Is Muscular the New Skinny?

June 22, 2008

The Pilobolus dancers hurl themselves with great force at the floor in Megawatt. Even from the back of the theater you can see their well-defined limbs. The same goes for the biceps of the women of Richmond Ballet as they perform John Butler’s Carmina Burana. And you can’t ignore the muscularity of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago’s women; their cut arms and defined abs stand out whether they’re performing the intensely idiosyncratic choreography of Ohad Naharin or Susan Marshall’s dream-like flying fantasies.

Nowadays, dancers across the genres are buff. Dancing may have once been all about the legs, but lately the arms have it. Though some might not be ready to acknowledge it, the strong look is taking the limelight. (Think Diana, goddess of the hunt, or Joan of Arc.) Even the delicate, willowy arms of the Kirov women are changing. Our February cover beauty, Diana Vishneva hits the pool on a daily basis, swimming laps to keep her upper body—especially those arms—sculpted.

The chisled Danaë Carter, a member of Richmond Ballet, says, “I see a lot more muscle tone and athleticism.” She doesn’t think she gets more roles because she’s muscular, though. And she says her body is toned because she eats well, exercises regularly, practices Pilates, and lifts weights occasionally. “I get recognition from the audience more than anything else. People say ‘You’re totally ripped. How do you do that?’ ”

Carter thinks the changing aesthetic is shifting expectations in technique. “Technique has increased in difficulty from when I went to San Francisco Ballet School. I see 18-year-olds coming out incredibly strong and developed.” Carter thinks that the demands on a professional dancer have changed. “It’s not just put on a tutu and do The Nutcracker,” she says. “Now it’s put on shorts and roll across the floor and keep your technique at the same time.”

Carter says that while legs and feet have always been strong in dance, “I’ve seen from working with different choreographers that there’s more emphasis on arms and a strong port de bras. If you don’t have good control of what your arms and back are doing, you can’t perform their work.”

Li Chiao-Ping, professor of dance at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, agrees. “Female dancers are getting stronger. It’s more acceptable to see a female body with strong arms and developed muscles.” Li began formulating her Extreme Moves technique 10 years ago because she was seeing a new vocabulary forming. “Athleticism was prevailing in dance classes. I was concerned about injuries because athleticism was being thrown into choreography and not addressed as technique. I started to think back to my own gymnastic roots,” to develop the technique, she says. “If you’re going to do a lot of work on your hands, you need to strengthen your upper body.”

Li says much of her technique is learning how to balance and support and “feeling like you can lift someone who’s bigger than you.” Teaching her dancers not to be fearful, she says, makes the technique safer. The more comfortable they are, the less tense their bodies will be.

Camille Brown, a toned and powerful NYC dancer/choreographer who attended The Ailey School, notes that her muscular body once was a concern. “I’ve been told that I don’t have the ideal dancer’s body, but I feel good when I’m toned and doing my conditioning,” she says. “It’s not really about my size. I don’t have to be as thin as a rail. I just need to feel good about myself. I think that’s more of an inner connecting thing.” Her solo, The Evolution of a Secured Feminine, shows off a defined body and a strong woman going through a variety of emotions. “I had to align myself with how the women are using their voices in the music. All of the facial expressions that dancers use to portray emotion, I had to put into my body.”

Li, too, says dancers are turning to their bodies to say something about the world around them. “With the millennium, the anxieties of our times, people seem pretty armored, and very self-sufficient.”

Meredith Dincolo of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago also sees a shift towards athleticism in dance. To prepare for the “aerobic, almost calisthenic,” work in Hubbard Street’s repertory (like Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, which requires a lot of running), Dincolo takes ballet class and does yoga. “I go to the gym but I don’t do anything to specifically build more muscle. I think my job does that for me.”

Dincolo doesn’t consider yoga and Pilates alternative training. “They make your body toned and create a more balanced look. You have muscle, but not too much, and power behind it. When people see dance, they’re drawn to that.”

The body image that society celebrates is shifting too. “There’s such a focus on fitness that a more athletic body for women has emerged,” says Dincolo. “There’s still appreciation for a thin woman with not much muscle—the fashion model look—but there’s also an appreciation for women who invest in their bodies and take care of them. A dancer as an athlete is something that’s becoming more of the norm.”

Kellie Epperheimer, another Hubbard Street dancer, says that the company’s repertoire is very diverse. “Some things require more technique and others need more stamina.” She takes ballet class, does Pilates and yoga, and occasionally hits the gym for light weight training and running on the elliptical (the company pays for the dancers’ gym memberships). “Doing Pilates and yoga is a different way to train your body and it’s also soothing. You’re focusing on different muscle groups.”

Not everyone sees a shift. Sarah East Johnson, artistic director of the all-female group LAVA, says she sees an athletic aesthetic in men, but not women. “I still see a traditional sexist male gaze in a lot of dance, even in contemporary experimental dance. I think that what we think of as beautiful is still aligned with mainstream American values—women are supposed to be small, graceful, thin, light, effortless.”

Though she may not see this in other dancers and styles, her group is definitely looked upon as strong ladies. “In LAVA, we’re not trying to be any of those particular things. We’re offering a different version of what we might want to see women doing onstage.”

Her choreography draws on Chinese acrobatics, and involves handstand training, stretching, back bends, and abdominal work. Her technique also includes partner training where dancers stand on each other’s bodies. “It’s incorporating all muscle groups. It’s about muscularity, not the bone-based alignment that you see in a lot of modern dance.”

Do they do any weight lifting? “Absolutely not. The kinds of muscles that you get from lifting weights don’t have the acuity and intelligence that you get from holding living weight. We don’t have muscles for the sake of muscles. We have them to accomplish physical feats.”

Pilobolus doesn’t rely on lifting weights either. Instead, “We lift each other,” says Renée Jaworski, rehearsal director and longtime member of the company. “Our dancers tend to do balancing work like Pilates and Gyrotonics to keep their bodies in line rather than build more muscle. By the nature of the work our muscles are built,” she says.

The shift in aesthetics speaks to a larger gender issue for Jaworski—she sees women taking back their power. “The longer we’re on an even playing field with men in society, the more we’re going to show our strengths. Women used to work in the fields with men and use our bodies in different ways. Then women stayed in the home more. But the trend may be swinging the other way now.” Jaworski says the athletic aesthetic is creeping into ballet. “Now that the partnering is more equal, I think ballet is catching on to the look.”

Elizabeth Streb, founder of Streb Laboratory for Action Mechanics and creator of “PopAction” technique, disagrees. “I see no shift in the ballet world. I’m amazed that the men still lift the women.” Though she says choreographers like William Forsythe have broken the mold, “I’m always surprised that people still use vertical ballet technique.” She sees a change in the training, though. “I notice dancers are cross-trained. It’s very usual to have a dancer who is trained in modern and has gymnastic ability.”

Streb’s dancers cross-train because “Sometimes we’re doing 10 performances in a row,” she says. “It’s grizzly if you don’t have enormous aerobic capacity.”

Not all audiences are accepting of the new muscular woman. Streb remembers an unsettling review. “They thought that Streb women were ugly,” she says. “I was so alarmed because we’ve been plagued by the anorexic women for decades. I don’t hire skinny women because I think they might break.”

Emily Macel is an associate editor at DM.


Photo by Kristie Kahns.