Bodies Outside the Box

July 29, 2007

Nearly a century ago Sigmund Freud declared, “Anatomy is destiny.” Today’s “Extreme Makeover” culture, where rampant cosmetic surgeries are performed to attain instant ideals of beauty, tends to belie that notion. But in the world of dance, Freud’s dictum is still generally the order of the day. For it is in dance, where gravity rules and the body is the vehicle of artistic expression, that form not only follows function—form is function. Dancers with unconventional body types have struggled—physically and psychologically—in their quest to find places in a dance world that is ever more competitive.

In getting a bead on such performers,
Dance Magazine
spoke to five dancers from different genres. Their stories, all unique, nevertheless have a common thread: coupling hard work with confidence in the face of rejection and, most importantly, never giving up hope.

Alisan Porter
, now projecting her defiant charm as Bebe in A Chorus Line to the back row on Broadway (“On the Rise,” Oct. 2006). She never grew past 5′ 1″, but that was not the only problem. “I always knew that I would never be a ballerina,” she says, “mainly because I have big boobs.” She became conscious of how others saw her. “I can remember auditioning for ballet schools and knowing they were looking at my body, saying, ‘She’s not a ballerina.’ There were times when I was upset about that because I loved ballet so much.” As a teenager she saw different body types in Broadway musicals like A Chorus Line, Cats, and Rent.

“Dancers like me were working,” she says. That observation helped stoke her ambitions. Now 25, she has danced professionally for a number of years. “I really like my body,” she says. “I’ve accepted who I am as a person. I believe in being healthy and fit, but I don’t think there’s a necessity to hurt yourself to be someone that you’re not.” She wishes the world of fashion and dance would catch up with her healthy attitude. “In 2007 I think I should be able to walk a Versace runway and dance in the Kirov,” she says. “Bodies have changed and the world is different. We should all accept each other for what we are. Our talents should not be determined by our bodies.”

Charlie Neshyba-Hodges
has talent to burn. A powerful dancer who can project a dreamy fluidity, he is only 5′ 5″, with less than ideal proportions. The road for the performer with the muscular thighs and barrel-chest rib cage has proven anything but easy. “My size has always gotten in the way,” recalls Neshyba-Hodges, who, for the last five years has performed with Twyla Tharp. “I had done 14 auditions and all the replies were, ‘You’re great, but too short.’ I was getting ready to quit dance and go to school to become a biology teacher when a friend called and said Sacramento Ballet needed a firecracker dancer.”

And while he was given many opportunities in Sacramento, Neshyba-Hodges says he wanted to explore other options. Auditioning 41 times (but who’s counting?) for different companies, he became depressed. After hearing that Tharp was looking for men, he sent a tape and subsequently flew to New York to meet with her. That meeting resulted in Neshyba-Hodges not only dancing in the Broadway shows
Movin’ Out
and the short-lived The Times They Are A-Changin’, but also in assisting the iconic choreographer. “With Twyla I was perfect as I was,” says Neshyba-Hodges. “Twyla saw me for more than 5′ 5″.” With a healthy dose of irony, he says, “I am a walking oxymoron. People think that somebody this small shouldn’t be able to move that big, for my stockiness I shouldn’t be as limber, for my youth, I shouldn’t be bald. It’s all about perseverance and self-worth.” 

Another pint-sized powerhouse is
Leonides D. Arpon
, an Israeli-born Filipino who at 17 danced with Israel’s Bat-Dor Dance Company. A year later, in 1999, Arpon moved to New York and joined Armitage Gone! Dance in 2004. Last year, in addition to winning a Princess Grace Award, Arpon, 26, was singled out by The New York Times’ John Rockwell, who wrote, “Most striking in his individuality is the diminutive Leonides D. Arpon.”

“If you are a small dancer you have to look a lot bigger than everyone else,” Arpon says, “and work a lot harder.” Recalling the audition in Monaco that led to his hiring, Arpon says, “Karole found me interesting. Working with her,” he adds, “gives me a chance to bring what I have to the table. I also learned a different way of moving from the other dancers.”

At the other end of the spectrum, tallness poses its own challenges.
Ariana Lallone
, principal of Pacific Northwest Ballet, shot up seven inches when she was 14 and grew to be an inch shy of six feet. The ballerina remembers, “I was obviously gangly and awkward and was having trouble moving my body in a timely manner, but I didn’t really think it was something I couldn’t work out. I also had very positive teachers and I wasn’t discouraged.”

However, Lallone says she was told she would have to work extra hard and that there were certain ballets she could and could not do. “But that’s the way your career goes, and they were very good life lessons from the beginning.” Lallone stands out for her long line and daring physicality, and she has performed lead roles in works by Balanchine, Kent Stowell, and Val Caniparoli. She says she never made excuses because of her height. “As with anyone in dance, it takes commitment, positive energy, and the willingness to take criticism and be realistic about people’s expectations.”

While height is an obvious factor in dance, nothing is more controversial than weight. Indeed, zaftig or chubby dancers are rare in a professional milieu, and poundage is not a topic willingly discussed. One dancer happy to talk about the issue is
Donyelle Jones
. A finalist on last year’s So You Think You Can Dance, the 28-year-old Southern California-born Jones says her dream was to dance with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. At 5′ 3″ and tipping the scales at 146 pounds, though, size mattered. “I’ve always been on the thicker side,” says Jones, “and was constantly being told that if I wanted a dance career, I would have to lose weight.”

It was only after she suffered a knee injury in ballet class, putting on additional weight and being laid up for months, that Jones says she decided to pursue hip hop. After extensive training and eventually directing a high school dance program for three years, she began getting work in commercials and music videos, including those of Black Eyed Peas and Missy Elliott. “But the weight issue was dictating my life,” she says. “I got tired of fighting and decided I wasn’t going to dance anymore.”

History, however, had other plans. In 2006 a dance instructor encouraged Jones to audition for
, and, after beating out thousands, she became one of the four finalists. A dance tour followed, and Jones currently works in Las Vegas with comedian Wayne Brady.

“Being on
was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Jones. “But I learned how strong I was mentally and physically, and it helped me fall in love with dancing again. I would like to lose weight but I’ll never be that stick figure. I just hope,” she adds, “that my career continues to blossom and pave the way for some change to happen.” 

But with or without change, Jones—like Neshyba-Hodges, Arpon, Porter, and Lallone—is a testament to dancers everywhere who face obstacles because of their body types. These stories, where hope is often mixed with heartache, are surely triumphant ones.

Victoria Looseleaf, who writes for
Los Angeles Times and La Opinion, is the producer-host of the cable access TV show on the arts, The Looseleaf Report.