Bunhead Psyche 101

August 11, 2014

I get a lot of questions about why ballet dancers have “attitudes”. This is a loaded question. I would begin by asserting that everyone with a personality has an attitude. While it is true that some personalities will simply clash with one another, it is my hope that what follows will shed some light on the mentality that is the ballerina. May I introduce to you. . .the bunhead.

It is customary for the average bunhead to show up anywhere from thirty minutes, to a whole hour before class to stretch, and warm up. For clarity’s sake, you can think of a bunhead as being just like a jarhead, only more flexible. In my experience, the bunhead is an unforgivably, self-loathing creature. In fact, I would challenge anyone who said bunheads are nothing more than simple-minded self-obsessed little girls (and boys), and argue that bunheads are high-functioning, multi-taskers. I would further claim that any self-obsessed behavior really comes from deeply rooted inferiority complexes. They also tend to have an inexplicable affinity for all horizontal wooden poles.

Which brings me to the love of the barre. Yes, the extra “r” and “e” are intentional in the spelling. Bunheads are dancers, not alcoholics. Don’t ask why its spelled that way. No bunhead can tell you. Just blame the French. The barre is the constant reminder of how good you are. . .NOT. But, because it is not a real person, you have no way of being angry at it. The barre is kind of like your disabled great-aunt who keeps slobbering at the dinner table uncontrollably. You wish it could be different, but you are not quite angry at it. The best way to explain how the barre works is by example. It goes like this. Every time you need to touch the barre, it screams, “you are weak”. While it is only natural that a normal person would from time-to-time, sway or shift weight and need to hold onto the barre to maintain a light sense of stability, a bunhead tries to maintain a full 180 degree hip turnout, without sticking out one’s rear or chest, while not touching the barre. Bunheads are not concerned at all with what is natural. . .much less with what is normal.

The wonderful catch twenty-two here is that the ideal bunhead is one who can perform all of the exercises at the barre without actually having to use it. No wobbling, no shifty movements, perfect stability. To further complicate things, classic pedagogy mandates that the bunhead’s elbow at the barre be turned under so that it is impossible to place any real weight on the barre. As if that were not already enough, the hand is not permitted to actually grip the barre or really even allow the palm to touch it for that matter. The perfect bunhead may put as much weight as she can on no more than two fingers that lightly graze the barre only to check stability. The idea here being that the body is smarter than our brain. Hmmm. . . could this be true?

This is not to say that the bun-head is a stupid creature. Quite the contrary. The musicality and proprioception (the ability to be aware of where parts of the body are in space) required to dance classical ballet, along with applying constant corrections from teachers, would clearly indicate that at any given time the bunhead is processing at the very least 5-6 things simultaneously. The bunhead psyche, much like the bunhead physique, is a highly functioning multi-tasking freak of nature. So the next time you think you’ve been given the cold shoulder at the barre, or you pass by a group of bunheads stretching in the hallway and you try to strike up a conversation only to get ignored–remember that you might be interrupting a very important warm-up ritual that the bunhead needs before entering a ninety minute mental and physical workout. And if this post has done nothing to unveil the mystery of the bunhead’s—well—head; if you still feel like you deserve to chit-chat in front of the barre instead of leaving it open for someone else to use, or if you feel like a bunhead has been particularly snippy with you for no apparent reason; just remember it’s not personal, it’s ballet.


-Robert Graham
Freelance Dancer, Writer
photo: Kylie Forbush