About a week ago I linked my most recent blog post to my Facebook page and it received a “comment” that has been haunting me. It prompted me to write this post about how we talk to students about their bodies.
As ballet teachers we are guiding, training, cultivating artists – and this is true of all teachers in all artistic disciplines. But there is something strikingly different about dance. Rather than the artists’ instrument of expression being a paint brush or a pen, or a violin, the dancer uses as her instrument of expression…her body. What could possibly be more intimate; more personal? And in ballet we have placed additional demands on this instrument by setting an impossibly high standard of body proportion, flexibility and turn-out that very few, exceedingly lucky individuals possess.
But if we are going to teach ballet, we must talk about our students’ bodies. And to quote Stephen Sondheim in his dark examination of the human condition Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say, children will listen.”.
I have always endeavored to teach each student how to best work with the body they have, analyzing bodies and teaching to those bodies in front of me – rather than teaching to an arbitrary genetic miracle. I have written a post on teaching ballet to “less than ideal bodies” (Ideal Lines / Ideal Bodies) in which I discuss teaching ballet to dancers with all types of bodies and I thought I had this situation (at least in my classroom) pretty much under control. And then I met Jennifer Rebecca Shoup.
Jennifer is an absolutely ravishing dancer that I met in an open Jazz class; and watching her dance reminded me that there is a quality of nuance, texture, richness and artistry that older dancers bring to our art form that can only be achieved through decades of painstaking, careful and dedicated study. We chatted briefly after class and we discovered that we had trained with some of the same teachers and had a few friends and colleagues in common. Then I mentioned that I taught in the pre-professional ballet trainee program at The Joffrey Ballet School and I saw something odd flash across her face, I saw her body bristle with discomfort. But busy schedules were tugging at both of us and so we exchanged names and agreed to stay in touch.
A day or two later I published my next blog post and it prompted this comment from Jennifer:
“For me there is so much baggage associated with ballet. I spent years trying to force turnout (I have basically none) and now I have had one knee replaced and will eventually have to have the other replaced. I was, basically, a ballet major at Butler University, despite the fact that I am a jazz (Luigi) dancer. I actually had a teacher tell me that if I didn’t turn out my legs I would never be a dancer. As if I didn’t work harder than anyone in any class I ever took! And, of course, the negative comments are what stick. I am nearly 50 years old and I still feel like I am “less than” dancers with turn out, even though objectively I believe that I am pretty good when it comes to jazz. I would love to be able to take ballet–there’s comfort in the daily routine of coming to the barre-but my self esteem just can’t take it!!”
She then posted the following poem that she wrote:
I learned, young, to hate
what I saw in the mirror-
a body not suited for ballet,
joints to be sacrificed
fighting for more turn-out,
curves to be starved into angles.
All that battling couldn’t change
the way my hips sit in their sockets,
the way my thigh bones rotate inward.
Couldn’t give me a square, achingly pure arabesque,
or the simple perfection of a heel open
to the ceiling in a tendu devant.
Why did it take so long to learn
that ballet is not the only way to dance,
that I am so much more than the image
reflected in the mirror?
My mind knows these truths now,
but my heart lags behind. It is hard
to unlearn feeling inadequate.
But there are days, dancing,
when the noise in my head quiets
and my heart opens, when what I feel
becomes the music becomes the movement,
when I catch accents and shade counts-and
on those days, my heart and mind meet.
And I read that post and I read that poem and my heart dropped. I started replaying in my head all the things I say in the the classroom regarding body types. Yes, I have been addressing dancers’ unique bodies, unique abilities, unique limitations in the studio for years. I have been teaching my students that every “body” can create an “ideal” ballet line. But was I assigning greater value to the more ideal specimens? Was I, in teaching the less than “ideal” body, projecting an opinion, a judgement of “less than”? Was I, without realizing it, teaching my students that the mirror was their enemy; as a dancer that is less than perfectly proportioned, that is less than perfectly turned out, that is less than perfectly flexible , that is “LESS THAN” glares back at them from the other side of the glass?
Taking ballet class is one of my lifetime constants. For me there is great comfort in the ritual of walking into the studio, placing my left hand on the barre, connecting to all the beautiful dancers that came before me and to all the beautiful dancers that I will help train. I feel a profound sadness in the fact that there are teachers who robbed a beautiful dancer like Jennifer of that comfort, that constant, that ritual. So as I continue down the path of my career; this career that started so late and by all the usual standards should never have happened, I will be mindful. I will not just teach different bodies; I will CELEBRATE THEM. And I will be careful; “Careful the things I say, children will listen”.