Dancers accuse top ballet schools of ‘bullying and body-shaming’

Former dancers have accused two renowned ballet schools of a long-running “toxic” culture of body-shaming and bullying.

More than 50 ex-students of The Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden and Birmingham’s Elmhurst Ballet School have spoken to BBC News.

Many claim they developed eating disorders and some said they had been left with mental health problems. Ellen Elphick, 30, who won a place at The Royal Ballet School in 2009 when she was 16, is now taking legal action claiming that the experience “broke” her and she still suffers trauma.

Within her first two weeks, she claims, a ballet teacher positioned her in front of a mirror for a blunt dressing-down.

Ms Elphick alleged: “She said to me, ‘If I had a knife, this is what I would cut off’. And she literally cut my entire bum off, kind of all of half my thigh, basically, and then a third of my calf.”

Both schools dispute the accounts given in a Panorama documentary to be aired on BBC One at 8pm.

The King is president of The Royal Ballet School, founded in 1926, which for decades has set the standard for academic and artistic excellence. The institution has produced a string of performers and choreographers including Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Darcey Bussell and Lynn Seymour.

The Queen is patron of Elmhurst and visited the school this year to celebrate its centenary. Dancers claim they were “regularly body shamed by teachers” and that “coded” language was used to encourage weight loss. Former pupils allege “bullying” staff congratulated them on losing weight, causing eating disorders to spiral. They and their families told the BBC the two schools have been slow to change and failed in a duty of care.

Dino Nocivelli, a lawyer representing Ms Elphick and others from another school, said his clients came forward for different reasons. He wants “an admission that the abuse took place, to hold these schools accountable”.

Elmhurst said its records “vary in some significant” respects from accounts given to the programme. But it promotes “good physical and mental health” and acts whenever “issues are identified”.

In a statement, the Royal Ballet School said “nothing is more important” than the “happiness and continued wellbeing” of its students. The school is “continuously improving and innovating” in order to protect health and welfare but stressed when issues arise, it has “well-established processes in place to ensure they are addressed swiftly”.

The statement added: “Panorama/File on 4 has highlighted cases spanning a number of years. These were either investigated and resolved at the time — and referred to external authorities where appropriate — or do not align with our records.

“Where any new version of events is now suggested we stand ready to investigate further.”