Moral Luck Or Bad Ethics Chess? The Death Of “A Very Young Dancer”

Stephanie Selby was the subject of “A Very Young Dancer,” photographer Jill Krementz’s best selling 1976 book that inspired a generation of would-be ballerinas and future dance stars. When Stephanie, only 10,  was chosen for the lead role of Marie in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” Krementz decided to make her the star of her planned book. She followed Stephanie for a year, taking photos and notes, and produced a fascinating behind-the-scenes portrait. Stephanie became an instant celebrity and role model for thousands of other “very young dancers.” She appeared on the “Today” show and a one-hour “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” Christmas special, while getting an avalanche of fan mail.

But Stephanie was emotionally fragile, and her periodic outbursts resulted in her being told to leave her dancing school at 13. Increasingly plagued by clinical depression, she found it difficult to find a stable place in life. The expectations created by the book and her sense of failure for not meeting them were part of her burden. A 2011 interview produced the reporter’s observation that “Stephanie acknowledges that she might have had troubles in life regardless of her association with ballet and the book but says her experience as a child no doubt contributed to her depression later in life.”

She committed suicide last week at the age of 56.

As child star advocate and activist Paul Petersen has tried to emphasize, children are unprepared for the effects of fame, and many, perhaps most, are damaged by the experience. An opportunity such as the one Jill Krementz presented to Selby’s parents is difficult to turn down; the photographer was already famous, and the publicity created by the proposed book would seem like a likely propellant to the dancing career their daughter (or they?) aspired to. However, it is not as if the dangers of being thrust into a national spotlight as a child were not apparent in 1976. Nor could one argue that Stephanie knowingly consented to what she would exposed to.

My position, as someone with decades of experience in theater, is that high pressure participation by children in any competitive business, be it in sports, modeling, music, acting, singing or dancing, is unacceptably dangerous. Many children survive the stress and typical roller-coaster rides, and even thrive. Many others end up damaged, with an addiction to attention that a normal life can never satisfy. I don’t think it is worth the risk, and too many parents are unable to separate their own desires for their children’s success from the best interests of the talented young athlete or performer.

In other words, allowing (or pushing) a child into the kind of attention Stephanie experienced is bad ethics chess. Ethics chess means thinking more than one metaphorical move ahead when one makes a decision. What are the likely consequences? How have similar decisions worked out for others? What is the worst case scenario? This is particularly crucial when one is making a decision for someone else. The most important thing to understand is that such decisions involve ethics, and ought to be undertaken using ethical decision-making tools. For most parents, ethics is pushed into the shadows by non-ethical considerations: Fame! Riches! Glamor! Success! Happiness! Those are powerful and seductive distractions.

However, Stephanie’s fate was not sealed by her participation in the book. Clinical depression is biochemical; life events can exacerbate it, but it is impossible to blame any single event or sequence of events for her malady. Krementz followed “A Very Young Dancer” with two more successful books using the same formula: “A Very Young Skater” and “A Very Young Gymnast.” The young skater, Katherine Healy, was already an aspiring performer and an extrovert with a genuine love of public exposure. She went on from the book to star in the film “Six Weeks”with Mary Tyler Moore and Dudley Moore, portraying a young ballet dancer with terminal leukemia. Healy never competed at a high level in slating competitions, instead succeeding, ironically, as a principal ballerina. (She also played Marie in the City Ballet’s “Nutcracker”) Torrance York, the young gymnast, was inspired by her experience with Krementz to become a successful professional photographer. She, like Healy, seems to be none the worse for her early celebrity, and arguably better for it.

The varying consequences of premature fame for the “Very Young” trio of girls is the essence of moral luck. Nonetheless, I think it is a risky choice—too risky, when a life is the wager.


8 thoughts on “Moral Luck Or Bad Ethics Chess? The Death Of “A Very Young Dancer”

  1. Damn. I remember those books from when I was a kid (not from reading them, obviously, since they were “girl stuff”, but from seeing them laid out coffee-table=style in bookstores). This was really too bad, however, screening potentially child stars for mental resiliency is rare now and would have been unheard of then. What wasn’t unheard of was VERY low tolerance for problem kids, and it sounds like she was one. She wouldn’t show up to class, got frequent “headaches” and made rude gestures to teachers. In those days (she was a few years older than me when she died) it didn’t matter how famous or whatever you were, you were still a kid, and you were expected to be appropriately deferential to grown-ups. They threw her diva ass out of ballet school, and then she broke. Sounds like she could never form relationships either, since no spouse or kids are mentioned. For a while I followed a lot of the young singers who wanted to be the next Charlotte Church (although harlotte hasn’t been famous now for almost 20 years since she imploded personally and professionally at the age of 16). Apart from NZ soprano Hayley Westenra, whp achieved about 1/3 the fame, and Chloe Agnew, who was chosen to be the “kid” member of the still-famous ensemble Celtic Woman, none of them achieved much success. Eventually time passed,Jackie Evancho came along and that generation’s hopes of getting anywhere vanished. Most of them moved on to cuccess in other fields or ordinary lives. One such young girl, now a young woman, went a truly pathetic path. She was the youngest of 10 kids, and the one who most resembled her mother, who had issues of her own. She wanted to do it all, singing, dancing, modeling. Her parents got 100% behind her, backing a patriotic CD with 3 other girls from her school and 2-3 more self-produced CDs. Then she tore her Achilles tendon and could no longer dance, and her modeling and musical talents fell well short of what was needed to go anywhere. In fact she was pushed out of the music program in college, but disguised it as being practical by majoring in business instead, since training with voice instructors was just as good. In 2012 she said when she finished school she was going to launch a career. It’s ten years later, and she hasn’t launched so much as a paper airplane of a career. In fact she got married and has had two kids, who are all she talks about now… when she’s not talking about herself. Her last chance for any kind of fame and access flopped when her husband tried to run for the state legislature… and was defeated by a Republican woman. However, she’s still addicted to fame and attention, so she gets it by posting breatfeeding pictures on social media in between endless blather about her kids or her unoriginal thoughts on life. I have to sneer at this being what she is reduced to.

  2. I understand the concerns.

    We put Jack into gymnastics because he was very physical, and above average in strength. After several courses, they wanted to move him up to the “Pre-Competition Team,” even though he was probably two years too young.

    It was a greater commitment and would likely foreclose other extra-curricular activities down the road.

    On the other hand, if he was good at it, we needed to encourage him, right? That’s what parents should do, isn’t it?

    So, we proceeded with the advanced “training,” if that is what you want to call it.

    Then, COVID hit, the gym eventually shut down for several months.

    When they opened up again, we never went back. He does not miss it.

    But, we will never know if we took the right course of action in not bringing him back.


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