Photo Courtesy of Lauren Cress.
Body image, or how an individual perceives themselves physically, is a multifaceted concept which potentially complicates the relationship with oneself— especially for dancers. Blame Balanchine and his benchmarks of unattainable ideals for ballerinas: strong but bendy, willowy yet controlled, toned but still petite. I cannot think of another sport or movement practice where its participants are so highly valued for the aesthetic of their bodies, beyond just mastery of the technique and training involved. Having danced since age three, I can remember in my ballet classes after school my friends and I looking in the long studio mirrors and having pretend runway shows to show off our favorite leotards. As we grew up and began taking dance more seriously, simultaneously many of us began to prioritize our physical appearance as well. Combine adolescent and early adulthood-aged girls in the prime of bodily change with the perfectionist attitude many dancers embody, and you have a recipe for negative self-image that can easily escalate into emotional distress and destructive behaviors. Being surrounded by mirrors for nearly 20 hours a week can be a breeding ground for comparison. I can personally attest to succumbing to the self deprecating thoughts of body shame, and it can be downright miserable. Although those are no longer battles I face, they still remain prevalent in the world of dance, continuing to rear their ugly heads at boys, girls, and other genders alike.
The dance department here at Conn is nationally renowned and recognized primarily for its distinguished history as a teeming hub for post-modern dance. Look into the curriculum, and you’ll find ballet, West African, Afro-Carribean, improvisation, multiple avenues of modern, and introductory dance classes, along with a variety of non-movement courses as well. Among the general student body, the department’s courses are regarded by students as challenging yet gratifying, and a rewarding experience for both new and experienced movers alike. Movement classes are unique from other college academic learning environments, in that the physical body is the primary focus, and its relationship to the space it inhabits presents an infinite amount of experiences to discover. These experiences require the mover to be seen, presenting one’s body for interpretation, judgement, and understanding by others. How do these perceptions manifest within our mental states, specifically in a collegiate setting?
I decided to create a survey asking the dancers of Conn exactly how they feel about the culture of body acceptance within the dance department, their personal experience existing within that culture, and how they employ strategies of self-care both inside and outside of the studio. An anonymous survey, consisting of ten questions, was created. Because the survey is purely for journalistic purposes, and is not aiming for generalizable conclusions beyond the Connecticut College dance department, there is no need for IRB approval, and this method of response collection was approved by Dr. Zakriski in the psychology department. It was emailed on April 14 to all students enrolled in any dance movement course within the 2019-2020 academic year, across all class years, by the department Administrative Assistant Aimee Couture. A total of 17 responses were received, from students ranging from one semester to four years in the dance department, and provided answers of whatever length they felt appropriate.
While dancing, respondents feel “empowered, creative, confident, athletic, energized, free, important, strong”. With the understanding that bodies are always shifting and changing, one respondent described dance as helping “me feel like my body is me,” a sentiment that resonates with my own practice of taking up space and manipulating it. Most participants feel that the dance department is an extremely supportive, positive, and inclusive place, with the studios inhabited by a variety of body types and dance backgrounds. I too, agree that “Our bodies are the most important things to us as dancers. We use them to make art,” inherently making us conscious about our bodies, but not necessarily self-conscious. Even while acknowledging the stereotypes associated with dancers as “thin, flexible, feminine, tall,” dance can show what the “body is capable of and what it can do,” allowing it to exist beyond such preconceived notions. I resonate with the suggestions provided to practice body compassion, including focused breathing, wearing clothing that feels empowering, reminding oneself of how capable you are, focusing on strengths, and actively challenging negative thoughts. The physical mobility and mental strength that dance gives me creates a space to express free of internal judgement or societal constraint, similar to one respondent’s use of dance as a medium “to express gratitude for [their] body.”
Fortunately, dance today across all genres exists within a society that is far more accepting of a spectrum of body types. Like other sports, artistic endeavors, and pursuits of craft, dance values time, energy, and commitment highly. To move for the sake of movement, to experience one’s kinesphere and the multitude of opportunities it holds— these are the vessels in which the beauty of dance exists. The physical shape of one’s body is merely a container— how the body manipulates energy, timing, and shape is what creates the art so many of us find joy within.