Relevant or outdated- Are dancing conventions harming students?

By Mia Lyndon and Crystal Nicholls

Crystal Nicholls is a professional dancer from Barbados who currently lives in London, UK. She is currently an ensemble dancer in Disney’s The Lion King and the founder of Crystal Nicholls Coaching .

It seems that, as dancers, we just accept insecurity as a given. We see it something that must exist- a biproduct of selecting a taxing career path. If you are a dancer, or know one well enough, you’ll almost certainly be accustomed to the concept of unworthiness. It’s a notion that binds itself around us and our industry, often consuming our potential to grow and be happy. As dancers we often mechanically label ourselves as lacking potential or having an unfavourable body-type to achieve whatever we desire. It’s almost a trend. But why is this?

Only upon stepping back from dance did I have an answer to the above. I had become consumed- utterly and totally- I was more wrapped up in perfectionism and ceaselessness than I was in steps, turns and motion. The issue is, the dance industry is exposing- it saps upon not just a bundle of anxieties, but a whole fleet of them. Dancers take criticism, face comparison, competition and fail and fail, relentlessly. Dance stretches our intelligence, pushes us past our boundaries and leads us into frequent exhaustion. And the worst part? We go through all of this with a smile glossed upon our faces. 

Dancers are forced to spend several hours a day wearing tight-fitting attire and staring at themselves in the mirror. This, along with perfectionistic tendencies and pressure from the industry and teachers, often leads to unhealthy body image, eating disorders and disordered eating, anxiety and depression.

Dance attire

I can clearly remember one time when getting ready for ballet class as a small child. Usually, I would wear a combination of a plum leotard, tights and a chiffon skirt to class, but on this occasion my skirt couldn’t be found. So, I couldn’t go to class. I could not enter that studio unless I had a skirt to cover up my legs.

As I got older, my leotard anxieties somewhat alleviated, yet I never fully felt comfortable in such revealing clothing. It occurred to me that in wearing a combination of leotard and tights, I was exposed, fully. There was no part of my body that could not be analysed, compared, or judged by my peers. I understood that, in order to be assessed and corrected by my teacher, I had to have my body on display, but why did this mean stripping down to garments that are not much more than underwear? What was wrong with tightly fitted leggings and a sports top?

young ballerinas on a stage

Dance schools and colleges often require dancers to wear leotard and tights, particularly for ballet classes. While I understand the practical reason for this (teachers need to be able to see students’ lines), this dress code often leads to poor body image and performance.

A 2006 study conducted at Mercyhurst College, found that dancing in tight-fitted clothing compared to loose-fitted clothing, caused female ballet dancers to feel more negative toward their bodies, selves, and performance.

Even more interesting in this study was the fact that when dancers were given their own choice of dance attire, no one chose to wear leotard and tights.

Why do many ballet teachers still insist on this rule?

Leotards were first introduced during the 1960s: an era when the modernised sportswear we have today was not yet invented. Leotards and tights were a suitable solution for needing tightfitting clothing, with the limitations of clothing options and materials, which no longer exists today. Yet we have now entered an era where social media comparison and filming exists, in a sphere that is filled of dance studios bedazzled with mirrors everywhere. We now have the technologies and trends to dress in clothing that is still tightly fit yet does not act to utterly expose us.

The issue is that the dance industry in general is resistant to change. Many dance enthusiasts and teachers alike tend to hold on to traditions and seem unwilling to evolve in practices.

In my own experience, I hated being forced to wear leotards and tights. But it was required throughout my studio training, ballet exams, and college classes. Now when I take open classes, I never wear tight-fitting clothes in ballet, and have noticed that many dancers choose the same.

I believe the dance industry needs to start looking at what is working and move away from the traditions that aren’t serving us anymore.

The use of mirrors

But is the culprit of personal body scrutiny really what we wear, or is it how much we see ourselves wearing that thing?

Since a young child, I’ve danced most of the time in front of a mirror, in tightly fitting clothing, surrounded with other girls, all dressed identically. It would be simply untrue if any dancer said that they didn’t scan the room, innocently, and briefly compare themselves to other dancers. The issue is, for a large chunk of dancers, this doesn’t happen ‘briefly’. 

black and white photograph of three dancers on a stage
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

A 2020 study conducted at Emory University, compared the effects of body image in beginning level modern and ballet dancers in mirrored and non-mirrored classes. Radell and company found that both ballet and modern students experienced lower body satisfaction when taking classes with mirrors.

They also noted that students spoke about their bodies in more objectifying language in the mirrored classes but spoke more about kinaesthetic sensations in the non-mirrored classes.

This is significant because it begs the question of whether dancers have become too dependent on visual perception in training.

Using a mirror can be amazing. Suddenly you have unlimited access to an outside vision of yourself- enabling you to correct, perfect and scrutinise yourself. It becomes almost addictive- a dancer will often struggle dancing away from a view of a mirror after they’ve accustomed themself to dancing in front of one.

I depended so much on the mirror that I would find myself totally unable of finding my lines without it. This was especially noticeable in adagio, where the focus is on slow movement and beautiful lines.

Staring at myself in the mirror for several hours a day drove my perfectionistic tendencies higher and higher. I always found myself over-analysing and looking for imperfections and flaws, never seeing the positives.

Somatic techniques like the Alexander Technique and Ideokinesis enhance kinaesthetic awareness in dancers in a non-judgemental and non-competitive environment. They can easily be incorporated into dance curriculums and have the ability to bring a more holistic and well-rounded approach to training.

Improvisation can also be a great tool to enhance kinaesthetic sensation in students and lessen the dependence on mirrors. Teachers can use visual cues if this is helpful for students. For example, you could use a visual cue of pretending your body is water, where students have to move as fluidly as possible. This will get dancers to focus on how they feel, rather than how they look.

Pressure from teachers

I have always had lovely dance teachers. I’ve always been gifted with teachers who have inspired and cultured a drive within me.  Teaching methods are certainly something that have seen an evolution, veering away from classical ‘strict teacher’ trends and into a much more supportive approach in recent years. But with teaching methods seemingly much more supportive, then why is low esteem still so prevalent?

This is perhaps because, unfortunately, bullying from some dance teachers has become normalised in the dance industry. It is expected that we will have at least one teacher that criticises us relentlessly and makes us feel bad about ourselves.

ballerina pointe shoes

This should not be the norm and is one of the biggest changes I believe the industry needs to make.

The IADMS recently published an article on certain phrases, commonly heard within the studio, that can galvanise harm within dancers. Phrases such as “Your tummy and/or bottom is sticking out” or even “Look at how another dancer does the combination and try to be more like him or her” have the capacity to encourage a lack of self-belief within young dancers.

I’ve experienced both of the above phrases upon countless occasions. They are so very ingrained into our minds, and so commonly accepted, that they are never questioned. The dance industry is built upon the single need to appear aesthetic, so, naturally, corrections surrounding appearance must be issued to students. However, this can foster an air of self-consciousness within dancers, yet due to the nature of dance and its requirement to scrutinise the human-form, perhaps this is totally unavoidable. Young bodies must be corrected.

Teachers have to lead the change from negative body image to body positivity in dance.

I believe there are several ways teachers can start to do this:

1.            Encouraging dancers to say or write down why they are grateful for their bodies.

2.            Allowing students to choose their attire for classes (within reason), rather than adhering to a strict dress code of leotards and tights.

3.            Speaking kindly to students and encouraging their students to speak about their own bodies kindly and respectfully.

4.            Covering the mirrors sometimes, so that students aren’t spending several hours staring at themselves.

5.            Incorporating somatic techniques and improvisation, to allow dancers to use kinaesthetic awareness, and depend less on their visual perceptions.

6.            Emphasise progress over perfection, so that students learn to develop a growth mindset.

It seems that there’s a lack of understanding on both ends, both students and teacher. Sometimes it’s just a case of comments needing to be explained a little more, leaving no room for a student’s imagination to take over. Other times, there are ways that a teacher can expose a student to fewer methods of comparison. Either way, change needs to be made. Young minds need to be encouraged and inspired, not deterred from this wonderful artform. 

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