Prima Ballerina

Dancer Ashley Bouder Has Always Loved Ballet, But Can It Ever Truly Love Her Back?

Bouder has spent decades as a professional dancer with the New York City Ballet. Now she’s questioning whether it’s a safe world for her daughter to join.

Winning Look

In the fall of 2022, something remarkable happened on Instagram Live. Ashley Bouder, a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, spoke with raw and emotional honesty about “body-shaming” and “ageism” in dance. “My voice is a little wobbly because this is really hard for me,” she said, in a video that has since received more than 100,000 views. “The reason I’m coming out today is because I’ve hit my proverbial wall,” she continued. “I think we don’t talk about body-shaming experiences because they’re embarrassing. Today, I’m really trying to step beyond my embarrassment and into courage.”

In the video, Bouder described what happened on the night at the New York City Ballet (NYCB) Fall Gala that made her publicly question if it was time for a new career. Though she was on the program to perform in Symphony in C, a Balanchine classic and company staple, there was a last-minute announcement that she was being replaced. “People thought [my replacement] was due to injury, but it wasn’t,” she told her audience. “I was way too embarrassed to reveal the truth at that moment, but I was strongly encouraged to not perform because of my appearance. So instead, I respectfully sat in the audience and watched another ballerina dance in my place, while I sat next to my daughter.”

Symphony in C was supposed to be a comeback of sorts: 2022 was Bouder’s 23rd season with the NYCB, and she had no intention of retiring yet. Though she had been sidelined for several years by the pandemic and a foot injury, and had gained weight during her recovery, Bouder was ready to be on stage again. “My body feels different. My mind is different. But I’m me. And I’m here. And I’ll be back on the stage that I love,” she had written earlier that fall. Weeks later, she was on Instagram, wondering out loud how she could let her daughter fall in love with a discipline that has brought her mother so much pain and shame.

Bouder in a 2019 performance of George Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.Paul Kolnik

Violet is 8, and has made regular appearances on her mom’s Instagram account since her birth, and I knew that, like my own little girl, she had followed in her mom’s footsteps by starting ballet classes at a young age. I’ve wondered how Bouder, a self-proclaimed feminist who cares about diversity and inclusion, squares her experience in the ballet world — historically dominated by male choreographers and thin white ballerinas — with her desire to raise a confident little girl who will grow up into a woman who loves herself wholeheartedly.

It’s a question that I have asked myself, even as I delighted in signing up my daughter for her first “mommy and me” movement class as a toddler and then, later, in buying her the same pink tights, black leotards, and ballet shoes I once loved so dearly — even though they were tickets to a world where I never felt good enough, where my body, taller than the other girls, was never “right.” Decades since I took my last ballet class, I still haven’t unlearned the habit of reflexively sucking in my stomach. I loved ballet, but I also knew its cruelties. I’m filled with shame when I think of my daughter’s ballet teacher telling her to “lay off the yogurt” on the thrilling day she laced up her very first pair of pointe shoes at age 10. Why, as a mother, was I willing to risk my sweet girl encountering the poison that so often comes along with the beauty and the joy of dancing?

Late last fall, Bouder and I met at Old John’s Diner on the Upper West Side, a few blocks north of NYCB’s home at Lincoln Center. Bouder’s hair was pulled back, her face impossibly fresh at 40. (She still gets carded, she laughingly tells me later.) Speaking publicly about her struggle had been terrifying, but the response had left her hopeful. “I got thousands of messages from people who sympathized, people who couldn’t talk about their story but said they’ve had similar things, and then just thousands of people telling me their own stories,” she says. Going through these messages was cathartic (and time-consuming), but it helped her realize the importance of people feeling seen and heard. “There’s stigma attached to so many things that we need in ballet. There’s stigma attached to admitting that you have to go to the nutritionist. There’s stigma attached to admitting that you go to mental therapy. And I do both, and I’m so tired of — not of trying to hide it, but of not being open about it.”

(“New York City Ballet’s number one priority is the health and wellness of its dancers, who are elite artists and athletes who must be able to perform at the highest possible level in order to execute the physical demands of the choreography that makes up our repertory,” a representative tells me via email when I asked for comment on Bouder’s allegations of body shaming. “NYCB has been, and remains, committed to working with all of our artists to ensure that that they are strong and healthy, and able to do their jobs at the highest possible level.”)

Bouder and her husband Peter de Florio at the NYCB's 2023 Fall Gala with Violet.Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images

Originally from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Bouder began ballet lessons at age 6. At 15, she attended the prestigious summer program at the School of American Ballet, the official school of NYCB; shortly thereafter, she was named an apprentice with NYCB, and in 2005, when she was just 21, the company promoted her to the rank of principal dancer. Since then, she’s danced countless prima roles, from Odette/Odile in Swan Lake to Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, and received several top ballet world prizes, including the prestigious Prix Benois de la Danse in 2019.

In the 24 years that Bouder has danced professionally, she has also gone back to college and earned a degree in political science and organizational leadership from Fordham University (magna cum laude, thank you very much). In 2014, she founded her own company, The Ashley Bouder Project, “dedicated to promoting women and diversity in creative and leadership roles in the performing arts world” and producing work by women and other marginalized groups. She also married her husband, financier Peter de Florio, and welcomed their daughter, Violet Storm de Florio, in 2016.

Bouder credits becoming a mother with her increased determination to speak out and affect change beyond the insular, homogeneous, and slow-to-evolve world of classical ballet. She has used her social media platform to speak out about issues like voting, Black Lives Matter, and the Russia-Ukraine War, and her 2020 children’s book, Welcome to Ballet School, intentionally features a diverse cast of characters.

Bouder is candid about the ways that the ballet world shaped her, moments of extraordinary success and opportunity happening side by side with withering criticism. On Instagram Live, she spoke of the “influential” ballet master who told her at age 16 that “the big boss” really liked her and wanted to use her in bigger roles right away, but in order for that to happen, she should think about losing 5 to 10 pounds. (She lost the weight and less than a year later landed the role of the Firebird.) She later told me about a teacher who would use chalk to put an “X” on the black leotards of students who were letting their stomachs “out.” The summer this happened to a young Bouder, she had this teacher for a 9 a.m. class. The memory is from years ago but it’s still visceral: “And so I had a big X on my stomach for the whole day.”

“I don’t want to share that scary part of the dance world with my daughter, yet. I don’t want her to quit dancing if she really likes it.”

Incidents like this, she says, create a culture of body shame that is ingrained in the core of so many dancers and students. “It’s something that follows many of us not only our whole career, but our whole lives,” she said in her Instagram Live. “I see colleagues who won’t touch a carb, people who dance six-plus hours a day, burning thousands of calories, but they’re afraid of a piece of bread.” Bouder said that many, many retired dancers and people who danced in their youth reached out to tell her that they “still revert back to the self shame when they gain a little weight or when they think about food.”

If this is what is “normal” in the ballet world, the mind truly boggles contemplating what it’s like to go through pregnancy and the postpartum period as a principal dancer. I tell Bouder that, in preparing for this interview, I’d come across an article from 2016 about her return to the stage just five months after giving birth, and was taken aback to see the interviewer baldly ask her how much weight she gained during her pregnancy.

“I was really conscious of how much weight I was gaining versus how much the baby should weigh,” says Bouder of that moment. “I didn’t want to gain more weight than that was necessary but also not deprive myself. This is the only time you can eat whatever you want! I mean, my first trimester, I probably wasn’t the healthiest because all I was craving was ice cream.”

But did it bother her at the time that the reporter asked such a personal question — demanded a specific number of pounds? “Probably not at the time,” she says. “Because every ballerina who wanted to have a kid after me also asked me that. ‘How much weight did you gain? How hard was it to lose it?’”

I ask Bouder if the culture has shifted at all from the way kids were taught ballet when she was a young girl, and she pauses for a moment. “My mom went to the same school that I went to, and she was like, ‘There were scales in [the studios] back then,’ and there were not when I was there.”

A scroll through Bouder’s social media will show Violet leaping into her ballet slippers; posing in her mom’s vintage Nutcracker sweatshirt; dancing along with five other little girls, all wearing masks; and practicing at home with her mom. I understand these photos; I have so many similar shots. But how, given what Bouder has endured, is she protecting Violet from all of the moments that would never make an Instagram feed? Because keeping “in dancer shape” is a ballet dancer’s job.

When it comes to Violet’s own ballet classes, Bouder believes that at 8, she’s not yet hearing the negative or toxic body talk that can be so pervasive. In the meantime, Bouder is working to establish a habit of communication. “I make sure that I keep a really honest dialogue with her, and I ask her questions about every class,” she says. “I’m like, ‘How was your ballet class? What corrections did you get?’”

Bouder and fellow NYCB principal dancer Harrison Ball in a 2019 performance of George Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes.Erin Baiano

She’s aware that at some point Violet might be annoyed by this line of questioning, but, she says, “I know how institutions can run, and I know what can get said. I had a lot said to me that nobody else ever heard, certainly not my mom, and that can be really damaging. So I try to keep her safe and I try to keep her OK with sharing everything. And not reacting, even if I think, ‘Oh, I don’t like that that teacher gave that correction.’ When she says things that I don’t agree with, I try not to say something negative so that she doesn’t not want to tell me in the future.”

But how much change, truly, is realistic — to what extent, for example, could there ever be body diversity in classical ballet? “For me as hopefully a future leader of a company, I don’t really know what the answer is,” Bouder admits frankly. But she believes change for the better is still worth pursuing — and that starts with people like her being willing to speak out.

“I think we try to just remember the good things and how much joy dance brings us — and it really does. That’s why we keep doing it, and why we accept all of those bad things.”

And what exactly did she tell Violet that night of the NYCB gala, when she’d been all dressed up and excited to see her mother perform, and instead ended up watching another dancer in her place? Did she tell her the truth?

“I don’t think that she was fully equipped to understand that yet,” Bouder says. “I don’t want to share that scary part of the dance world with her, yet. I don’t want her to quit dancing if she really likes it. But when she becomes a teenager and it really becomes an issue — how her body is changing and what she specifically needs to do to keep her body in dancer shape or whatever that is — I don’t want her to think that what happened to me is what’s going to happen to her. So, I was like, ‘Oh, Mommy’s not dancing anymore, and I’m going to watch it.’"

For all the times that Bouder has wondered out loud — and on Instagram — if it’s time to make her next career move, she clearly isn’t ready to give up ballet yet. During our meeting last fall, she was gearing up for the winter performances of The Nutcracker. She seemed excited but weary. “On one hand, if I never do another Nutcracker again, I’ll be fine because I’ve been doing it my whole life,” she says. “At the same time, I’m like, ‘I want to dance!’”

But tellingly, there are no photos of Bouder on her Instagram dancing The Nutcracker last season. There is one of her practicing her fondu technique and a slow-motion video of handmade pink legwarmers and a double pirouette. There are also a lot of throwback posts: There she is as a young apprentice in 2000 and dancing Russia in 2011 and in “her early 20s flitting around in Balanchine’s Valse-Fantaisie.”

Under this last post, someone asked if she has retired. “No, just not casted,” Bouder replied.

The next time Bouder and I speak, after my emails to NYCB about accompanying her to a rehearsal or seeing her onstage as the Sugarplum Fairy or any role in the ensuing spring season go unanswered, the holidays are over. It’s a late January afternoon, and our phone call is awkward and stilted. I’d been planning to talk more about her experience as a postpartum ballerina, but her answers are brief. I wonder if she remembers how her body as a dancer felt differently after having a baby, and she is short: “I am at the end of my career, so there’s lots of things in my body that don’t feel the same, so I can’t really answer that.”

When I ask her if the professional ballet world is supportive of moms, she simply says, “No, I don’t think so.”

It seemed as if this story of a working ballerina might end there. But then, earlier this month, Bouder posted again from backstage at Lincoln Center, an “I love you mom!” note from Violet on the dressing room mirror. She had danced that evening in Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. “I send a deep thank you to everyone who helped me get to this moment,” she wrote in her caption. “The training, the therapy, the friendships, the support. I got back on stage! I hope to continue this journey back to my life’s work.”

Back in the diner last fall, I’d asked Bouder the most personal question I could think of: Why, when we know what we know, did we still sign up our daughters for ballet class? “I think we try to just remember the good things and how much joy dance brings us — and it really does. That’s why we keep doing it, and why we accept all of those bad things,” she said. “If you look back at the history of a lot of dance companies, there’s a lot of abuse that goes on, whether it’s over body image, or sexual abuse, or emotional and verbal abuse, for both men and women, coming from people in power. But dance is so joyful. It is a full-body, full-mind experience, and you really can’t take away that joy. I think that’s why we do it — in the hopes that it will be better.”