There was a time a few weeks ago—that is, before Bartise insulted his fiancé—when 25-year-old ballet dancer Colleen Reed looked poised to become the villain of Love Is Blind’s third season. As the early episodes aired, “Jellybean Colleen” (as she calls herself on Instagram) was mocked for being “obsessed” with ballet. “I’m a ballet dancer,” we see Colleen saying proudly, over and over, as she introduces herself to each of her pod dates. “I think they’re gonna really like, you know, talking to a ballet dancer,” she explains to the camera. “In the real world, guys are attracted to me because they find a ballet dancer is super interesting.”
Throughout the season, she conflates her ballet career with her value as a potential partner and even her entire sense of self. Viewers have criticized Colleen, who studied ballet at the University of Oklahoma and now dances with a regional troupe in Texas, for making ballet “her entire personality.” “Don’t you have an identity outside of that?” asked one viewer.
But as a former ballet dancer, it makes sense to me. The ballet world is so cloistered, and the art form so physically and emotionally intense, that I understand why she emphasized it so much.
Ballet demands absolute commitment, at the expense of other interests or hobbies that might contribute to a personality. I studied from age 3 to 15, spending my winters dancing in The Nutcracker (performing 24 shows between Thanksgiving and New Year’s) and my summers at ballet boot camps. Ballet wasn’t just something I did; it was who I was, informing many of the decisions I made outside the studio—from what to wear to school (hair in a tight bun, leotard under my clothes) to what to eat for lunch (not too much), how to watch TV (while holding a frog stretch on the floor) and how to decorate my bedroom (with pairs of autographed pointe shoes on the wall, next to a poster of Degas’ The Dance Class).
Colleen wears her hair down, but she has the personality of a classic bunhead. She infantilizes herself and fumbles over her words: “I’m a terrible flirter! Like I’m just, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do with my hands!” (Women in ballet are forbidden from talking in class and are traditionally called “girls” in the studio, no matter how old they are.) When prompted to air her fears about meeting her fiancé in person for the first time, Colleen’s answers suggest she’s spent too much time studying herself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors that line ballet studios when she rattles off some highly specific physical flaws, including her profile and her nose.
Love Is Blind viewers wondered, too, why Colleen expected her dates to be so impressed by her career—but then again, she based these assumptions on having experienced male responses to her career before, and she wasn’t wrong. “I love that you do ballet,” one man says, a drool in his voice. “Do you like, pop your entire body?” asks another. A third is more explicit, laughing suggestively as he tells the camera: “She’s a ballerina and that just turns me on.”
She—and the men—saw ballet as an intrinsic part of her appeal. Men have fetishized ballet dancers ever since the art form took off in 18th century France: At the nascent Paris Opera Ballet, dancers often doubled as courtesans. “It was generally thought that no self-respecting ballerina went with fewer than three lovers at a time—one for prestige, one for money, one for love,” dance critic Deirdre Kelly wrote in Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection. From an early age, they were trained to seduce the men in the audience. “Seat holders should want to carry you off to bed,” one prominent ballet master advised his students.
When Colleen tells her dates that she’s a ballet dancer, she also isn’t only implying that she’s flexible and fit—although one of her suitors points out that, as a dancer, “You gotta have your body in good shape.” Ballet dancers have long been seen as patriarchy’s ideal women: malleable, quiet, hyper-feminine, submissive.
And that’s how Colleen acts when her fiancé, Matt, verbally attacks her. When the couples gather for a pool party in Malibu, Colleen compliments an “ex” from the pods. Afterward, Matt loses his temper—screaming at Colleen and refusing to back off even when she breaks down in tears. One recapper called his aggression “very worrying”; another labeled his behavior “incredibly toxic.”
But I wasn’t surprised that Colleen’s impulse was to appease him. “I don’t wanna lose him, so I don’t care what I have to do,” she tells the camera through tears. “Who cares if that’s people-pleasing?…Whatever I have to do, I have to do.”
Ballet dancers are well-practiced at stoically withstanding abuse and striving for male approval. They are trained to accept whatever criticism comes their way—and it’s usually delivered by a man. The vast majority of aspiring and low-level ballet dancers are women, while almost all of the leaders are men. In the 2021-2022 season, according to the Dance Data Project, only 8 percent of full-length ballets danced by the 50 largest U.S. companies were choreographed by women; among the top 10, 71 percent of programs consisted only of work made by men (and even these figures represent improvements made in recent years).
As a teenager, I studied the choreography of the late George Balanchine, who presided over his company as an absolute monarch and married five of his “muses”—a power dynamic so obviously imbalanced that it feels trite to even point it out. And I dreamed of impressing his successor, the “ballet master” Peter Martins, who would later, in 2017, be outed as a sexual abuser.
At the beginning of episode 8, we see a brief montage of Colleen dancing. But on Love Is Blind, ballet is more of a fetish than an art form. And that is, unfortunately, in line with how many people currently think of ballet: Audiences are dwindling, but the ballerina herself—with her superhuman discipline and perfect body—remains a potent symbol of the feminine ideal.
Alice Robb is the author of Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet, which comes out in February.