and acts whenever “issues are identified”.
It has a “modern teaching approach” placing “highly disciplined training” … within the framework of “strong safeguarding principles”.
On the points the BBC put to Elmhurst, it says it recognises certain elements but “clear duties of confidentiality” prevent it from commenting, and says school records “vary in some significant” respects from accounts given to the programme.
Additional reporting by Hayley Hassall