During the college audition process, my eyes were opened to a world of dance I hadn’t known before. I came from a studio that raised me. Parents were forbidden from playing a major role and certain aspects of the dance world were not disclosed. Of course, I was aware of my body but I hadn’t recognized the degree to which it influences success in the profession.
My first audition was at Ohio State University. My mom was baffled by the new dance mom role thrust upon her and struggled to make friends amidst a sea of competitive parents. They talked about every role their daughter had played and my mom was overwhelmed. I was keeping her company before our first class when a particularly obnoxious mom started discussing the aesthetics of dance. She was talking about the day the director of her daughter’s dance company approached her to discuss her daughter’s need for a breast reduction. She looked down at my chest in an overtly judgmental way and talked about how dancers with chests like mine would never make it. Until then I hadn’t really thought about it. I was very weight conscious but to think my breasts could be a determinant in my success was mind-boggling.
I became hyperaware of what made me different from everyone else. The other dancers had small chests and nonexistent hips. I wasn’t fat. In fact I was perhaps skinnier than need be but my “womanly” features were undeniable. I wouldn’t be able to pull a She’s the Man/Mulan number anytime soon.
It’s taken up until now for this issue to be significantly addressed in the dance world. Of course, I always read testimonies of ballerinas going to absurd lengths to achieve a certain look like the “Balanchine aesthetic.” However, I’d assumed those were few and far between. Misty Copeland has become an icon for diversifying the ballet world both racially and in terms of body type. I can’t take that away from her but the “voluptuous body” she’s considered to have seems a bit hyperbolized. When I told my mom she had hips and breasts she put her reading glasses on and said, “Where?” She’s a fabulous role model (especially for questioning racial barriers) but breaking molds of body structures still needs to progress.
Historically speaking, ballet is notorious for promoting an image of women that is rather ephemeral. The ideal ballerina essentially defies any characteristic of a womanly (even human) figure. They lack the wide hips, have nonexistent breasts, and maintain a prepubescent look. The curvaceous aesthetic is discouraged and there’s a certain air of purity people subconsciously link to an Anglophilic phenomenon in the ballet world.
It’s not that women of different body types (putting race aside altogether for now) can’t dance. It’s that they’re expected to face marketing and be granted roles according to subconscious stereotypes. To get a dainty, fairylike role, directors have to view the dancer in that character. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my marketing in pictures and roles are often geared toward an animalistic, exotic vibe. Dance is a visual art form so casting is going to reflect how people view us.
Unfortunately, I think peoples’ criticism of discriminatory body type in dance leads to a much larger issue. It exploits how subconscious stereotyping persists in our culture. Dance reflects the society it belongs to. I’m not saying we should eliminate every dancer with an “ideal” ballet body. I am however arguing we should consciously consider how our subconscious social constructions might be altering our casting decisions. Body type shouldn’t be meant to belittle any one shape. Instead, the media and dance world should make a concerted effort to portray more womanly bodies to reflect an accurate proportion of how diverse women actually are.
P.S. Celebrate #NationalWomansHistoryMonth