Recently my friend asked me “What do you like about your body?” It took me a long time to respond.
I know what I dislike, but what do I like?
Since I was a kid, I’ve thought my neck muscles are unusually bulky. Sometimes I wish I had longer legs. Or that my feet had better arches; that my shoulders could be more flexible; that my spine could shorten; that my knees could narrow, and so on and so on.
In middle school, I was so self-conscious that I refused to wear baggy clothing, because I thought it made me look fat. I did leg exercises under my desk every day, hoping to shrink my thighs.
As an adult, I’ve learned to love the body I was born with. But the battle for self-acceptance is never quite finished. It’s a process—not a result.
My experience with body insecurity isn’t unique. In an age of Instagram filters and curated social media feeds, there can be overwhelming pressure to look “perfect”. This pressure doubles if you’re a dancer.
As dancers, we are asked to do impossible things with our bodies, which results in us thinking our bodies should look superhuman. Growing up, I fixated on this idea. I wanted the superhuman “Perfect Dance Body”.
So…what does this “Perfect Dance Body” look like?
Most people say “fit” or “athletic”. Some may say thin and exquisite.
Descriptions like these made me worry about things I couldn’t control, like the width of my neck or the length of my legs.
I was so fixated on my idea of the “Perfect Dance Body”—ethereal, airy, and long-limbed—that I forgot one of the most important things: my body is my instrument, and mine alone. It’s something unique and special that I have, that no one else does.
Focusing on trying to change my body limited my artistic growth. I worked to become stronger and more flexible, but I ignored the stories I was supposed to tell.
As a result, I didn’t feel confident in my performances or my choices in rehearsal. I felt pressure to be perfect in my appearance, work ethic, and technical execution. I was a robot who could present flawless steps, rather than a person empowered to tell a story on stage.
Once I decided to accept myself and question my warped definition of the “Perfect Dance Body”, a whole new world opened up in front of me. A beautiful one filled with an array of body types that twirled and moved in ways only a true and honest dancer can.
Dance is technical and demands form. However, it is not simply movement. It’s also a language. Like all languages, it’s not used by one “perfect dancer with a perfect body”. It’s used by anybody who wants to dance.
Human bodies make dance possible. And since human bodies come in all shapes and sizes, diversity is an essential part of the dance world.
Next time you’re in the studio, look around you. You’ll see short and long legs. Narrow and wide torsos. Big boobs, flat chests, different hair types.
These dancers, no matter their size or shape, speak a language all their own. They each have something to share with the world, and only they can do it.
Accepting and loving my body has taught me that great dancing is only possible once the dancer understands the unique value of her body. It’s terrifying, but to dance well is to be unfiltered and honest in a world which demands perfection. The only way to do this is to accept and love ourselves.
Our bodies are part of our identities. We can’t change them. We can only choose to love them. And by learning to love them, we’re free to step on stage and tell our stories.
Yesterday in rehearsal, my director stopped me to exclaim: “I love your neck! Look at those muscles!” I remember looking into the mirror at twelve years old and hating my neck.
But yesterday, I smiled. I love my neck, too.
Elizabeth Shew is a Portland, OR native and a New York-based dancer, writer, and creator. She is a graduate of The Ailey School and Fordham University and holds BFAs in Dance and English/Creative Writing. She has danced for choreographers Cindy Salgado, Jae Man Joo, Brice Mousset, Christopher Huggins and Taryn Kaschock Russell, among others. Recently, she participated in Cherice and Charissa Barton’s summer program, Axis Connect, and performed alongside the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in their annual piece Memoria. She is a current apprentice with BodyStories: Teresa Fellion Dance.
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