TW: body dysmorphia, eating disorders
I was a dancer for 15 years, during which I attended a small, family-owned dance studio in my hometown, taking classes in modern, tap, jazz and ballet. These years of training were great; if I had the opportunity to go back and choose a different hobby I don’t think I would. I stayed fit, pushing my body to its limits in a good way. I had an outlet for creative expression. I got to perform, building my confidence immensely. I made lifelong friends that I still to this day have all the love in the world for. I’m more than willing to admit that I have benefited tremendously from dance overall.
But unfortunately, being a dancer is a double-edged sword, particularly when the dance world is the environment you grow up in, as I did. The dance world is elitist and non accepting. On any scale, whether it’s a small studio as I attended or a large professional ballet company, you will see the dark side of the dance world. You may not be able to tell when watching a group of dancers perform on stage, but if you knew the harsh realities of what likely went on backstage to put on that three minute number paired with lighting, music, and a magnificent costume, you might question if it was worth it.
And this is a very weird experience to have as a former dancer (or as I like to joke, a washed-up one). The most I use my years of training for nowadays is the odd party trick or rare alumni performance. But I have told stories about my dance experiences and had people look at me like I was crazy for putting up with what I did. This realization has led me to reevaluate my relationship with dance. It’s some weird form of Stockholm syndrome – you love the sport and the payoff and therefore ignore all of its abuses. There are so many necessary changes that would make the art form a net positive experience for everyone involved. But as it exists today, the dance world is harmful and toxic.
We can see these negative effects in terms of body image. Research shows that dancers (and those involved in other aesthetic-based sports such as figure skating) are at the highest risk for developing eating disorders, just due to their involvement in the sport alone. Much of this risk is linked to perfectionism in dance, coupled with the ideal “dancer’s body” of being slim, with long, elegant limbs. This ideal is particularly prevalent in ballet dancers. In a sport that demands perfection, food and body size become something to control, leading to ballet dancers being 10 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than non-ballet dancers, and 12% of dancers overall to struggle with an eating disorder.
I can repeat statistic after statistic here, but my personal experiences speak to this body image issue in the dance world as well. I was measured in front of my friends, and also had my measurements compared to those of my friends. Each class came with the eternal debate of wanting to eat and have energy, but not wanting to be told that my teacher could “see my lunch” through my leotard, marking bloating, which is 100% natural, as a negative thing.
Body positivity in the dance world is almost nonexistent. Traditional arguments for a cohesive look of dancers that all look the same are just that – traditional and therefore outdated. The dance world should embrace different bodies and celebrate them.
Additionally, there is the overall competitive nature of the dance world that can have intense negative effects. Dance inherently pits young girls against each other. The reality TV show ‘Dance Moms’ is, of course, slightly sensationalized, but not by much. Even studios such as mine that only perform rather than compete tend to foster a competitive atmosphere that can make a young dancer see her friends as the enemy. The pressure alone to be the best is stifling.
Moreover, in our white patriarchal capitalist society, whiteness is seen as the default, and this is present in the dance world too. Dancers at competitions report biased and bigotted scores from judges based on race. Ballet dancers especially note racist remarks and a general unwillingness to acknowledge diversity.
Furthermore, dance is an extraordinarily expensive sport. Not everyone can afford to participate, and if you can’t afford the expensive summer intensive program or the many pairs of shoes with glittering costumes and other accessories that often need replacement, you won’t be taken seriously.
The dance world is closed-off and elitist, and the ideologies running it need a massive overhaul. As dancers, we should be accepting, encouraging everyone to participate. We should want everyone to be able to express themselves through dance. It’s certainly a wonderful art form that has provided me personally with a lot. But it’s also done a lot of damage, and I know I’m not the only one that feels this way. Something needs to change, in a way as simple as acceptance.