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