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.”
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.