Tutu Much, Tutu Soon

The other day, I was sitting in Central Park with my teenage cousin. We were watching my daughter play in the crispy autumn leaves and another little girl and her father walked by. The other child was about my child's age, and she was wearing a backpack over her jacket. Trailing from underneath her outerwear was a tutu. Sigh. Another tutu.

"I just can't stand the ubiquity of tutus on toddlers," I said.

"Why?" My cousin really wanted to know.

I found myself not wanting to rely on the standard objections: princess culture, marketing, the confusion between being a female and being a fairy princess, the obsession with "cute" and "pretty" that has made billions of dollars for corporations who make costumes and other paraphernalia. Although these are all solid objections, I wanted to offer a different, original summation in the case of Popular Culture Vs. Our Young Girls in the courtroom of my mind. Maybe I just wanted to win the argument. Maybe I am as weary of people finding me a killjoy or a cliche of retro-hippie culture when I talk about tutus as I am of the tutus themselves. Either way, I thought of another reason I dislike tutus on toddlers.

A tutu is earned. A dancer generally begins ballet at around the age of 6. There are muscular battles to be fought, there are lines to be repeated for years until the back muscles at last triumph over gravity and proudly support the spine to create the illusion that the arms are floating as they billow from that spine.

Up a steep and very narrow stairway, indeed. So much has been written about the athletic and artistic enterprise of ballet that I dare not attempt to do more than encapsulate the climb up the mountain, the patience and impatience both that ballet demands, the edifice of muscle and sinew and bone density upon which a tutu is one day placed.

Tutus are often quite heavy. Much like a ballet dancer, they are designed to look as if they float beyond the pull of gravity. Ironically, powerful and dense scaffolding create this illusion. When a dancer is in rehearsal for a particular role, she wears the tutu at some point over her regular leotard and tights. Her back and leg muscles must master dancing while holding the weight of this costume; her mind must master the physics of turning in it.

When I was about 12 and had been in pointe shoes for two years, my father asked how the shoes are constructed. They are made of plaster and have a "box" at the tip on which the dancer balances her weight. There is a platform at the tip of this box, about an inch long and two inches wide. After years of training, the thighs and ankles are ready to attempt to support the body on this platform. The shoe is the same as the dancer and the tutu: constructed to create the illusion of defying gravity. My father looked at my shoes and said, "Oh, they're trick shoes."

A magician's "trick" is a muscular feat and a triumph of mind over matter. Nonetheless, it is supported by hidden machinery and years of training. So it is with the ballet dancer's "trick" of gliding on her toes. A magician pulls off a trick the way a dancer pulls off 32 fouettes: with bravado and determination. My father was not defining "trick" in this way, however. He was speaking from ignorance and it is in ignorance that so many adults find it charming or worse, necessary for female children to have a "tutu phase," or to assume they all do or should.

Would we not think it outdated for male toddlers to wear toy stethoscopes because only boys grow into doctors? Of course we would. I don't reject costumes or dress-up. Tutus can be in the basket along with lab coats. But just as the stethoscope is earned after years of training and hours of lost sleep, just as it represents a breadth of knowledge that identifies a trade, so too does the tutu. I count about 30 tutus on little girls nearly every day and not one stethoscope on any toddler. Does this not reflect our bias and our imbalanced endowment of respect for one type of expertise over another? Is there any other conclusion but that gender and the assumptions young girls are strangled by create this bias?

I recently walked past a photography studio offering a package of photos of your toddler dressed in a tutu. I snapped a photo of the window display:


As you can see, a lovely and very real young dancer is shown wearing a tutu on the left. On the right, you see an adorable toddler wearing a pretend tutu. This sums it up. The one on the left is a dancer; the one on the right is a tiny child wearing a piece of cheap gauze that society associates with femininity. (Silly assumptions about male ballet dancers are a subject for another post, and a worthy one, but one battle at a time.)

Dancers are athletes and artists. They are not fairy princesses, though they may sometimes play them on stage. They also play Kitri in Don Quixote, who with a flash of her fan and a powerful kick of her leg, terrorizes an entire stage of men. They also play Clara in The Nutcracker, who kills a giant mouse with a hurl of her shoe. They also play abstract bundles of muscle in neo-classical works choreographed by Balanchine. Dancers are actors. Dancers are muscle and tendons and heart and soul who work for years to be able to create the illusion of defying physics. They are not lighter than air and they are not pixies.

And then there's the princess thing. And the corporations making millions off of cutesy stereotypes. I won't rely on the standard arguments, but the stereotypes loom, nonetheless, like dark clouds over our young girls' heads.

I hate the ubiquity of tutus on toddlers.

By the way, "dancer" and "ballerina" are not interchangeable terms. A toddler is neither, but when an adult stoops down to ask a toddler in a tutu if she is a "ballerina," I wish her accompanying guardian would say, "Yes, as a matter of fact she is "a female principal dancer in a ballet company." (Merriam-Webster)

I just think it would be funny.