Why Do We Let the Industry Tell Us What a Normal Dance Body Is?
Earlier this week, I came across a daring post by London dancer Alana Grant, sharing her story of how she'd just gotten cut at an audition not because of her talent, but because the director decided she "wouldn't want to see her in hot pants on stage." How appalling, I thought as I jolted to share her post, feeling uneasy about the cruel, body-shaming reality of performing arts. As dancers, our canvas is our flesh and bones and we will always be judged on our appearance as well as our skills (whether we like it or not) because it's the mixture of those two qualities that make us who we are on stage.
But infinitely more appalling was a message I got from an acquaintance berating me for sharing Grant's story. He let me know that she had actually auditioned at his current company. Of course they wouldn't take her, he snickered in angry-red-face-emoji form, "because how could girls as fat as her ever expect to be lifted in the air by another dancer?" He wrote, "She should lose some weight before she even thinks about whining."
I gave it my all to try to understand how another performer could be so insensitive and clueless to the power dynamic at play here. As dancers, we are taught to meticulously analyze every point, shape and line on our bodies, trying to figure out what strengths we can play up to distract the eye from any parts that didn't win the genetic lottery. Meanwhile, we're constantly comparing our looks and abilities to those of other bodies around us every single day.
To tell Grant that she has the talent, but can only get a job if she eventually "sorts out" her body is cruel and shallow. To slam a fellow performer for speaking out about the scrutiny and discrimination we all face on a daily basis is unforgivable.
These actions are not only hideous examples of body shaming. Something much sinister, they aim to attack one's value, worth and freedom of expression. They make a statement that only some bodies are worthy of our gaze.
Sometimes the most interesting bodies are those that do not fit society's mold, physically or cerebrally. It is precisely those bodies that lead me to ask the following questions: Who gets to perform on a stage? Why is there one aesthetic ideal in the dance industry? Do I need to wait for the Pina Bausch company to come back to New York to witness dancers in their 50s and 60s on stage? Do I always need to go below 14th street to find performers that do not "look good" in hot pants on stage? How does looking good in hot pants on stage effectively enhance a production anyway?
Nazareth Panadero and Tanztheater Wuppertal in Pina Bausch's Kontakthof. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Some of my most inspiring colleagues are dancers who surprised me with the creative ways they work with the bodies they have. If someone older, younger, heavier, smaller, less experienced than you has learned to do something new, how can you think you've reached your body's limitations of expression?
We cannot help some of the power dynamics we are subjected to on a daily basis. But let's remind ourselves next time in class, rehearsal or auditions that one body is not inherently better than another just because of its type. The same movement does not automatically look better on a skinnier dancer.
Every time you think someone would dance better if they lost weight, ask yourself if it's that's really what you think and not a result of seeing the same body type repeatedly portrayed as "a dancer's body" on stage and screen over and over again. We are lost if we cannot see the effort, vulnerability and significance in each others' hard physical work. We have to offer each other support and advocacy in a way that our superiors can't or don't want to.
And as for the audience, representation on stage carries its own impact. I have had the privilege of performing with many brilliant female dancers who would be considered too large for our industry, and yet, every show there would be a handful of audience members so glad "to have seen someone normal shining on stage for a change." And at the end of the day, there should be no such thing as a normal or not normal performing body. We are all bodies that move, which is already significant.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT