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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
Season 2 of World of Dance is almost here! The new season officially kicks off on Tuesday on NBC, and it's bringing a whole new crew of talented dancers with it (plus, some old favorites). Dance pro judges Jennifer Lopez, Derek Hough and Ne-Yo are back, too, with Jenna Dewan serving as the show's host.
Obviously we'll be watching, but just in case you're not completely sold, here's why you're not going to want to miss out:
JLo Might Be Performing
Earlier this week, JLo (who serves as the show's executive producer) posted this insane promo clip to her Instagram. Dancing to a mashup of Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" and her new single "Dinero," JLo reminded us all of her dance skills while also leading us to believe she might just hit the stage herself for a performance.
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Considering we practically live in our dance clothes, there's really no such thing as having too many leotards, tights or leggings (no matter what our mom or friends say!). That's why we treat every sale as an opportunity to stock up. And thanks to the holiday weekend, you can shop all of your dancewear go-tos or try something totally new for as much as 50% less than the usual price.
Here are the eight sales we're most excited about—from online options to in-store retailers that will help you find the perfect fit. Happy Memorial Day (and shopping)!
Now through Monday, Danskin's site will automatically take 25% off your entire purchase at checkout. Even new items like their Pintuck Detail Floral Print Sports Bra and Pintuck Detail Legging (pictured here) are fair game.
"The sun may be shining brightly, but we are not in a very sunny mood today!" said New York State assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal during yesterday's rally for the Artists of Ailey.
The dancers and stage crew are demanding increased wages and more comprehensive benefits, what they have termed "reaching for the standard" and "fair wages."
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.