The Realest Things About 'Black Swan' According To Actual Ballet Dancers

Experts weigh in on nervous breakdowns, crazy dance moms, and horny ballerinas.

It's been five years since the curtain went up on "Black Swan," Darren Aronofsky's wild psychological thriller about a ballerina's descent into be-feathered madness.

The movie was a huge success, and netted an Oscar for star Natalie Portman -- whose real-life "ballet body" transformation was almost as intense and extreme as her onscreen transformation into a giant swan. But apart from the whole "sprouting wings and committing murder" thing, how authentic was "Black Swan"'s portrayal of the personal and professional lives of dancers?

We asked a few former pro dancers from ballet companies around the country to weigh in on what "Black Swan" got right. Here's what they told us. (Interviews have been condensed and edited.)

For starters: the clothes were totally on point.

Lara Costa (Oakland Ballet): The beginning really is accurate. The quietness in the studio, the concentration -- and the clothing. The part where they're mashing up their pointe shoes, pulling them apart, that was totally accurate.

Jessica Benton Kelly (Ballet Florida): I was relieved that she was wearing the right clothing, too. I was glad they didn't dolly-tinkle or Flashdance her wardrobe too much. It was very authentic.

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But Mila Kunis's tattooed ballerina would have to have been a star.

Lara Costa: you don't often see people with closely cropped hair or tattooes or piercings in a ballet setting. I've seen one sort of funky looking ballerina in a real ballet company, and it was like, whoa, she must be really, really, really good to be able to do what she wants to do with her body.

And the over-the-top competitive drama was a stretch...

Lara Costa: In my experience, nobody's that lecherous, and nobody's that bitchy. Certainly nobody is asking you to sleep with a donor to get money for the company; I never experienced anything like that, and neither did anyone I know. It's more a lot of talking behind people's backs.

Jerome Vivona (Artistic Director, American Theater Workshop): There's so much to it that's like high school, only amplified.

Omar Shabazz: It rarely rises to the vicious levels seen in film. You'll see things like competing dancers not speaking to each other, or groups/cliques forming in support of a particular dancer, but I've never seen outright sabotage.

...But "Black Swan" pretty much nailed the ballet social scene, both behind the scenes and onstage.

Lara Costa: I loved the backstage stuff -- where the swans came off and they were like, "That sucked." That is so real. As soon as you come off stage, you're like, "Oh, f---. That was terrible." And talking onstage -- having complete conversations onstage, that's real.


And the rampant hooking up? Oh yeah. Yep.

Lara Costa: Most of the dancers I knew were just absolute whores. [Laughs.] The real stuff is the backstage, being on tour stuff. Hooking up, crazy parties, when you don't have a show the next day -- everyone's smoking pot, kissing, going off into rooms together, just like a messy, messy frat party.

Jerome Vivona: Who's sleeping with who, how many people are sleeping with who -- it just kind of happens. It's a narcissistic world, you're all about your body, it's all about looking at yourself and looking at other people. Sex is jut part of the game. You're in service of your body all the time. And using sex as a tool is something many directors do, whether they'll admit it or not.

Omar Shabazz: There's an almost forced intimacy between young, fit people who work in closed quarters, touching each other all day. Add in touring, where you're on the road for weeks at a time and it's like summer camp for young adults with ridiculous bodies.

Meanwhile, everyone agreed that crazy dance moms exist, but they're rare.

Jessica Benton Kelly: I thought the relationship of mother-daughter in an apartment in NYC was very good, maybe a little over the top, but I knew a lot of dancers from a family situation like that. I think the movie caught that part well.

Omar Shabazz: Younger dancers have their mothers driving them to and from classes and rehearsals and most studios (as a necessity) have parent involvement, but dance moms are usually shed by the time a dancer is a professional.

Bryan Ketron (Richmond Ballet): Her mother -- who was my favorite character -- yes, there are some mothers like that. And some dancers struggle with anorexia, bulimia, have crazy ballet moms, and experiment sexually. But everything in the movie was an exaggeration at least tenfold.

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And yes, breakdowns happen. But, um, usually not like that.

Jerome Vivona: I saw people throw tantrums. I saw catfighting, I saw situations where people made it very uncomfortable for other people. It's a tenuous situation. There's such a short period of time in which you can actually dance. There's a lot at stake, and people lose it. And the movie gets it right, in that you're in this imaginary world where you don't speak, you don't talk, you don't have an opinion, yet your imagination has to be so vibrant -- you start to think stuff. You start to elaborate in your mind. It gets very dramatic.

Lara Costa: I've seen people with eating disorders, I've seen people destroy dressing rooms. I've seen people crack and have to take breaks -- forced breaks, where the director will say, look, you're in an unhealthy place, go away for a month and come back. The one girl I knew who had a breakdown did it with Giselle, which is another taxing role like Swan Lake. Any ballet that has a lead role where you're dancing from the beginning to the end, when there's a story to go through, it's mentally and physically challenging, and that's what can make people crack -- but rarely. It's rare.

Omar Shabazz: Except for that part where she grew wings. That happens all the time.

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