Like many dance artists, Candice Irwin started experiencing body shame when she was a young dance student, and it almost made her quit entirely. Now a dance educator herself, she works to create body shame free classes for her students. In this bonus episode, Candice speaks with guest host Aria Evans about her feature, “The Battle of Body Shame”, in our Fall 2022 issue, available on newsstands and here.
Aria Evans: Hi everyone, I’m Aria Evans, filling in for Esie Mensah. This is Currently in Dance where we jump into stories published by The Dance Current magazine. And we are back for a final bonus episode. Today on the show, we have Candice Irwin, the author of our fall issue feature, “The Battle of Body Shame: If body shame is more than words, how do we create education spaces free of it?” So you know, this conversation references disordered eating. Every year, Candice Irwin’s childhood dance studio attended a ballet competition. And every year she made it through the auditions until she was 12. After she found out that she hadn’t been accepted, she was sitting on a bench outside the studio and her teacher leaned down and said something Candice would never forget: “It’s okay. We’ll work on sliming you down for next year”. This was the first time that Candice was made to feel that her body was, as she describes, a barrier to pursue a career as an artist.
Candice Irwin: And it shook me; like, it shook me to the point of disordered eating. Which then shook me to the point of I don’t want to even dance anymore, because if I have to starve myself to be here, I don’t want to do that to my body, it doesn’t feel good.
AE: In our fall issue, Candice unpacks the body shame that so many artists inherit. She interviews several educators who are working to create safe educational spaces. You can read Candice’s article in The Dance Current’s fall education issue on newsstands now and available on thedancecurrent.com. Welcome, Candice, it’s so great to have you on the show.
CI: Thanks for having me.
AE: To start off, I want to ask you, and this is kind of a fun question. In your pre interview, you mentioned that when you’re teaching you like to start your classes off with a question of the day. So what would the question of the day be for this context and this interview that we are having together?
CI: Well, my questions of the day shift depending on what’s needed. Sometimes they’re very goofy questions, and sometimes they’re very, more serious or heartfelt questions. So would you like a goofy or a heartfelt question?
AE: Oh, what a question. I would like a heartfelt question today.
CI: Wonderful. When is the last time in a dance education space that you felt seen?
AE: Am I supposed to answer I didn’t think this question through. Okay. I did ask. Do you also have to answer?
CI: Yeah, I do.
AE: Okay, great. So I’ll answer while you think about your answer. So the last time, I felt seen in dance education space. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a dance education space. I would say that when I was doing the, like intimacy choreography training, and we were talking to people about our touch boundaries and how, like, how does that relate to the experiences that we’ve lived in the world, I, for the first time was able to incorporate my cultural identity into my societal identity in learning how I wanted to be touched or to be in relationship of touch with somebody else. So that was the last time and that was probably a year and a half ago.
CI: I love asking these questions of the day. Oh, my goodness, like who would think to share that info? But thank you for sharing that. I’m so grateful to hear you felt that way. And that integration, and I’m sad to hear it’s been so long. I feel you on the length of time. I asked a version of this question to a lot of the people I spoke about with this article, and it was quite consistent that a lot of them. It had been a long time. Yeah, I’m supposed to answer too, though, right?
AE: Yeah, I was just gonna say what’s your answer?
CI: My answer isn’t quite as long ago. It has been a little while though, partly because I live really rurally so I’m not in dance education spaces that I’m not leading as often anymore. But this April 2022, yeah, April 2022, I was in a residency education space with Foolish Operations, run by Julie Lebel from Vancouver. She’s in Sudbury teaching myself and some other artists about how she brings together the education component of her artistic work and the creative component and how like they both feed each other. And I got to talk more as well about like how I’m trying to achieve similar things in my own practice. And it was really exciting to feel seen and like, oh, there’s other people that believe in this type of a creative practice, and believe that it’s a creative practice that I can thrive in as well. That’s my answer.
AE: I’m so happy that you found a place where you could find that your creativity and also your pedagogy were coming together into one place and not so distant from the article that you wrote, where you did get to interview many people about their personal pedagogies around teaching. And since this conversation is talking about this article that you wrote in The Dance Current’s fall issue about body shame in education, I’d love to start this conversation by asking you why you wrote this story.
CI: Yeah, well, I mean, as you know, my family went through a big life shift a few years ago, where we moved from actually being really close to you – your neighbor in Toronto – to Manitoulin Island, known as Manidoowaaling, as well. And a big part of the reason that that move kind of happened: we were both in places where we felt very stuck. And for myself, the stuckness I felt was this battle I felt between, like, I was doing a lot of education work and feeling really recognized for that, and I loved it, but I also felt very drained by it. And I was feeling very stuck in my artistic work. And I wanted a chance to kind of try a different model for that. And what came up through that process and all these heavy feelings. And I don’t know who didn’t go through like an emotional upheaval, the first year of COVID? I came to realize that part of what I was struggling with is that the values that I really feel like I showed up with in my teaching spaces, in terms of all bodies are welcomed and celebrated in this space, all bodies have capacity for creativity, all bodies deserve training that like takes their own health goals and puts them at the center of it. And I was like really showing that and how it taught. But it was not showing that same type of care and respect to how I treated myself in other creative spaces, which started this whole journey of like, massive unwind of, Oh, like what do I really mean when I say body love? And, Am I applying that to myself? And, Oh, there’s some further trauma to work through. There always is. And part of it was me coming to realize that a lot of my core memories that had made me feel ashamed about my body and dance spaces were in education spaces. But also a lot of the memories I had that have helped me move past that and unpack it also happened in education spaces. And so I was curious how those two things could exist in the same environment. And I was curious about what other people thought that were trying to unpack this for themselves in their art in their teaching.
AE: Context for the readers, Candace and I grew up in the same town in Victoria, British Columbia. And we went to university together, and we’re good friends. And we’ve known each other for many, many, many years. And something that I know to be really true about you, Candace, is that you start your creative questioning from a place that is very personal, and try to find what is the universal, like, microcosm or macrocosm of that. And I see that in this essay that you’ve written in the story that you’ve created, with other people’s opinions: it started really personally, and it grew from there, which I think is so beautiful and such a testament to the way that you work. And one of these ideas that emerged through these interviews was that body shame is more than just words. And I’m wondering if you could elaborate on that for our listeners?
CI: Yeah, I mean, I can say for myself, when I think back to that memory shared from my early childhood, that was the first time that I like openly remember having words attached to the body shame of my body and the shaming of my body. But when I truly look back, there was many, many moments before that, that I didn’t feel like I belonged in dance spaces, whether that be comments made about other people’s body, that I could see the similarities between us. So I could understand how even though it wasn’t said about me, it was true. Having to constantly wear clothing that often felt like way too tight and uncomfortable for where I was at, and especially in puberty, when so much is changing. And then also watching how my teachers talked and treated themselves. I look back, and I’m pretty confident in saying that some of my teachers, not many of them, they had disordered eating habits. I don’t know. I mean, I won’t speak further on their actual personal identification, but like the ways they were choosing to feed their body were ways that now I know are harmful. And so yeah, it’s all of those things. And then it’s also the fact that no matter what we’re not saying in a dance class, like, dance doesn’t exist in a bubble. So there are so many things being said outside of the dance classroom, that if we’re not obviously saying, Hey, we don’t agree with that, then it’s kind of assumed sometimes too.
AE: Completely. And one of the things that listening to you talk in your pre interview and then reading your article, is this idea that, Are we reinforcing these negative relationships that are already reinforced outside of the classroom? Or are we offering different ways of building relationships with our bodies, and we’ll come back to that in a moment. But we have to take a quick break.
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AE: Welcome back, everyone. I’m here with Candace Irwin, the author of The Dance Current’s fall issue feature, “The Battle of Body Shame”. Candice, can you describe some of the approaches to education that your sources talked about when addressing and dismantling body shame in the classroom.
CI: I mean, there’s so many things. On a structural level, some of the ones that I use in my practice, or that I was excited to hear was things such as having more varied uniforms, if a uniform at all, you know, to honor that different kids are going to have different comforts with different clothing for a variety of reasons. Also, avoiding mirrors and using mirrors, because the research really does support the fact that not only can it actually be a hindrance to learning in terms of memory recall, because they’ve spent so much time with this visual feedback, but also there’s just so much insecurity that comes up, especially for young folks, and especially in the research for girls, from staring in front of mirrors the whole time, it just drowns out any learning that could be happening. And also, especially language, like being really mindful of how we’re talking about people’s bodies, are we talking about things that are going to empower them to continue growing their artistry? Or are we talking about things that are actually completely not in their control, such as their weight, or their skin color, or their height, or how their hair looks? I mean, fine, if their hair is in front of their face, maybe ask them to pull it back. But beyond that, there’s only so much control that folks have over those things, if any. So there’s those structural things, but then I also really loved how many of the people I interviewed also talked about further learning for themselves. So going to take courses or reading books or listening to podcasts about these types of topics, both from folks in the dance community and outside of the dance community. And like how just doing that own personal learning leads to unpacking for yourself, which then ripples out into your teaching.
AE: You’ve talked about some of the things that you also incorporate into your own teaching pedagogy. And I’m curious, what parts of that pedagogy are filling gaps in the upbringing that you had in dance?
CI: I look back at my dad’s education, I look back at it as a snapshot of history at that time. Like, if we look at the early 90s and early 2000s, that was the time of like, The Biggest Loser came out. And Oprah just finished walking across the stage with a giant thing of fat that apparently she’d lost. And she was healthier, you know, like, those were the types of things happening. So when I look at the holes in my dance education, I think they really mirror the holes in all of our body education at that time. But specifically, for me, I think I was really brought up believing that certain bodies would be successful as dance artists and other bodies, regardless of how passionate they were, or creative they were, or technically proficient, if they didn’t fit certain aesthetics, then they wouldn’t succeed. And I walk in with my teaching, and the first value on my website is every body is a dancing body. And I work really hard to make that happen and to continue to fill in more gaps of how to include more people. So I think that’s just a big one. I also think, you know, my personal backgrounds started in ballet and ballet is a European dance form that carries a lot of like European cultural beliefs within how it’s structured. It’s very organized, it’s very specific, it’s very particular. There’s a reason I call myself a recovering perfectionist. And not that it’s all ballets fault. Absolutely not. But like I think contributed. And so I try and show up without that perfectionism in mind in my classes. Instead, I try and show up with curiosity for who my students are and who they’re interested in being. And then I just follow that curiosity and how I craft classes instead of trying to say, Well, this is what happens in this dance style, so if you’re curious about it, you must learn this. I’m much more interested in being like, You’re interested in this dance style. This is what that dance style offers, from my knowledge base. Which thing do you want to learn from it?
AE: I love that offer of approaching every day, every lesson, every human being from a place of curiosity. That just makes me really excited for all of the students that are going to come through your, I don’t know, windows, doors, cracks in the floor, grass spaces, dirt piles, all the places we dance. You wrote about your conversations with these six different dance educators. And a lot of them shared many similar sentiments as each other. So I’m curious inside of that, was there anything about writing this article that surprised you?
CI: Hmm. So something I actually was thinking about this weekend that I had forgotten about, but did surprise me is: there were a few folks, I approached for this article, and universally, every single person I approached was like, I have body shame, I have learned body shame from the world. But there were a few folks that were like, But my body shame is actually not from dance. And so I think someone else would be better to talk to you about this. And that was really excitingly surprising. Because often when I talk about this subject, I get met with like, so many people being like, Me too! Yes, that happened to me, I have a similar experience. Which on one side is, like, it’s great not to be alone. But it also is heartbreaking to sometimes feel like every single person in the dance world has experienced shame from what they’ve gone through. And it’s exciting to hear that there’s people that don’t have that experience, because, I mean, that’s helpful for me. That gives me hope that what we’re trying to do and change actually can happen.
AE: Yeah, I mean, that’s all we want in the world is that the experiences that we had that impacted us negatively don’t continue to be perpetuated. Thank you, Candice. We will be right back after this quick break.
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AE: We are back with Candice Irwin. So Candice, I have another big hitter for you, because I want to talk about urgency. What happens if dance educators don’t take on the responsibility of fighting body shame?
CI: Well, I view dance education as a foundational pillar of our industry. Not just for artists; I think that’s completely true, that, you know, what we learn as young, budding artists becomes our values and beliefs moving forward in our careers. And I think sometimes we do get really focused in dance education on, like, How are we supporting and training that next generation? But I think we also all know, really, honestly, deep down that not every kid that comes in our two year old Creative Movement class is going to be a dancer. But every single one of those kids comes in already before their first ever organized dance class with a relationship with dance. They’re already a part of our community. They just don’t know what that looks like yet. And so what I think about when I think about not unpacking body shaming dance spaces, especially in education, is all of that future community that we’ve already shamed before they’ve even figured out what it looks like for them to be part of our community. They could be future bums and seats, which we’re always looking for. They could be future arts administrators that helped make all this beautiful art happen. They could be future funders, whether that be choosing to donate to dance charities because they know the power of dance and how it’s impacted their lives, or deciding to go work for a granting body or something. And I think when we shame people at these young ages, that means that no matter how much we work to try and convince them that, Hey, dance has a purpose, dance has value, dance can be life changing, they’re like, Yeah, I know, it can be life changing, it made me feel awful about X, Y, Z about myself. And so we’ve created a more steep upwards battle to convincing people of the value in dance for our society because we haven’t actually made them feel a part of the community from that first two year old dance class, or whatever age they were.
AE: That’s such a mind opening perspective to really think about, How are we building the infrastructure of the community that we are a part of? And how dance touches so many people and dance can offer so much to so many people. And if these experiences that folks are having from a young age or from their first experiences of dance are really making them not want to come back, our artistic craft isn’t going to have longevity.
AE: So, placing the value of arts education in that way is really profound. And you said something at the beginning, you said that education is the foundation of what creates artists viewpoints. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and how that integrates into the larger ecology?
CI: Many of the educators, who are all artists as well, that I spoke with for this article, they talked about how when they started teaching, they just taught what they knew. And so that meant that they were teaching the same way that they’ve been taught. Not even necessarily because they shared those values still, but because that was the natural pattern that they sunk into. And I think that’s really what it comes down to. It’s just these natural patterns we develop of, This is the way a dance class should look, This is the way a dancer should look, This is a way a studio space or a rehearsal space should look. And it just gets those “shoulds” in our heads. And, I don’t know, anywhere there’s a “should”, anytime I say “should” a lot (other than this explanation for this question), anytime I’m saying that a lot of my language, I take that as a sign to go, Oh, wait, wait, wait, wait, where did that come from? Why do I believe it has to be that way? And I think that because we’ve ostracized so many people from our community, because they never felt their bodies could be dancing bodies, so they’re not there to remind us, it just becomes even easier for it to kind of be like a little vacuum, and for us to go, Oh, well, we’ve always stood in lines in dance class because you have to, or, We’ve always used mirrors, or, We always wore this outfit. And so it’s easy to just assume it’s okay for everyone. Did that answer your question?
AE: I accept this answer as conclusive.
CI: Great. Perfect.
AE: Yes. Accepted. And, again, a really incredible perspective to think about the relationships that we build with the language that we use, and how are we following what we know to be the way that was before? Are we trying to find new ways? And where does that cycle meet itself? Where is what we’ve learned in the past actually great for us to learn and move forward from and what needs to be completely let go of? And I’ve started talking with my hands for folks listening in and I’m going to… It means that I’m passionate about this, which is great.
CI: I’m the same. I also talk with my hands. So I appreciate the joining of the hand talk.
AE: I have one final question for you. What do you want readers to take away from this article?
CI: I think in all the work that I do right now I look at, How can it heal? And how can it also, like, shine a light of a direction forward? So I hope for people that have experienced similar things to the folks that graciously shared their stories with me, that it is an example of, Oh, like, we are not alone in this, we are not the only ones. As much as we probably got gaslit into feeling like we were, we’re not. And I hope that for parents of kids interested in dance, or dancers themselves, or even educators, that it kind of gives them some ideas of where they could start further unpacking this, or where they could find the right teachers through looking for these types of things.
AE: Is there anything else that you want to share with our readers about this article, about your journey of creative process into arts education?
CI: Yeah, I think one thing I’d say, I think this comes up anytime we’re really having to look inwards and evaluate how we’ve done something for a long time, which is, I think, what a lot of people are doing in dance, and especially dance education right now is, wherever you start is the right place to start. Whether it’s read the article or watch a movie or follow someone new on TikTok, who speaks about this, or, I don’t know, cover your mirrors for a week and see what happens. Like it really doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you just try something. And move forward with curiosity and grace. There are many things I have done because I was trying to do better as an educator and not shame people that I’ve looked back and go like, Ugh… and you apologize, where you have the ability to apologize and you move on. But just start; anywhere is good.
AE:Curiosity and grace. That’s all we need. Thank you, Candice, for being here today. Can you let our listeners know where they can find you online?
CI: Yeah, you can find my education work at bodystoriesdance.com. I teach mostly on Manidoowaaling. But I also teach online and sometimes in Sunbury. And for my own creative work, you can find that at candicejmirwin.com.
AE: Candice Irwin is a dance artist and educator and the author of the fall issue feature, The Battle of Body Shame: If body shame is more than words, how do we create education spaces free of it? You can read Candice’s feature in The Dance Current’s fall education issue, available on newsstands and thedancecurrent.com. If you liked what you heard, be sure to subscribe to Currently in Dance wherever you get your podcasts. Currently in Dance is brought to you by The Dance Current with support from Canadian Heritage. The Dance Current gratefully acknowledges Currently in Dance season sponsors Timothy Ziegler and The Shoe Room at Canada’s National Ballet School. Our sponsors and advertisers are not involved in the editorial process. This bonus episode was produced by Grace Wells-Smith; our consulting producer is Nicole Inica Hamilton; our sound engineer is Chris Dupuy at 1990 Studios; our editor and composer is Jamar Powell. And I’m Aria Evans, filling in for Esie Mensah. Thank you for listening to Currently in Dance. Until next time!