The Dance Current
How educators are teaching dance for all bodies
How are educators teaching dance for all bodies? Deanna Paolantonio speaks with three dance educators about how they create judgment-free spaces and what teachers should consider when it comes to the body image of their students.
Six years ago, my body was screaming for help, but I refused to listen. Life was very busy for me as a twentyfive-year-old fitness instructor, graduate degree holder and aspiring PhD candidate. I was diving deep into the world of dance fitness, working as a Zumba Fitness and Pilates instructor. I ignored the unquenchable thirst, constant hunger, dizziness, frequent urination and extreme fatigue because I was finally losing weight. After years of relentless ballet, jazz, tap and modern dance training and dieting without the results I desired, it felt unbelievable to see my physique morph into the thin “ideal” dancer body archetype I wanted.
Although I was pleased with my unexplainable weight loss, the painful cries my body sent out eventually became louder and started affecting my dancing. Only then did I see a doctor and receive the message my body had been trying to relay: I had Type 1 diabetes (T1D). Multiple self-administered needles and finger pricks became my new normal; food had to be weighed, measured and calculated to match the ratios my doctors estimated would meet my insulin needs. But the worst part about T1D was how it altered my relationship with my body – could I still be a dancer and be diabetic? Dealing with the physical challenges of life with T1D along with the culturally constructed expectations I was embodying created conflicting goals in me. As a T1D dancer, part of my body image includes a specific focus on managing and maintaining healthy glucose levels, and how the treatment of these health issues impacts body aesthetics.
Some of these physical challenges include wearing medical equipment (e.g., insulin pump, continuous glucose monitor); using insulin, which heightens the potential for weight fluctuations; and continually monitoring and controlling blood glucose levels (e.g., testing with a glucometer, fear/prevention of high or low blood sugars). Wearing technology along with using insulin enables me to have more control over my blood
sugar levels and to physically perform better in dance. However, these devices are not easily hidden and announce my physical difference to others. Moreover, wearing medical equipment doesn’t fit into any of the idealized images of a dancer’s body I subscribed to at the time of my diagnosis.
I spent the next two years learning as much as I could about T1D and exercise. Eventually, I found myself reluctantly venturing into the dance studio. My friend had been taking recreational heels classes with Army of Sass, a training program for dancers of all levels, and encouraged me to join. During class, participants strutted across the floor, shaking their hips and whipping their hair to the cheers of fellow dancers. I was struck by the unbridled confidence these women exuded for their own, and one another’s, dancing. They didn’t seem to care about physical ideals – they just enjoyed dancing.
That class was a turning point for me as a dancer and dance teacher. After so much time focusing on the way my body looked, I had ignored all the awesome things my body could do. Even with the new challenge of T1D, I could still dance to the beat, sway my hips and twirl. More importantly, though, was that dancing brought me so much joy. It inspired me to launch my own program called D-Dance, a workshop that fuses dance education with T1D.
As a young dancer, I was fixated on losing weight. Why?
Put simply, I thought that thinner was better. I thought that leaner meant I would be taken more seriously as a dancer. These feelings I had about my body stemmed from Western, culturally constructed aesthetic ideals about what the “ideal” dancer body looked like.
My negative feelings about my own body led me to develop a competitive attitude towards my peers, especially those who I thought had “ideal” bodies. Looking back, I acknowledge that these dancers were extremely skilled and most likely received attention from teachers because of their superior talents. However, at the time, my concerns about my own body clouded my judgment. As a result of these perceptions, I began to question if I belonged in the dance world and saw my body shape
I WAS STRUCK BY THE UNBRIDLED CONFIDENCE THESE WOMEN EXUDED FOR THEIR OWN, AND ONE ANOTHER’S, DANCING. THEY DIDN’T SEEM TO CARE ABOUT PHYSICAL IDEALS – THEY JUST ENJOYED DANCING
as the primary obstacle to achieving my goals. My personal struggle with body image is an experience that many dancers can echo. Although their specific obstacles may vary, the issue of negative body image in the studio remains pervasive.
When Laura Elliott was eleven years old, her ballet teacher told her she would have to wear a corset to pass a ballet exam. She didn’t even know what a corset was – she had to ask her mother after class. But that wasn’t the only time she’s had trouble finding a welcoming place in the dance community. “That’s what sent me on this path to create space for dancers who have bodies like mine,” Elliott says.
Elliott is the founder and director of Fat Babes Dance, a Winnipeg-based collective that self-describes as offering dance classes that are “geared for individuals who identify as fat, or anyone who has felt marginalized and unwelcome in dance.” She is a passionate dancer and teacher who is invested in promoting dance education in Manitoba. Elliott’s work stems from a desire to dismantle the socio-cultural norm of fearing fatness, which she calls “fatphobia.” She believes that fatphobia leads to the “discrimination of fat bodies in performing arts.” Elliott has felt
this inequity so much that she stopped performing and focused on teaching. Because of this choice, she choreographs for stage and screen, sits on the board of directors for Dance Manitoba and has earned certifications from The School of Contemporary Dancers and the Royal Academy of Dance.
She also decided to start teaching because she thought about the possibility of her daughter experiencing body shaming as a dance student. “I don’t want her to learn that she’s an ‘other’ or that she has a limit on what she can do in dance because of the way she looks,” Elliott says. With Fat Babes Dance Collective, she works to create a space for fat bodies to move without fear of judgment. Ultimately, Elliott wants to build confidence in her students. “It’s ok to have a fat body,” she says. “We can be sexy and have fun and can do what any other body can.”
To ensure the judgment-free culture she’s looking to build, students sign a safe spaces agreement. The agreement outlines the collective’s zero-tolerance policy on diet talk, negative talk and discrimination. The avoidance of “fat talk,” as Elliott describes it, comes from a desire to take students out of their day-to-day lives where she says they are bombarded by weight-loss regimens and fitness ads. “This attitude makes the studio a place to be free from that,” she says. The agreement also lets students know that Elliott uses mirrors. The choice to use the mirrors comes from a purely pedagogical view; Elliott says dancers need to be able to see her body to ensure proper alignment and safety. “And quite honestly, I am fine showing my body and I think it helps them to be ok with it too,” she says.
When Harmanie Rose was in her twenties, she started using a wheelchair due to health complications caused by the spina bifida she was born with. It wasn’t until then that she started dancing. Her choice to not dance wasn’t due to a lack of interest but rather her apprehensions about her ability to dance as someone who identifies as disabled. That attitude changed when she was invited by a friend to dance in a performance that was meant to raise awareness about disabilities. “When I went, and danced, it all changed for me. There was so much I could do with my chair that I didn’t even know about,” Rose says.
Since 2014, Rose has worked as a performer, choreographer and facilitator for the award-winning All Bodies Dance Project and as a facilitator for Ready Dance, an All Bodies youth project. She is now a teaching assistant and associate artist with All Bodies Dance Project in Vancouver, as well as co-founder of iDance Edmonton. She is interested in building relationships strengthened by movement and understanding the environment we are immersed in. Understanding and working with all types of bodies is part of that work. Somatics, as well as inclusive community engagement and ensemble improvisation are at the core of her practice. With All Bodies Dance Project, Rose runs both recreational and performance classes for dancers with various abilities. “People may be in wheelchairs or use assistive devices. Some may have cognitive disabilities, invisible conditions or be non-disabled,” she says. For Rose, body image is about working to change the way the body is perceived.
I WANT TO CREATE MY OWN HARMANIE-SHAPED BOX INSTEAD OF [FITTING] MYSELF INTO SOMEONE ELSE’S
“Many people exclude themselves from being dancers because their body is different,” she says. “I think we need to try and help people see that all bodies really can move if we allow the space and opportunity.” Using somatic work has helped Rose deepen her understanding and teaching tactics. Specifically, she wants to help dancers who identify as disabled look more holistically at movement.
Rose does not use mirrors in her class since the students are usually situated in a circle or freely moving around. “The goal is to have the dancers connect to their own bodies and their own movement preferences and abilities,” she says. “Using mirrors would be a distraction.” She also isn’t interested in emulating or modifying techniques. “I want to explore what the disabled body can do. For instance, what can I do with my chair? What feels good to me? I want to create my own Harmanie-shaped box instead of [fitting] myself into someone else’s.”
As a faculty member of the School of Kinesiology and Health Sciences and the department of dance and a PhD candidate in gender, feminist and women’s studies at York University,
Lisa Sandlos brings a new perspective to body image and performance in dance. Her doctoral research highlights the hypersexualization of young female dancers and its impacts on dance education, girls’ psychological and social development and public perceptions of dance. Sandlos’ work is aimed at how focusing on body aesthetics alone is harmful to young dancers. Moreover, she demonstrates through research and practice how necessary it is for dance to attend to both the mental and physical health of dancers.
This research also has a personal element for Sandlos. When she attended her four-year-old daughter’s dance recital, her ideas about dance and representation of the body changed. As a dancer and dance researcher, Sandlos always found joy in the self-expression that came from moving, and she wanted to share that with her kids. However, at this dance recital, Sandlos began to notice some troubling patterns. She saw dancers from ages six to eighteen exhibiting athletic movements and wearing overtly sexualized costumes. It made her uncomfortable. She worried that the emphasis on posing, tricks and costuming choices encouraged dancers to objectify their bodies rather than use them for self-expression. This inspired Sandlos to help dancers and dance teachers find ways of bringing back the emotional side of dance instead of focusing on what the body looks like.
Monitoring how and when to use the mirrors is one way that Sandlos practises what she preaches. “I use mirrors for about half the class when I teach contemporary dance technique … to allow students to develop both inner sensation and outer projection.” For Sandlos, mirrors are tools to help dancers check alignment and to achieve specific shapes. However, she advises against using mirrors when teaching improvisation or somatic classes. “It’s important for dancers to be fully attuned to their own bodies moving in space [rather than how they look in the mirror] and to their relationships to other moving and dancing bodies,” she says. Sandlos believes that through this approach, dancers will form more positive and meaningful associations with their bodies.
Sandlos’ teaching at York University highlights strategies for maintaining holistic well-being through healthy movement practices including dance and physical fitness. She believes
body image is about how a person perceives themselves and can undoubtedly be influenced by the sexualization of the body. She investigates this idea through her research on competition dance.
In a competitive setting, dancers are taught to focus on tricks, poses and performance. “In watching many videos of competition routines, I began to notice that dancers of all ages were performing fantastic physical feats while also posing in moments to show off parts of the body,” Sandlos says. “It was this mix of putting themselves on display for the judges’ gaze and showing massive physical ability.” When placed together, Sandlos identifies that in this type of training, there is a lack of teaching students to have both an inner focus (sensing their bodies and emotions) as well as an outer focus (performing to the audience). In order for dancers to feel connected to their dancing, Sandlos says there needs to be an emphasis on “what dancing bodies can do, not just what they look like. When this distinction is made, the image of the human body in movement (rather than in a pose) becomes an expressive instrument instead of being an object for visual consumption.” It is important to note that while Sandlos’ research identifies some negative aspects of competitive dance training, she does not feel that competitive dance is a bad thing.
What these teachers have in common is an understanding of how and why dance influences the relationship dancers have with their bodies. Their collective experiences point to gaps within the way the body is idealized in the studio setting. In Sandlos’ opinion, what dance teachers need to do is help students dance for themselves rather than for outward approval only. To do this, she advises teachers to challenge dancers to move in the space with their eyes closed, or partially open (with a “soft focus”) or to use non-dominant sides.
“A lot needs to come from our post-secondary training and teacher training programs where we are missing representation of fat bodies,” Elliott says. Elliott’s main piece of advice to teachers is to “Stop generalizing and accept that ‘fat’ is not at all a bad word.” Rose wants to encourage all dancers to explore the movement they are capable of outside of typical techniques and accept that all bodies, in their own ways, can and should dance. “Disabled bodies are overlooked because we are too tied to a specified way of moving as being ‘right’ and think that disabled bodies can’t do much. … That thinking could not be more wrong,” she says.
A LOT NEEDS TO COME FROM OUR POST-SECONDARY TRAINING AND TEACHER TRAINING PROGRAMS WHERE WE ARE MISSING REPRESENTATION OF FAT BODIES