So not long ago, I watched this amazing video of ballet star Sergei Polunin — known as “the bad boy” of Russian ballet for his rebellious attitude, past drug use and more — doing an absolutely insane piece to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church.” In the video, you see not just his amazing classical artistry – but some serious skin art. Um, what? Tattoos and dancers seem at once counter-intuitive (Swan Lake and a tramp stamp? Quelle horreur!) and logical (Dancers turn their bodies into art, so…). For decades, the idea of tats on a classical ballet dancer has been a no-no. Those limpid arms and legs need to be unmarked in order to fully see “the line” without distraction. But it’s perhaps a strike against that uber-disciplined 19th-century thinking that has caused a number of dancers to ink up their gloriously well-trained flesh.
I noticed this first on Sascha Radetsky, retired soloist with American Ballet Theatre, star of several dance-centric films and TV shows: Flesh and Bone among them. Besides his exquisite turns and jumps, the ink on his arms stands out. I saw it again on a male corps member from ABT, as he whipped through a series of turns — and the spider ink on his upper arm flashed out from the sleeve on his costume. More and more ballerinas are doing their little rebel thing by tattooing an ankle or some other unassuming body part. Going full-on inked is probably not an option for them — at least for now. ‘Cause Giselle rocks a virginal flower crown, not a Harley-Davidson tat.
Modern dancers have way more freedom in numerous ways so ink is not quite the big deal it is in the classical world. Where ballet dancers generally are asked to cover tats on stage with body makeup or small flesh-colored patches, modern dancers can flaunt their ink as part of the movement. Travis Magee is a former modern dancer turned photographer, who’s made a study of tattooed dancers. The result is a fascinating amalgam of art and motion. It will be interesting to see if ballet dancers will be granted the same freedom of expression in the coming years.
Now excuse me: I’m late to get a tattoo of cat whiskers on my instep.
Photo Credit: Sergei Polunin by Samir Hussein/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion
PS. For more on the world of dance behind the curtain, check out our posts Bolshoi Babylon: The Dark Side of the Dance World, Ballet Meets “Breaking Bad,” When A Ballerina Takes Off Her Tiara, and The Life and Death of a Pointe Shoe.