My mother often tells the story of how I walked up to her when I was four and said, “Mommy, I want to go to dance class.” I don’t recall this moment but I do remember hopping, wiggling and twirling whenever my The Little Mermaid cassette was played. And I remember, in my first dance class, loving to race across the community centre floor with my friends to pose in front of the back wall, a backdrop of brightly coloured squares. Moving my body with other people brought me indescribable joy. But how do you help a young child transition from lively dance parties to focused dance education?
As a past dance student, my mother took finding a good dance school seriously. She asked family and friends about their children’s experiences at various schools and interviewed studio owners about their beliefs and practices. My parents wanted to feel confident that I’d be physically and emotionally safe with the teachers they left me with.
I have had some amazing dance teachers. In each stage of my dance training, I can identify educators who encouraged my artistic growth and supported my professional aspirations. I can still hear the lessons they taught me as I travel across the studio floor today. At the same time, in each setting I’ve trained, I’ve also learned how to feel about my body. Unfortunately, they haven’t all been positive lessons.
There was The Nutcracker children’s audition director who told me they’d never seen someone with a pas-de-chat as amazing as mine, but they couldn’t cast me because I was too tall for all the costumes. So I began dreaming of moving to Europe as the taller graduates from my school had done. Then there was the dance teacher who told me I didn’t progress at competitions because I needed to slim down. That comment stopped me from eating consistently. But even before these moments, I frequently felt the need to prove I deserved to be in the dance studio.
“The messaging in most institutionalized dance is so insidious that even when teachers are not actively body shaming there’s still messaging happening,” says Savannah Boddy (she/her), a Toronto studio owner. “I was always pretty petite. I never had a teacher call me fat or tell me I need to lose weight to win a role. And yet, I still never felt that I was good enough. I still never felt like my body was good enough. If nobody was ever actively telling me, then how did that happen that I felt that way?”
I often ask myself that same question. I also ask myself: What is the solution? If body shaming is more than words, then how do we create dance education spaces free of it? I spoke with some of my colleagues and arts educators who I admire about how they unpack their inherited body shame, how they create safer spaces for their students, and why they believe this work is important for the future of the dance industry.
Boddy grew up training in ballet but pursued a career in contemporary dance because, despite her petite size, her impression of professional dance taught her she’d never make it as a ballerina. When Boddy started Propel Dance Centre in 2013, creating a dance education environment where important conversations about the body were ongoing became one of her goals. “It’s not just enough to stop body shaming,” she says. “We can’t just say nothing. We have to say other things.” This is why Propel’s website includes a philosophy section explaining that the studio works to be body-positive, community-focused and gender-inclusive. Through a series of videos, Boddy explains to prospective families why these philosophies are important and how her studio upholds them. In the video about body positivity, she shares: “It’s not just about the way things look in dance, it’s also about the way we feel. We talk about being strong. We talk about being energized. The way that your child feels about themselves is at the top of our priority list.”
The messaging in most institutionalized dance is so insidious that even when teachers are not actively body shaming there’s still messaging happening.Savannah Boddy
The studio’s culture reflects these philosophies by encouraging creativity while meeting students’ developmental needs. The studio also offers uniform options to honour their students’ gender expressions, and mirrors are used sparingly in class. Team meetings include group reflection on how applying the philosophies in the classroom is going.
“Not everybody comes to our school because they’ve read our principles,” Boddy says, explaining that some families find them because they live in the same neighbourhood. “But there are a lot of people who were specifically looking for our type of school and sought us out.”
She remembers one parent who came to Propel because she had body shaming experiences in her own dance classes and wanted a different experience for her child. “She said that we had exceeded her expectations in terms of what we had delivered,” says Boddy. “That was a great moment where I was like, ‘OK this is amazing, we’re on the right track.’ ”
Maddi Pond (she/her) finds similar responses to her body positive dance education approach at her school Amp It Up Dance Studio in Salisbury, N.B. Pond has been making the local news since she opened up in May 2019 for having a dance school with a recreational and competitive program that, as stated on its website, is a respectful, inclusive group that focuses on creativity and individuality. “The response from parents was the initial sign that I was doing the right thing and making a positive change for the community,” Pond says in an email. “We have dancers come to us now specifically because they have had a traumatic experience as a dancer previously that has tainted their opinion of dancing or competing because of things said about their body. Now, they are competing with us and proud of who they are, which, in turn, grows their love and talent for dance because they feel comfortable.”
Pond trained as a competitive dancer in Dieppe, N.B., and saw the impact body shaming had on her peers. She watched many of them adopt restrictive eating patterns and obsessively exercise. “When I started working with dancers as their teacher,” she writes, “I noticed the poor body image I had seen before was also in the dancers I was starting to teach in my own community.” Dancers as young as six or seven were already speaking negatively about their bodies. This realization made her want to start Amp It Up.
The studio has no height, weight or gender restrictions to join their competitive team. Pond also carefully considers the language she uses when teaching. She avoids commenting on students’ bodies and, instead, compliments their movement, technique or emotion. “This serves as motivation to continue,” she says, “instead of making them feel like something is unattainable just because of your body composition.”
My colleague Chenise Mitchell (she/they) remembers as a young dancer feeling like a robot, unable to express herself. “Apparently there’s something special about me doing what I’m told, but it doesn’t feel special,” she says. ”I really feel the way I was taught was this is going to be your career; this is going to be your vocation. Get it right. That’s so much pressure for any age.”
Luckily, as a teenager, she was introduced to new ways of expressing herself through movement. Her high school dance program focused on contemporary dance practices, including collaborative creation. Mirrors were covered so that dancers could focus on the sensory experience of movement and emphasis was placed on how each dancer was unique. “I really enjoyed that switch when I was growing up,” she says. “It made me more in tune with my body.” Now, as a professional dance artist and educator focused in jazz, expression is a core part of what she passes on to her students. Her education style has led her to teach in dance settings such as Propel Dance Centre, Rosedale Heights School of the Arts, YENSA Festival, Toronto Dance Theatre and Sheridan College. But it was teaching children that made her realize she needed to adjust her instruction style from how she was raised.
“I noticed that there was quite a big divide in the class sometimes,” she explains. Her students included those who were conscientious and could easily remember things week to week, and those who would be labelled as having “too much energy.” But not by Mitchell, who received similar labels as a child and who does not believe in placing this judgment on her students. “They wanted to be there and they were expressive kids. And yet, they weren’t doing the stuff that I gave them the way the other kids were. There was just a big divide and I was like, ‘I was that kid who had too much energy, who talked too much’… Where’s the space for them?”
Mitchell started analyzing how she was teaching more closely, asking herself if she was enforcing an expectation because it was helpful to learning or because it was how she was taught. She stopped, as she puts it, “being strict about things that didn’t have importance” such as if kids remembered choreography from week to week or if they were repeating the movement exactly the way she was demonstrating. “I need to understand that not every kid is going to do things the way I did or become a dance artist. So what are those kids going to get out of it?” she explains. In Mitchell’s class what they get is a place to get to know their bodies. She aims to remove the authoritative structures in her classroom by teaching without mirrors, avoiding touching students without their consent, often teaching in the round and viewing everyone in the room as knowledge holders.
“Kids are people already. I think society has a tendency to treat them as less than a person… You need to fit in a box and you need to do things a specific way to be successful. But then as adults, we’re all doing this inner child work because we already had our full personality from the time we came out of the womb,” she says. “So when I’m teaching, I also try to leave that freedom for people to understand what dance is for them.” Later, she adds that she also hopes to guide her students back to who they are through dance.
In their early dance years, Arwyn Carpenter (they/them) performed with a youth company where, once puberty hit, many of their teachers began pressuring them to change their body. “I was a great little dancer. But I had a big round belly and a big round bum. And later I got big round boobs and it was over,” they say. This pressure to change continued as they pursued a professional career where it was a struggle to get hired and feel valued. “I did not have a performance career in the way that I wanted,” they say. “I just hid my body in the dressing rooms and backstage. There was so much shame that I didn’t want to oblige anyone to look at me. So I wanted to hide.”
Instead of focusing on performance, Carpenter has worked as a dance educator and choreographer for more than 25 years, including a 10-year career at the Toronto District School Board where they were recognized for Excellence in Elementary Education and Arts Teaching. “I started to develop this idea of community and that dance really is for everyone and that it is what happens in the circle and not what happens to someone over there that’s special,” they say.
I was a great little dancer. But I had a big round belly and a big round bum. And later I got big round boobs and it was over.Arwyn Carpenter
This idea led Carpenter to decolonize their practice and classroom. First, through training at Tisch School of the Arts with teachers including Ronald K. Brown, who introduced them to an afro-centric perspective of rhythm and movement. Later, they took courses in Indigenous studies, including a year with the Elders and Wisdom Keepers of Kapapamahchakwew – Wandering Spirit School in Tkaronto. This inspired them to abandon the colonial structure of lines and, instead, teach in a circle. “My teaching practice is in community,” they say “We are all connected in the circle and our work is not about the individual. It is about the group.” Presently, they are working on slowing down in their practice. “Along with the drive to go quickly are these expectations of getting it right and making it look good,” says Carpenter. “It’s hard to let go of the capitalist drive. But no, really open it up, we really have time to be here in this moment.”
For a long time, my colleague Irma Villafuerte (she/ella/yaja) didn’t join a professional dance program because she was scared she wasn’t strong enough in western dance forms. Villafuerte is a contemporary dance artist and educator who has recently been teaching in post-secondary institutions such as Randolph College for the Performing Arts and the Toronto Film School. But her training began in Latin dance, in which the costumes are often revealing.
“I always felt very uncomfortable or hyper-sexualized,” she says. “My type of body just didn’t feel safe and I actually had an eating disorder.” It wasn’t until her late 20s that she started to unpack her body shame. “I shed so much weight of toxicity and low self-esteem from those years but even then, even though I felt better about my body and I felt lighter and I felt more versatile, I was still being told that I was too big. It got to a point where you just get tired.” Exhausted, she worked to accept the way her body naturally wants to show up and the industry’s response. “This is the body that I’ve had and will continue to have and I don’t think it’s going to change. And if you don’t want to work with me because of me being a curvy dancer then just don’t hire me. And it still hurts. It’s not that it bounces off you.”
Villafuerte aims to foster this type of acceptance in her teaching by approaching class as a place to learn the language of movement, and then how to break the rules. “I go in telling my students that everything they learn is tools and that they are the masters of their own bodies. And that these tools are resources for them to discover their bodies,” she says. “And that their bodies are just their vessels of creativity and they just need to give themselves permission to be creative, to think outside the box, to be risky, to be curious. To also fail at it and be frustrated with it.”
This work is done through collectively creating safer spaces with her students. Villafuerte and her classes develop evolving agreements where the individual needs of people are honoured. The agreements encourage students to modify movements according to their bodies’ needs. Villafuerte even has students so afraid of performing in front of others that she’s made space for them to present their work without being in front of classmates, as a way to work up to sharing their work in front of others. “I admire someone who says, ‘Actually that’s not available to me so I’m going to do it this way,” she says.
But what happens when artists aren’t taught to have agency over their bodies? For Greg Carruthers (he/him,she/her), not learning that lesson caused him to believe he would never be a successful professional dancer. He ended up quitting dance when he was 12 and pursued a career as a musical theatre performer and choreographer. Still, he has experienced discrimination for his body. In school, he was placed in the lowest level dance class despite his 10 years of training. “I was reflecting on my experiences in the industry and not realizing they were problematic experiences I was having,” says Carruthers. “And when I looked at my anxiety and depression and where that comes from, it comes from a lifetime of never being accepted in a space.” So he started EveryBODY on Stage.
EveryBODY launched in November 2020 with a mission to break down stigma and fat-phobia in the performing arts and help mitigate the long-term health effects on artists of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. The organization’s initiatives include a social media campaign featuring artists who are overlooked because of their body types. In their short film Cell Block Tango Reimagined, six artists share their stories about being excluded as performers because of their age, disability, race, sexuality, weight and gender, despite the industry’s claim to support inclusive arts practices.
“Knowing that I will likely never be onstage as a dancer for someone else to look up to and see there’s a fat person dancing is unacceptable. There is no one who deserves to have their dreams crushed because of the body that they live in,” says Carruthers. “We’ve never explored what looks beautiful on a fat dancer. That’s what I want to do in my work, is to show that fat people can be beautiful even if the butt gets in the way of that beautiful arabesque. Why are we so obsessed with that specific movement? Why can’t we find beautiful movements for that body?”
For him, the key to this change is offering movement options for artists. “Dance needs to be less elitist and ethnocentric and it needs to be less obsessive about perfection,” he states. “Dancers need to unlearn their perfectionism because there is a space for beauty in imperfection.” In his own choreographic work, he offers movement options and looks for artists who take advantage of them. “When I offer modifications and I see a dancer choose Option B because they know that’s the best option for them, that tells me that they are a dancer… they are a person who’s aware of the way their body moves and what their body is capable of.”
After hearing these educators’ stories, the question that keeps nagging at me is: why did we keep dancing? “Dance is a sore subject for a lot of people,” says Carruthers. “People don’t walk away from dance thinking, ‘Thank God I spent my entire childhood learning to overstretch my body.’ They remember the experience they had and the friendships they made. And when you ‘other’ people because of their bodies, that impacts the way they are seen by their peers.” I wonder now if this is why so many body-shamed dancers take on education or leadership roles. Not because, as the saying goes, “those who can’t do, teach,” but because what they were taught about the dancing body doesn’t align with what they know deep inside. “I don’t know why I had that resilience and connection but I knew that my connection to dance was mine,” says Carpenter. “Dance and I had a secret connection and that gave me agency I suppose. Being able to express.”
And isn’t expression the point? As an educator myself, more than technique or pedagogy, I want to share my love of expressing myself through movement. Yet, to teach my students to love dance, I have to teach them to feel comfortable in their own skin. And it’s hard to create a safe enough environment for that to happen if I’m not deeply modelling that behaviour. Maybe that’s the salve that will heal our past wounds and allow us to show up more fully as dancers, inviting others to share the art form we love with us and, in the process, unpacking our own trauma. It’s certainly been true for Carpenter. After spending decades unlearning their body shame through choreographing and teaching, they are ready to once again pursue performing. “At age 50, I’m really looking at part two of a performing career. In a non-normative body, in a non-normative gender. It’s polar opposite of what my first career was like,” they say. “The fact is it was my actual home; dance is where I choose to live.”
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