Conversations about body image in dance typically revolve around female dancers. For an obvious reason: It's usually women who are driven to dangerous means to reach the ideal "ballet body."
But they're not alone in the struggle. Former Twyla Tharp dancer Charlie Hodges recently told his own story during a TED Talk at California's ArtCenter College of Design.
He Experienced Shaming Almost As Soon As He Started Dance
Hodges began dancing at age 10. Shortly after, a teacher who noticed his talent told him that if he were serious, he'd need to lose weight. By age 12, Hodges started winning awards on the competition circuit—where one director told him, "You'll be unstoppable just as soon as you lose your baby fat."
Losing self-esteem, he went on a diet and lost 14 pounds. To this day, Hodges thinks that weight loss might have stunted his growth.
As a Professional, He Couldn't Escape His Body
At 18, Hodges won second place at the prestigious National YoungArts Week. But when he auditioned for 14 ballet companies that year, all 14 said no. One letter read, "We regret to inform you that we have absolutely no use for a body like yours in our company."
He eventually got a job at Sacramento Ballet, but continued to face challenges. When he was cast as the lead in Theme and Variations, the company needed to get special permission from the Balanchine Trust because he was so short. Critics consistently called him a fireplug and pointed out his unorthodox body.
On a "Hail Mary pass," as he puts it, he auditioned for Twyla Tharp and she hired him on the spot. He says dancing for her was paradise: He loved the artistic collaboration, and was voted "Dancer of the Year" by the European Critics' Choice Awards. He felt the spell had finally been broken.
Then in 2002, he was considered for the leading role in Tharp's new Broadway show, Movin' Out. Although he had her full support, the producers weren't convinced that he looked enough like the masculine heartthrob that the role needed.
He Turned Around His Career By Embracing What He Had
Finally, Hodges decided to change how he saw himself: He would be the shortest dancer on the stage who jumped as high as the tallest; he would be the thickest dancer who moved lighter than the rest.
"My entire career, I stood out too much to fit in," he says in the TED Talk. "And that whole time, I was the one who couldn't accept that short, fat and bald could be the next best thing on the block. I had to change how I saw myself. All of my accomplishments were not in spite of my short, fat, bald body, but because of it."
He eventually replaced the lead in Movin' Out, and went on to dance in two of Tharp's other Broadway shows. He later moved out to Los Angeles and helped Benjamin Millepied get his L.A. Dance Project off the ground as a dancer and ballet master.
He feels that his success came from the bravery it took to face failure. He says, "Failure is a rain storm: The sooner you let yourself get wet, the quicker you realize how fun it is to skip through the puddles and feel the rain on your face. You remember how harmless water is."
Watch Hodges' full talk for yourself—it's worth it: