“Everybody in the dance world knows what a dancer looks like,” said April Taylor, a dance educator at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center located in the Elmwood neighborhood of Berkeley. To Taylor, commenting about her younger self, “it was pretty clear that [a dancer’s body] didn’t look like me.” The concept of an ideal dance body isn’t a new phenomenon—George Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet, began to impose his image of a “perfect” ballet dancer all the way back in the 1950s. He wanted his ballerinas to have long limbs and a slender figure, an image that has led the modern dance industry to hold dancers to unrealistic body standards. This is a direct segway to dangerous eating disorders and self-confidence issues. How, then, are local studios, companies, and dance teachers working to combat this culture? Are they doing enough?
Seemingly, the current generation of young dancers is experiencing more supportive and open conditions when it comes to talking about what a dancer’s body should look like. Cecelia Lutz, a Berkeley High School (BHS) 9th grader, dances on a competitive ballet team through the Van Der Zwaan studio. Her dance team recently had a meeting that started out with a check-in that quickly morphed into a conversation about body image. Lutz thinks that because the outside world is starting to discuss body differences and abilities more openly, her studio is mirroring this focus. “I feel like the environment at our dance studio has become a lot more open,” she said. Taylor agrees that things are better now that dance teachers, studios, and students are creating more time and space to talk about all the different types of bodies that dance. “Young people are more accepting. They understand that bodies change.”
However, body image struggles don’t just disappear after a conversation or two. “I’m constantly comparing myself to other people,” said Melina Rapoza, another BHS 9th grader. Rapoza, who has been experimenting with different styles of dance since she was two, says that the media has had a huge impact on the “comparison culture” she frequently experiences. She spoke of feeling the need to compare herself to others, “I really want to stop doing that, but I just don’t know how.”
A probable solution may lie within the dance studios themselves. Teachers are recognizing that in order to combat this “comparison culture”, they need to proactively build awareness of the issues at hand. From what Rapoza has seen, having discussions on the reality of dancers’ experiences with body image depends on the dance teacher. “I think some teachers are more willing to talk about these issues than others,” she said.
By holding dancers to ideal body standards, some dance studios are slowly extracting all of the honesty and creativity that dancers lovingly infuse into their pieces. In short, they are undermining what makes dance an art form. Rebecca Johnson, the executive director at Shawl-Anderson, believes that “bringing your whole self into the room allows you to make some really amazing art [and] it also allows for us to begin to have these dialogues and accept ourselves, accept each other.” Dancers are human, too, and bringing your whole self into the studio also means taking your body in with you, even with its seemingly many imperfections. Local dance companies and studios are becoming increasingly proactive by facilitating conversations with dancers on body image and eating disorders. Rapoza believes that this is a good thing, as it allows dancers to realize that everyone goes through their own body image journey and that it’s normal to do so. According to their website, the Berkeley Ballet Theater has recently employed an in-house nutrition and wellness advisor, showing that progress is being made in this field. To all the young dancers struggling with body image, Rapoza would like to emphasize that “You are not alone” and that things will get better.