Jenifer Ringer, a ballerina with the renowned New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center, strives for perfection in every aspect of her life. "It takes 100 percent to be a ballerina, 100 percent to be a wife and 100 percent to be a mother," she says.
Jenifer first stepped up to the barre at 10 years old. Now 37, she has devoted her entire life to dance—pushing her physical and mental limits with every graceful movement. She says the wear and tear from years of 12-hour days has started to catch up with her. "My bones and my joints will crack and crunch," she says. "Sometimes, you know, when I lift my leg to the back it doesn't go quite as high as it used to."
Despite her physical pain, the constant pursuit of perfection keeps Jenifer going.
While on-stage perfection of ballet can appear effortless, Jenifer says dancers subject themselves to things audiences never see. Jenifer says she battled body image issues in her teens and developed an eating disorder in her 20s. "I just started to eat, I think, to comfort myself or to help myself cope. Or I would not eat. I'd start a kind of vacillating back and forth between not eating, anorexia and then just overeating, like compulsively overeating," she says. "Then I started kind of just hating the way I looked in the mirror. ... I equated my worth with my ability to act perfect and how I looked."
This struggle with food at one point even resulted in Jenifer's decision to leave the world of professional dance. "I had left the company and I was probably 30 or 40 pounds overweight. I had a ballet teacher say to me, 'You've just got to come and dance. Come into my class. Listen to the music and dance. You need to be dancing,'" Jenifer says. "And at this weight, which was the heaviest I had been, I remember clearly looking into the mirror and seeing myself at that weight and saying, 'You're beautiful just like that.' It was a huge deal for me to just accept myself like that."
Jenifer says fitness is important in dance, but there is room for more than one body type. "We do have to be honed to a fine point. ... We do need to be thin. We need to be in the best physical place we can be," she says. "But the thing is, there's room for all body types. In my company every body type is represented. We have tall, we have waif-like, we have womanly, we have petite. The danger is when the dancer can't appreciate their own body and starts hating the fact that they're not fitting into the waif-like mold."
Professional dance is populated by a small yet devoted community of artists, fans and critics, and rarely does anything in this world make front-page headlines. One exception to this came in late 2010, when a New York Times dance critic reviewed Jenifer's performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker, writing that she looked "as if she'd eaten one sugar plum too many."
"It's horrible to read something about yourself like that, so it made me feel bad," she says. "It was embarrassing."
On the other hand, Jenifer says, it made her realize that she had conquered her eating disorder. "My first thought was, 'It's happened. My worst nightmare. Somebody has called me heavy in the press and lots of people are going to read about it.' But then my next thought was, 'It's happened and I'm okay and I'm fine the way I am and I have survived it.' I think it's just because I had gone through my eating disorders, I had gone through depression, I had lost dance for a while because of my eating disorders."
Jenifer is a rarity in ballet for a couple of reasons: She's 37 years old and she's a mother. While most dancers in her company are much younger than she is, Jenifer says ballet's obsession with youth is in the process of changing. "Women are dancing into their mid 40s sometimes." Jenifer says. "I mean, still, at 37, I am on the senior range of things."
Being a "senior" dancer brings pros and cons, Jenifer says. "I definitely notice a difference in my body. I don't recover as fast, I don't bound out of bed like a Walt Disney cartoon in the mornings," she says. "But, on the other hand, being at this age I feel like I'm a better artist. I feel like I'm bringing a lot more life experience to my roles."
In Black Swan, one of the most talked about movies of 2010, actress Natalie Portman plays a prima ballerina so obsessed with perfection that she loses all sense of reality. The movie has gained five Oscar® nominations—including Best Picture and a Best Actress nomination for Natalie.
Jenifer says the movie's first part is a good depiction of the hard work it takes to be a dancer. "I thought Natalie Portman was amazing. It's hard [enough] for a dancer to look like a dancer, and she actually managed to look like a ballerina. I thought it was impressive," Jenifer says. "And then, you know, when the craziness started it was an exaggeration and a dramatization. I mean, I thought it was fun!"