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Learn To Love Your Body
When Christine Caimares came to me in tears about her weight, she was a student of mine in The Ailey School’s Junior Division. At 4'11" her Latina genes dealt her a healthy dose of breast and booty. The toxic cocktail of teen hormones and yo-yo dieting had caused her body to rebel. Her despair was palpable, and I could empathize. I found myself on the opposite side of a conversation I’d been having since I started looking more like FloJo and less like Gelsey.
After discussing diet and nutrition, we got to a hard fact: Sometimes it goes beyond diet and is a battle of genetics. “Christine,” I said, “you are never going to be tall or skinny. It’s just not in your makeup. If that’s your goal, you’ll always be miserable. Just work to be in the best shape that you can be in. You may never like the way you look, but you have to get to a place where you can accept and appreciate it.”
The dance world is riddled with body dysmorphia, eating disorders, and head tripping. The conversation surrounding body image has long been a prejudicial one generally reserved for the “misfits” (short, fat, flat-footed, and bowlegged). In truth, whether full of figure or slight in frame, few in dance remain unscathed. Even the ideal body types have a lifetime subscription to body issues. There is almost no way to escape feelings of inadequacy when the majority of your time is spent in front of mirrors. The question is, Can those feelings be abated, or at least kept in check?
The female body is a persnickety thing, and puberty (especially spent in a leotard and tights) can be a breeding ground for disorders. Over a summer, a sticklike girl can blossom into a pinup, budding breasts and hips. Negotiating new assets can be daunting. Instead of supporting young dancers through these stages, teachers sometimes cross their fingers and bite their tongues, hoping things don’t go horribly awry, leaving students alone to navigate hostile terrain.
Maurya Kerr understands this intimately. Pencil-thin, with birdlike features and an enormous technical facility, Kerr was a frequent poster girl for Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet—she was the girl with the body other dancers coveted. It’s hard to imagine her having a negative image of herself, yet her experiences as a young dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet and Fort Worth Ballet (now Texas Ballet Theater) wreaked havoc on her head. “It was odd to be this thin and have breasts—nobody else did,” she says. “I was self-conscious; it made me not want to eat.” This developed into a battle with anorexia that took a decade to overcome.
But there can be light at the end of the hormonal tunnel if you hold on. Caimares is a perfect example. Now a sophomore at CalArts (three years post said conversation) she is still short, but when she stopped “dieting” and instead started watching what she ate, her body began to come into balance. “I feel connected to my body now; it’s a conversation. I can tell when it’s not happy if I eat the wrong thing.” The connection has brought a level of contentment. “I still wish I could be tall and thin,” she admits. “But I love my muscle tone and my thighs, and I’m working on liking my arms.”
People don’t go willingly on a head-trip; it starts when someone gives you a ticket. You’re fine until someone tells you you’re not. The adjectives that teachers, directors, choreographers, and even critics use in reference to dancers make them the ticket agents working for that bus company. Their words can empower or destroy. Teachers can make a choice to be more responsible and compassionate in their communication with dancers (see “Teach-Learn Connection,” page 64). Case in point, a portion of Caimares’ newfound comfort is due to the acceptance she receives from the CalArts faculty. Kerr, currently on the faculty of the LINES Ballet/Dominican University BFA program, is open about her own struggles in an effort to support her students. “I let them know that everyone’s reality is different.”
Kelly Ann Barton, 20, is a standout at Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle. Her petite figure is at once zaftig and muscular. The earthy blend of power and sensitivity in her movement makes her utterly captivating—you can’t take your eyes off of her. But she probably thinks you’re looking at her divergent body type. Barton is learning to circumvent her insecurities about her body. “It’s a constant struggle,” she says flatly. “I just try to focus on the work.” Her artistic director, Donald Byrd, not only enjoys diversity, he revels in it. He is her greatest advocate, telling her, “You may have an issue with your body. I don’t. As long as you hit the step I don’t care if you fit into the confines of the conventional idea of a dancer.” Does knowing this help? “It was a relief, and it wasn’t,” Barton says. “It is a comfort to know that it’s a safe space.” But she’s still in her body and in her head.
It seems the more distance you have, the clearer your image of self. Talk to dancers who are older, retired, or injured, and the harsh judgments wane as a more realistic perception emerges. Looking back at pictures and video, they remark at how thin they were, gasp at how good they looked, and wonder what they were so worried about. Kerr is currently recovering from hip surgery, and found the distance from dance healing. “I have a new appreciation for it. It has taken me 20 years to get to the place where I can actually say I love my body.”
Caimares, though still quite young, has gained insight. “It seems like when you accept your body for what it is, you’ll see change.”
The relationship dancers have with their bodies requires constant work. Finding a way to appreciate oneself in the present would be ideal. The words of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer come to mind: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”
Ultimately there is no panacea for feeling good about oneself. Barton sums it up beautifully when she says, “You can’t hold on to emotional baggage when you are trying to reach artistry.” It might be unrealistic to wish that we as a community could stretch the concepts of beauty, honor ability over aesthetics, and realize the “perfect” body is a body that works, but it’s a worthwhile goal. Artistry comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms.
Theresa Ruth Howard is a faculty member at The Ailey School and a contributing writer for Dance Magazine.
Maurya Kerr three years ago when she was with LINES Ballet. Photo by Marty Sohl, courtesy LINES
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.