At an age when most girls are more interested in the Backstreet Boys than Baryshnikov, 9-year-old Fredrika Near-Keefer is fluent in the French-inflected language of ballet. “We had to march around the room doing emboîtés,” says Fredrika, recounting her June audition for the prestigious San Francisco Ballet School. “At the barre, we did pliés and tendus.”
Following that audition—which resulted in Fredrika’s being rejected by the school—the young ballerina is now getting a crash course in an altogether new lingo: legalese. Convinced that her daughter was denied admission simply because of her size—4’1″ tall, she weighs 64 lbs.—Fredrika’s mother, Krissy, has filed a complaint with San Francisco’s Human Rights Commission. The case, which is being reviewed by the city attorney, is the first under a new city ordinance that bans discrimination on the basis of height or weight.
“I am mad at them for not seeing how talented she is, for having such a narrow, myopic view of what makes a dancer,” explains Keefer, 48, herself a professional dancer and the artistic director of San Francisco’s alternative Dance Brigade. The school’s admissions criteria, she says, “are not about technique, training or anything else. Their only criterion is body type.”
Not so, counters Diane Kounalakis, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Ballet. “We use guidelines that are universal,” she says. The ideal candidate, as outlined in school literature: a child whose attributes include “an ear for music and an instinct for movement” as well as “a well-proportioned body…flexibility, slender legs and torso and correctly arched feet.” “It’s unfortunate, but we’re a professional ballet school,” says Kounalakis, “and that’s what we look for.”
Furthermore, Kounalakis points out that while Fredrika was denied admission to the school, she was offered a full scholarship to Dance-in-Schools, the San Francisco Ballet’s community outreach program.
Keefer argues that her daughter, who has been taking ballet lessons since age 5, belongs on a more professional track. “Any child who is pursuing a career in dance has to have a pretty active approach to that goal,” says Keefer, separated since 1996 from Fredrika’s father, San Francisco contractor Fred Near, 48. The outreach program, she adds, “seemed a waste of time.”
After Keefer filed her complaint in November, the school responded with a denial of any wrongdoing. As both sides await an opinion from the city attorney on what comes next, Keefer finds herself particularly irked by those who claim the art of ballet demands a particular body type. “There are eating disorders at the basis of it, regardless of people’s idea that some women are naturally that thin,” she says. “The idea that it’s this sacred, untouchable thing is a myth.”
Yet clinical psychologist Linda Hamilton, author of Advice for Dancers and a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, says that the exclusionary aspects of ballet are “part of the aesthetics that make it an art form.” A dancer like Fredrika, Hamilton suggests, “probably should be guided into a different kind of dancing—musical theater or modern dance, where body types aren’t as stringent.”
Keefer, whose complaint charges that rejection by the San Francisco Ballet School has caused her daughter “confusion [and] humiliation,” strongly believes Fredrika is a born ballerina. Still, “I’m not pushing her,” she insists. “She’s the one who wants to dance.” Indeed, Fredrika says one of her goals has always been to someday dance in Sivan Lake. “I like jazz and hip-hop and stuff,” says the fourth grader, “but ballet is the funnest.”
Michelle Bowers in San Francisco