Viewers of Panorama were left ‘heartbroken’ by horrifying accounts from former ballet students at UK’s top schools, which revealed a ‘toxic’ body shaming culture where teachers taunted pupils over their size and even led one dancer to attempt ending her life.
Many were shocked to see the ‘awful treatment’ endured by young teens, with some calling for staff at the prestigious institutions to ‘hang heads in shame and apologise’.
Taking to X – formerly known as Twitter – social media users tuning into the programme admitted it was a ‘tough watch’ as they praised the courage of former pupils to come forward.
‘Watching Panorama, I felt it necessary to post my positive feelings about you women,’ one viewer wrote.
‘I have huge admiration for the girls who had the courage to share the trauma they experienced. Well done to one and all of you for speaking out.’
‘Thank you for for bringing the abuse at Elmhurst Ballet School to public attention,’ a second added.
‘It’s very important that people remember these were CHILDREN away from home at the mercy of the “pastoral” support team and house “parents” who wielded all the power.’
Many rallied for all performance schools to be investigated as they slammed the unhealthy body image culture across other types of dance and sports.
Some people even shared their own accounts of the toxic standards in the industry.
‘I became aware of a college age student having it “suggested” to her that she should have surgery to have a breast reduction, else she would never be accepted in RBC,’ one claimed.
‘I knew a girl who went to a Famous Ballet School,’ a second alleged. ‘Her periods disappeared, her hair was falling out.
‘She never made the grade as a Ballet Dancer. When older she struggled to conceive and never looked well.’
‘At five years old I desperately wanted to be a ballerina but was told I was “as graceful as a baby elephant” i.e too fat,’ another penned.
‘C**p like this stays with you a lifetime.’
In the programme, the mother of a former student at a prestigious ballet school has described the horror she felt when she saw her daughter, who dropped a dramatic amount of weight since starting her training, looking ‘like a skeleton’.
Harriet Royle, 22, was 13 when she started at Elmhurst Ballet School – of which Queen Camilla has been patron for six years – but after just over a year, she ended up in hospital and was diagnosed with anorexia.
‘It should never have got to the stage where I should have had to say to the school “I need to bring her home”.’
Harriet told the programme that she’d had some body image issues when she arrived at the school – and had episodes of bulimia shortly afterwards, which they were aware of – but felt ‘fit and healthy’ in November 2014.
However, an appraisal that told her she needed to work on her ‘aerobic fitness’ knocked her confidence.
‘I felt like I was fit enough,’ she said. ‘I thought “well if I’m able to keep up with the boys why is my aerobic fitness not good enough to do what the girls are doing?” Just didn’t make sense.’
The teenager had felt she was ‘just being told to exercise more so she’d lose weight’.
‘I was kind of like, well, lets do it then,’ she added.
Four months later, she claims her teachers were ‘pleased’ to see that she was quickly and surely getting thinner – and the teenager felt like she was getting more attention from teachers.
‘One of the female ballet teachers had said “carry on doing what you’re doing cause its working”,’ Michaela said.
‘So Harriet’s interpretation of that was, because she’d lost some weight, then they want her to lose some more weight.’
Harriet revealed it was ‘validating’ to see that ‘what you’re doing is the right thing… to the point that it feels like you can’t really stop’.
Her weight loss continued at school and during holidays and was soon out of control.
Harriet’s mother says her daughter’s extreme weight loss should never have reached the stage where she had to intervene and tell the school that she needed to take her home.
Harriet’s struggle with anorexia continued after she had left the school. She ended up spending at least six months in an eating disorder unit and had to be tube fed. She never returned to Elmhurst.
The teen had to be hospitalised and was given an anorexia diagnosis that same year.
According to the programme, Michaela had voiced her concerns for Harriet to the school in March of 2015, and was reassured they were ‘monitoring the situation’.
‘It almost led to me not being alive, so it’s important that changes are made,’ Harriet said.
Panorama also heard heartbreaking accounts from other former dancers, on their experiences at the UK’s top ballet schools – The Royal Ballet School in London and Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham.
Last year, between them, both institutions received more than £7million in public funding.
But despite their fame, accounts from former pupils tell of a toxic body shaming culture as one dancer said a teacher had placed her in front of a mirror, pointed to her body and told her: ‘If I had a knife, this is what I would cut off.’
Ellen Elphick, 30, who had started at Royal Ballet School in London in 2009, told Panorama: ‘She literally cut my entire bum off, kind of all of half my thigh, basically, and then a third of my calf.’
The former pupil describes feeling ashamed and being filled with hate for her body – and says her eating disorder spiralled after this encounter.
Ellen had previously developed an eating disorder at Elmhurst but says her experience at the Royal ‘broke’ her.
‘I don’t think I ever really got put back together,’ she says.
Ellen, who went on to dance professionally for four years, says she still suffers as a result of feeling her body was the wrong shape. She has now decided to take legal action against the Royal Ballet School.
She added: ‘Am I one of the lucky ones because I still had that career? Maybe? But that doesn’t mean I’ve not been left with life-long issues that I’m just going to have to find some way to deal with.’
Lawyer Dino Nocivelli, who is representing Ellen and a number of other ballet dancers from another school, said his clients have come forward for different reasons and that some want ‘an admission’ about their treatment and ‘to hold these schools accountable’.
Elsewhere Padua Eaton, who was offered a place at Elmhurst aged 11 in 2008, said her mental health suffered over the years she spent in ballet training – leading to an attempt to end her life.
‘Around 14, 15, I started to get depressed,’ she said. ‘My body started changing, I started getting a shape like a woman.’
While the school stepped in to offer support – and allowed her extra breaks to manage panic attacks – the former pupil said she wasn’t actually given a chance to use them.
‘So, even though I was allowed these breaks it was difficult to actually get them… ‘Do you really need to go now’?’
Padua said she felt her mental health problems were ‘annoying’ for the school to deal with and that she was made to feel like a ‘burden’.
Grace Owen, 22, says on one occasion at Elmhurst a teacher taunted the class over doughnuts, which the students had been told were available after class.
The teacher picked out the thinnest pupil and said only they were allowed to eat one, she says.
‘[This was] implying that she could eat them because she was of the right weight, and no-one else,’ says Grace, who was 19 at the time.
‘Everyone else – basically you’re too fat for them.’
During her graduation party at Elmhurst in 2020, Grace says she and several of her classmates were humiliated by another ballet teacher.
She claims the teacher said: ‘All you girls, bar one or two people, need to lose weight, otherwise you’re not going to get a job.’
Grace says it made her feel ‘really unworthy’, adding that all the school actually cared about was ‘how slim you are’. She described the environment at Elmhurst as ‘toxic’.
Grace added: ‘The ballet world is a brutal place but telling people that you’re too fat… I don’t think that’s preparing you for anything.’
India Thompson, who was scouted for the Royal Ballet School in 2007 when she was 11 years old, recalled how teachers began commenting on her weight when she reached puberty and her body began to change.
As she developed breasts and her figure began to resemble that of an adult woman, India claimed her teachers told her she needed to ‘lengthen out’ – which was code for losing weight.
‘I’d get pulled out of classes to go and sit in the principal’s office so that she could talk to me about “lengthening out”, and what am I doing to make it happen?’ she recalled.
India added she was told: ‘It’s not happening so you can’t be trying hard enough.’
She said: ‘It didn’t matter how good my technique was. It didn’t matter how good a performer I was. It was all about [the weight].’
Dance critic Luke Jennings, 70, himself a former dancer, said the RBS, where King Charles is president, ‘produces fabulous dancers, some of the best of our time’. But he said it still adheres to old-fashioned ideals that ballet dancers must be super-slim.
‘It used to be “you’re too fat”, but it is coded now,’ he said. ‘Instead they say, “You’re not right, you’re [surely not] fit enough, you’re not committed enough”. You can’t say certain things [any more], but there are other ways of saying them.’
BBC Panorama said that while neither school wanted to be interviewed for this programme, Elmhurst in a statement said it ‘promotes good physical and mental health’ and ‘acts whenever issues are identified’.
It was pioneered a ‘ground-breaking health trust scheme’, providing ‘bespoke health and wellbeing support’. It has a ‘modern teaching approach’, placing ‘highly disciplined training’ within the framework of ‘strong safeguarding principles’…
‘It recognises certain elements but ‘clear duties of confidentiality’ prevent it from commenting.
‘However it says ‘school records vary in some significant respects’ from accounts given to the programme.’
Meanwhile, the Royal Ballet School told Panorama that ‘nothing is more important than the happiness and continued well-being of its students’ and it’s ‘continuously improving and innovating’ to protect their health and welfare.
‘When issues arise it has ‘well-established processes’ to ensure they are ‘addressed swiftly’. The school ‘strives to work towards excellence’ and does so with ‘integrity and passion’.’
The programme is also available on BBC iPlayer.
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s health, you can contact Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on 0808 801 0677 or beateatingdisorders.org.uk