More dancers allege body-shaming and bullying at UK ballet schools

Portraits of four ex-dance students
Image caption,Clockwise from top left: Madeleine, Siân, Joe and Sapphire

Dozens more ballet dancers have described body-shaming and bullying at schools across the UK, following a BBC investigation earlier this year.

One ex-Elmhurst Ballet School student says she was shut in a room by staff while having a mental health crisis.

Another developed anorexia and came close to suicide after attending the London Vocational Ballet School.

Both schools said their records differ from the accounts given to the BBC and that student welfare was a priority.

In total, the BBC has now spoken to more than 100 former dancers who attended UK schools from the 1990s through to the present day, and who all claim they experienced a “damaging” culture.

The initial investigation by Panorama and File on 4 focused on two of the UK’s top schools, the Royal Ballet School in London and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.

The new claims include a third school, the London Vocational Ballet School, known until earlier this year as the Young Dancers Academy.

‘Shut in a room for hours’

Siân Mort
Image caption,Siân told the BBC that her experience at Elmhurst Ballet School left her with deep trauma

Sian Mort, 21, attended Elmhurst from age 11 to 17 and says she was “contained” in a room alone three times while having a mental health crisis.

“The pastoral care staff shut me in a room in the medical centre and left me crying and screaming hysterically for hours,” she says.

She developed anorexia in her second year at the school – the same year she won an award for most promising dancer.

“[It] felt like validation for what I was doing,” she says.

But then her anorexia worsened and led to interventions by the school – although one of those stopped her from attending ballet class, which she says, only made her condition worse.

“It felt like I was being punished for being ill,” she says.

On one occasion, she says she was humiliated after being weighed in front of other students, berated for having an eating disorder and told she would not be allowed to dance.

“Ballet was everything I knew, and when they stopped me from doing it, I would get hysterical. They weren’t nurturing – it was the opposite of that.”

She describes feeling like “a bear trapped in a cage” being pushed into “even more hysterical states”.


Details of organisations offering information and support with eating disorders, mental health, or feelings of despair are available at BBC Action Line


Siân’s parents removed her from the school in 2019. Rick Mort told the BBC his daughter had been a shell of the person she once was.

“She was a very bubbly, confident, enthusiastic and talented girl when she went in. And she came out a wreck,” he said.

Siân doesn’t blame the school for developing an eating disorder, but does blame it for the way it was handled.

“Eating disorders are one of the most prevalent issues at ballet schools, and Elmhurst is supposed to be one of the best in the world – but they didn’t seem to have any idea how to deal with mine,” she says.

Elmhurst told the BBC it did not accept many of the assertions made.

It said no evidence had been found that staff had breached their position of trust and that they had “acted in good faith to safeguard the health and well-being of the child concerned”.

The school said it could not comment on the details of the case given the duties of confidentiality involved.

‘You look like a bodybuilder’

Madeleine Cunnah
Image caption,Madeleine says starting at LVBS marked the beginning of a “horrible journey” that would leave her close to suicide

Madeleine Cunnah, 18, says her time at the London Vocational Ballet School (LVBS) left her close to suicide.

“One teacher would say things to me that were awful,” says Madeleine who joined in 2017 age 11 and stayed at the school until she was 14.

“You sound like an elephant when you land, maybe if you were lighter, you would land lighter.

“You look like a bodybuilder.”

The school has about 50 pupils and its mission statement is to prepare “future stars” for upper ballet school training.

Madeleine says staff told her not to apply to go on to the prestigious Royal Ballet School, telling her: “You won’t get in because of your body shape.”

She developed anorexia.

She blames LVBS for “manipulating” her “young vulnerable mind”.

“Because when I [first] went to that school, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my body.”

She says she believes the industry “wants functioning anorexics who don’t complain”. She says she didn’t feel empowered to speak out while at the school and feared it would jeopardise her career.

Studies have shown ballet dancers are about three times more likely to have eating disorders than the general population.

Madeleine won a place at Royal Ballet in 2021 when she was in the grip of her anorexia, which escalated she says, because the competitive environment among the students there normalised eating disorders.

“I knew I had to quit ballet or I was going to die,” she says.

Madeleine hasn’t danced since.

“It’s left a deeply ingrained sense of worthlessness in me, which I fear will stay with me the rest of my life.”

The LVBS said it had no records of any complaints made by Madeleine or her family – and that it held material suggesting she’d had a positive experience overall at the school.

It added that an Ofsted report in 2017 concluded the school’s work in promoting pupil development and welfare was “outstanding”.

Congratulated for losing weight

Sapphire Sumpter
Image caption,Sapphire says she felt “a huge pressure to be thin”

Sapphire Sumpter, 22, describes a teacher who would dig her nails into her flesh and say: “I don’t want to see your lunch.”

She attended LVBS, then known as the YDA, until 2017 and developed an eating disorder within weeks of starting at the school, age 13.

She describes being regularly humiliated by certain staff, and says she was told she had “deformed” shoulders and would never be accepted into an upper school.

The former student says she was congratulated when she lost lots of weight as a result of developing pneumonia.

“Weight loss was always congratulated, even though we were all already thin.”

About the same time she says she suffered a serious injury in class, but wasn’t allowed to see the physiotherapist or take a break from training.

She went on to train at Rambert School, but left classical ballet behind and is now a contemporary dancer and choreographer.

“It has taken me years to repair my relationship with my body and undo the physical and emotional damage from my time [at LVBS],” she says.

LVBS disputed Sapphire’s claims, and said it held “significant evidence to the contrary” but could not discuss private information.

It said: “We are very sorry to hear that a former pupil has suffered from ill health but the details presented to us by the BBC simply do not correspond with our own records. The welfare of our students is our highest priority.”

The school again referred to its Ofsted inspection, which it said found that “pupils are happy [and] are kept safe” and that “there is a strong, caring and nurturing ethos.”

Teachers are ‘traumatised dancers themselves’

Joe Tidswell in a ballet pose
Image caption,Joe went on to dance professionally with the Serbian national ballet

Joe Tidswell, 25, says he was body-shamed about his physique by a ballet teacher at Elmhurst, contributing to him developing bulimia nervosa.

He says another staff member made “completely inappropriate” comments to his girlfriend about their sex life.

“This staff member would also intimidate girls who were suffering from eating disorders by calling them out of class to be weighed,” he says.

He graduated from the school in 2019 and describes it as a “damaging environment for young people with mental health issues”.

He remains “outraged” at the bullying he says he witnessed from staff and experienced and believes some of the teachers were “traumatised dancers themselves”.

“Some teachers didn’t seem to have any idea how much their comments can stick in a young person’s mind, sometimes for years,” says Joe, who is now at medical school.

“When parents send their child to one of these [ballet] schools, they need to know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Elmhurst says it was not made aware of any complaints by Joe during his time there.

It added: “The promotion of good physical and mental health is an absolute priority at Elmhurst Ballet School and we will always act immediately whenever issues are identified.”

The school says it now employs a mental health nurse specialising in disordered eating and a “further registered mental health nurse and a counsellor to ensure our students have all the support they need.”

Following an inspection in October, the school has been rated “Outstanding” by Ofsted. The inspection report states: “Staff at all levels are highly skilled and knowledgeable.”

In addition to the people who have contacted the BBC, Dino Nocivelli from Leigh Day solicitors says he has spoken to 180 former dancers who all say they have experienced bullying and body-shaming from staff at their old ballet schools.

He says his clients attended 12 different schools, including Elmhurst, the Royal Ballet School and LVBS. They are alleging mistreatment and calling for a formal inquiry into ballet schools.

Mr Nocivelli said: “We need a culture change, but this can only be achieved when ballet accepts there is a problem and that it has to change.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *