Tall dancers vs. Short dancers: What’s the height debate about?

In dancing is it better to be taller or shorter or in-between? My eldest daughter could be 5″9 and so I am really curious in getting some answers to this question! In this post, I take a look into the history behind how the height of a dancer even became an issue and the situation regarding it in dance today.

The real debate isn’t about whether a dancer is too tall or too short, it is about uniformity and conformity. If a company’s principal dancers are all short they are likely to employ dancers of similar heights, if they were all tall, they would follow suit there.

The same happens in music videos if the singer is short, then dancers of similar height will be employed so the stars shorter stature goes unnoticed. If the singer is tall, dancers of heights that compliment them will be employed. Steezy.com a website that has online hip hop dance classes writes that

the beautiful thing about dance (especially Hip Hop and Street/Funk styles) is that they are not exclusive to any one body type. In fact, one of the core principles of many of these dances is to embrace and celebrate individuality.

Therefore this article focuses mainly on ballet dancers, but the information is relevant to all dancers because dance is all about aesthetics and sometimes visual trickery.

What is the difference between short and tall dancers?

Images From Google Search: Shortest Ballerina
Images From Google Search: Shortest Ballerina
Images From Google Search: Tallest Ballerina

If you were to ask this question to an artistic director, choreographer, dance teacher or any other professional dancer they would be able to list off a few stereotypical differences between shorter and taller dancers. These might include the following:

Tall DancersShort Dancers
Excel at adagio work.Excel at Petit Allegro
Create clear elegant, graceful movement and lines.Produce good clean, fast footwork
Can fill more space fluidly and easily.Can get up and down from the floor quicker.
Have a commanding presence on stage.Powerhouse dancers
Males are able to lift a range of partnersEasier to lift in partner work
Able to elevate and extend higher.Able to pirouette and turn faster.
Known for their elongated extensions and flexibility.Look as though they are floating or are weightless when dancing.

But these are all stereotypes, and although they make sense when you think about the fact that taller people with longer limbs will take longer to move through time and space, it doesn’t mean all tall dancers can’t get up and down from the floor quickly or produce clean, fast footwork nor does it mean shorter dancers can’t create elegant and graceful movements and lines. Dancers at both ends of the height spectrum work hard to be good at every aspect of their craft and you will get short dancers who can elevate higher in leaps than their taller counterparts and tall dancers who are technicians with clean and faster footwork than their shorter colleagues.

How the history of dance proves there is a place for both taller and shorter dancers.

Many dance companies today still only hire female dancers, of heights around the traditional measurement of 5’5″ or the 165cm range with males needing to be taller than the female dancers when the females are en pointe. This became the standard as Brian Nolan writes in his article for Dance Magazine mainly due to the popularity of the Ballerina Marie de Camargo during the 18th century. Everyone wanted to dance like Camargo and as she became the one people paid to see, uniformity on stage revolved around the star and all the dancers had to be of similar heights and thus the traditional height of the ballerina was established.

France, Nantes, Portrait of the dancer Marie Anne de Cupis de Camargo

In her book Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, Jennifer Homans supports this theory writing

“And it is no accident that many of the most daring performers of ballet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were women. (Marie) Salle and (Marie) Camargo set the mold…..”

For many years, Nolan writes that once a girl grew past those fateful measurements they could basically no longer dream of ever having a career in dance. But luckily times have changed.

Many people refer to the prolific choreographer Balanchine as being the one that popularized and created roles in his ballets for the New York City Ballet in the ’70s for taller, wisp-like dancers such as Suzanne Farrell and even taller dancers Pat Neary and Diana Adams all who measured up and around 5’7″. Today the same roles are often danced by even taller 5’9″ dancers Maria Kowroski and Teresa Reichlen, current members of the New York City Ballet. Susan Farrell in her own autobiography Holding on to the Air wrote:

In a ballet company being the right height at the right time can make all the difference in the world.‘ p.63

Balanchine also hired Gloria Govrin who he initially discouraged from becoming a professional dancer as she was 5’10”. As a member of the New York City Ballet her career wasn’t of the normal trajectory, she was a soloist and rarely partnered, but Balanchine created roles especially for her as he was intrigued by her ability to move the way she did whilst at the same time being taller than the other dancers.

David King the author of the blog and magazine A Ballet Education idolizes Balanchine but admits the Balanchine era probably fuelled dancers to have more complexes over their body shape, than any other. He beleives that today if a dancer’s body is proportioned no matter what their height, and to this, he uses the examples of several male leading dancers Roberto Bolle 6’1″, Baryshnikov 5’6″ and Jacques D’Amboise 5’9″, it is their solid technique and charisma that will get them jobs.

Currently, in Russia home of the Bolshoi Theatre and Vaganova Ballet Academy, taller dancers are becoming the norm. Precious Adams an American studying in 2013 at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography was told by former teacher Rayevsky that ‘her height of 5 feet 5 inches, or 165 centimeters, might be a factor because Russian ballet is particularly picky about its group dancers, who in recent years have become taller and taller on average.‘ (The Moscow Times).

Now, there are many dance and ballet companies all over the world, all of whom have different requirements for their dancers. For example, Paul Vasterling Artistic Director for the Nashville Ballet in an interview for Pointe Magazine said that ‘In my opinion….. It’s not just about weight; it’s about the extension, proportion, height, all the genetic stuff.’ meaning that he does take into consideration the height of a dancer when thinking about employing them. But there are also many who aren’t concerned with such things such as Dorothy Gunther Pugh Artistic Director for Ballet Memphis who in the same article states ‘I don’t want a company where everyone is the same height or has the same instep. I don’t think that’s very American.’ She is after diversity in her dancers and willing to employ dancers based on their merit and not their height.

Why is there an issue with height in dance still today?

So why is there such a vast difference between different companies and the choices of artistic directors and choreographers? Well it all comes down to aesthetics and what vision a director has for the company or what traditions, repertoire, the average height of their current dancers and choreography the company will perform.

Have you ever walked into a room and the first thing you noticed was the frame on the wall wasn’t quite straight? Have you ever put an orange back with the oranges because it was sitting with the apples at the grocery store? Have you ever folded and refolded a piece of paper because the corners didn’t meet properly? These are not just OCD tendencies, we all as humans like to see order. We see the beauty in symmetry and when things look like they go naturally with each other. For example – how do the following two photos make you feel? Which one do you like the most?

Photo 1

Photo 2

I know for me personally I like the uniformity of the first photo of pencils, but that blue tall one sticks out like a sore thumb. The second photo makes me feel a little uncomfortable, as though I need to go and buy a new pack of pencils so they are all the same height and look pretty and brand new and shiny like when I bought them. But at the same time, each of those pencils has a story to tell about where it has been, what narrative it has helped an illustrator tell – they are interesting.

This is the world of dance. Many ballet companies and even producers of music videos, musicals, etc want uniformity of their dancers so that the audience or viewer is not distracted by things such as the height or shape of the dancer and are able to focus solely on the movement and story being presented.

Misty Copeland Principal Dancer with The American Ballet Theatre in an interview with Guideposts stated that

‘Ballerinas are judged on the way they look. Especially in the corps, which in classical ballet is supposed to have a uniform look. Being different can be considered distracting to the audience and to the overall artistic vision, something casting directors keep in mind when selecting ballerinas for roles that can make a dancer’s career.’

Other companies and choreographers welcome diversity as it can both jolt the audience to attention so that they actively start to think about the choreography and choices being made in the performance or it can make the dancers more relatable to an audience as people themselves in those on the stage.

The Rockettes a dance troupe in New York City who amaze audiences with their uniformity, kick lines and cannon choreography are an example of a company with fairly set height specifications. To even be considered for a role as a Rockette, a dancer needs to be between 5’6″ and 5’10 ½”. Anything above or below this becomes too conspicuous to the audience’s eye and distracts from the unison of the movements being performed by the more than 30 dancers on stage.

The Joffrey Ballet, based in Chicago who I saw live years ago in Australia performing to the music of the artist Prince, is a company that employs a diverse range of dancers. Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times dance critic since 1984 in an article for The Chicago Reader says

testing choreographers and new pieces helps the Joffrey maintain its identity as a troupe with diverse dancers and repertoire—”not a cookie-cutter company,” she says—even if they sometimes fall flat.’

The Joffrey can lay claim to having the tallest ballet dancer in the world Fabrice Calmels who is 6′ 6.63″.

Dancers Shattering Stereotypes

In researching for this article I came across many opiniative forums as well as articles that wrote that smaller or shorter dancers are able to recreate the image of being weightless or as if they are floating on stage more easily then taller dancers. On the music video or commercial dance scene, there was a similar theory that shorter dancers are able to more easily create dynamic movement with their bodies, whilst at the same time making those movements look effortless. The arguments on the other side attested that taller dancers were able to create more stunning extensions, lines and incredible height in their leaps. But really these are just stereotypes and these stereotypes are constantly being shattered by many dancers all over the world today!

Image from CourtneyHenry.com

Courtney Henry is six foot ballerina who was a member of Alonzo Kings Lines Ballet Company from 2011-2017. She is now a freelance dancer dancing throughout Europe and you can regularly read articles written by her in various dance magazines. One of these articles ‘How Tall Is Too Tall To Dance?‘ is a kind of love letter to all her fellow long-limbed dancers. She writes that if you want others to accept your height, you need to accept your height first – to own it! She writes that you need to embrace who you are and have pride in being unique. Importantly she writes:

‘I found that once I stopped shrinking, people stopped commenting on my height so frequently.’

Charlie Hodges was constantly told he needed to lose ‘his baby fat’ when he was a young dancer and feels his endeavor to lose weight and the ensuing dieting he followed possibly contributed to his stunted growth! I started writing all about him but he talks about his own story so eloquently in his TedX speech Failure Doesn’t Exist. Limitations Breed Innovation that I will let the video speak for itself!

From Instagram

Iana Salenko is 5’2″ and is a principal with the Staatsballett Berlin. When she was younger she was told she was too small to be a ballerina and was rejected after her first audition for the Staatsballet by director Vladimir Malakhov mainly due to her height. After some persuasion he hired her as a demi-soloist which she says in an article for Dance Magazine made her work harder to improve. By 2007 she was a principal and danced the role of Cinderella under the direction of Malakhov. She is also a sought after guest artist with many of the leading companies in the world, such as the Royal Ballet where she feels right at home because they are ‘a company known for (employing) relatively small dancers.‘ (Dance Magazine)

Image from linked article on Ballet News

When I was a performing arts student in 1997 watching the ballet students warm up in the studio across the hall from my jazz lesson, it was blatantly obvious that Adam Bull would one day be a principal artist with a world-famous ballet company, which he is today with the Australian Ballet Company. What was not so obvious was that he would one day measure 192cm or 6’4″. The wonderful thing is you won’t find Adam in articles about height in dance or other shattering stereotype style categories because he is just so damn talented that you rarely notice his tall stature. His height has never been made a big deal of and even he in an article for Ballet News when asked the question – What would surprise people about you? replies with the answer – How tall I am. I truly believe Adam is an inspiration to all those taller male dancers wondering how they will fit into a company because he never has had to. His hard work, discipline, talent, confidence, and charisma just shine through – he was meant to be a dancer!

Image from saramichellemurawski.com

Sara Michelle Murawski is 5’10.5″ and was a soloist with the Slovak National Ballet. She was actively pursued by the Pennsylvania Ballet whom she began dancing for in 2016, happily moving to be closer to home because she grew up in Philadelphia. Unfortunately at the end of that year, the company did not resign her. Murawski told The Philadelphia Inquirer that she was told it was a budgeting problem and they could not get a tall male dancer to partner her in the company. Not too long after she was employed by The American National Ballet but unfortunately the company dissolved not too long after opening. Today Sara is based in New York and involved in several projects and upcoming guest performances. On her website she writes:

Sara has dedicated herself to inspiring tall and otherwise unique young female dancers to pursue their dream of ballet.  She is passionate about representing a positive role model in the lives of aspiring dancers in the world, and strives to help to catapult change that is worthy and much needed.’  

5 Tips for Tall Dancers

  1. Work on improving your alignment.
  2. Strengthen your core to improve balance and stability.
  3. Try to choose dance classes, teachers and schools who celebrate your height and understand how to properly train your body.
  4. Courtney Henry likes to incorporate cross-training into her routine to develop her speed and precision.
  5. Other styles of training such as the Horton Technique , Progressing Ballet Technique or Gyrotonics can also help to tame longer limbs when dancing.
  6. Eat for your height. Generally being taller will mean that you will need to eat more to fuel your body which is important as malnutrition can make you susceptible to injury!
  7. Own your height, don’t try to be shorter or dance smaller. Stop worrying about being too tall, you can’t change or control your height or other peoples opinions about your height. You can only control your own thoughts, behavior, work ethic and artistry.
  8. Realize that your journey as a dancer may look different to others. This does not mean you are less successful or your journey will be harder. No one has the perfect body and everyone is working with their own imperfections.
  9. Start investigating the companies that are more likely to employ taller dancers based on their current company members and history. Enroll in summer intensives and classes at the companies school or with company members, choreographers and teacher to get your face, body and dancing out there.
  10. Network – Enter competitions, do classes at different places and meet people. The more people you know, the more opportunities you will hear about and the more likely people will be to recommend you in the future for guest roles or even permanent company positions.

Check out our excellent article on How to Dance with Long Arms or Long Legs here! It is full of tips and tricks that will and can help taller dancers!

Tips for Shorter Dancers

  1. Work on creating elegant transitions and preparations between jumps, turns and other major movements as this can help you create a lengthened and extended look to your movement.
  2. Cross-training and leg training for boys especially can help to increase strength in lifts and jumps. However, never lift someone if you are not strong enough just for a chance to get a role or a part as this is a sure way to end your career before it has even begun.
  3. Progressing Ballet Techniques and Gyrotonics are great forms of exercise created for dancers to help you focus on elongating and lengthening your muscles and movements.
  4. Shorter dancers often get cast in choreography that showcases fast footwork or explosive jumps so ensure you are making time for stretching and massaging or foam rolling these muscles to release stiffness from overworking calf, leg and hip muscles.
  5. Remember as Charlie Hodge says in his TedX talk, people see what they want to see, you can’t make them see anything different until you change the way you see yourself!
  6. Work on your thoughts and mental game so that you project confidence.
  7. Be ready and prepared to skip the corps and go straight to soloist or guest roles.
  8. Realize that your journey as a dancer may look different to others. This does not mean you are less successful or your journey will be harder. No one has the perfect body and everyone is working with their own imperfections.
  9. Start investigating the companies that are more likely to employ taller dancers based on their current company members and history. Enroll in summer intensives and classes at the companies school or with company members, choreographers and teacher to get your face, body and dancing out ther
  10. Network – Enter competitions, do classes at different places and meet people. The more people you know, the more opportunities you will hear about and the more likely people will be to recommend you in the future for guest roles or even permanent company positions.

So which is better? Taller or Shorter Dancers?

In the beginning of this article, I wrote that I was interested in this topic because my eldest daughter who is interested in dance will possibly be 5’9″ when she grows up and from all my research on the topic, as a parent, I am not going to sugar coat it, I do believe she may hit some roadblocks and challenges if dance is really what she wants to do. But there is no way I will stop her from trying. When listening to Charlie Hodge speak in his TedX speech he spoke about how time stopped when he danced, how there was no future or past, there was just that moment and it was beautiful. As a dancer I know exactly what he is talking about and I would never ever want to take experiencing such beauty away from anybody!

So…..At the end of the day can you be successful as a shorter or taller dancer? Absolutely. Will the journey be harder? The answer to that question all depends on how you look at it. In an article for Dance Spirit Avi Scher writes that for 6 years he worked with 11 different ballet companies such as the Sacramento and the Joffrey Ballet because he was shorter than most female dancers. He writes ‘while my taller peers could get jobs in the corps de ballet (and a weekly paycheck) and develop slowly, I had to be ready to take on soloist roles, such as the peasant pas de deux in Giselle.’ As a dancer one could look at his journey which eventuated into him choreographing and starting his own dance company as hard or as though he didn’t quite make it. But from the perspective of a dancer stuck in the corps their entire career and never getting the opportunity to progress as written about in the book B Plus: Dancing for Mikhail Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theatre: A Memoir by Michael Langlois the chance to dance as a soloist might be what they consider as having ‘made it’. Scher in the Dance Spirit interview writes that in retrospect he now sees that

every dancer deals with challenges. The key is to use them as motivation to work as hard as possible. Being short forced me to take a difficult, unusual path, but because I never gave up, I’ve found unusually rewarding success.’

Related Information

The following is a youtube video I found whilst doing this research on the height of dancers. The YouTube user known as ‘flotteluft’ spent like myself many hours and days researching and trying to find information on this topic. Unlike actors who prerequisitely give out their height as part of their resumes, it seems dancers are more reluctant to do so and therefore finding out exact heights is an arduous undertaking. So enjoy the following video!

Tall dancers Vs Short Dancers - What is the debate all about? Which is better? We have all the answers in our post! #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
Tall dancers Vs Short Dancers - Will your kids height be an issue in dance? Which is better? We have all the answers in our post! #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
Tall dancers Vs Short Dancers. Which is better? Is there a best height in dance? We have all the answers in our post! #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
Short vs Tall Dancers. Why is there an issue about height in dance? Which dancers have the most success? #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
Should I be worried about my kids height in dance? Which dancers have the most success? #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
Will my sons height affect his dancing career? is there a best height for dancers? Why is this even an issue? #dance #ballet #tallvsshort #danceparent
About the Author

Samantha Bellerose

Samantha is a wife and mother of four kids aged 1-9. She danced and acted from the age of 5 and performed in film clips, on television, and in musical theatre professionally. She also taught dance, but after leaving the profession to backpack through Europe, Canada and the USA with her husband for three years, she then completed an Education Degree and taught within primary schools in Australia. Today she is a business owner with her husband and the creator and writer for Dance Parent 101 where she hopes her previous experience as a dancer, current experience as a dance parent and the research and writing skills she gained completing her education degree will help enlighten parents on their journey with their child through the world of dance.