Monday, March 4, 2013

Who Is That In The Mirror?

The mirror
image credit.

So at the dance studio where I teach Ballet and lyrical/contemporary dance it has been a long standing practice that the pre-teen and teen girls can wear those little athletic spandex shorts or chiffon ballet skirts over their tights and leotards.

The reason the studio owner (whom I have a great amount of respect for and gratitude towards) put this into effect many years ago was because, as many of us women know, pre-teen and teen girls tend to start to feel more modest and self conscience about their changing bodies. Over the years, as a dance teacher, I've really never thought much about it either way. Spandex shorts and short, flowy skirts are form fitting enough that it's pretty easy to visually assess pelvic alignment. I can tell when a student is engaging their glutes and core simultaneously, because that level of muscular engagement can be seen along the entire torso, including the shoulders and neck.

I do understand the aura of strict discipline in attire; dressing the part. I've been to studios where there was a very strict dress code. Every student in the program wears the same style, brand and shade of pink tights and the exact same color, style and brand of leotard. I've nothing against that. If that's how a school wants to kick it, then that's how they should do it. I've also been to studios, very successful, sought after studios, that just required pink tights and a solid color leo. Some teachers wanted all extras like cover up shorts and skirts shed after the first few combos. Others didn't really mind the extra wardrobe pieces as long as everything was fairly snug and didn't obscure a clear view of what the student's body was doing. Honestly, I learned more at the studios where the attire was less militant. They tended to be a little less about the prestige of being at their school and more about sound technique and artistry of dance. On the other hand though, I did not spend as much time at the studios with a "policed" dress code. So to be fair, I don't want to declare one right and the other wrong. If it works for the school and their students...

For me, as a teacher, I love discussing dance technique and strategies with my students, adjusting my comments to their age appropriate levels of understanding. I don't necessarily want them all to look like a specific dancer. I want them to learn how to be the best dancer they can be. I want them to learn to challenge themselves and to fall in love with the art of peeling back layers of understanding and enlightenment for the tasks they are handed. I want them to learn to think on their feet, take a risk here and there. Learn how to entertain and move an audience, as well as learning to be true to themselves as burgeoning artists and technicians. I believe that's how dancers learn about themselves. I also believe that most dance teachers that value the health and safety (physical, mental and emotional) of their students view dance instruction in a similar way. So, speaking solely for myself as an instructor, the "strictness" of a dress code can easily become an arbitrary point. There are so many other ways to foster a sense of discipline in a student. Mind you, I'm speaking mainly about the teen age group. Little ones, I believe benefit from the mystic of putting on a uniform for a specific activity. Plus, having to don a required outfit for dance class can be a help on those mornings when your little ballerina wants to be a cowgirl all day. No pink tights and black leotard = no dancing in Fairy Princess Land with all the other Fairy Princesses.

Things start to get a little more complicated and dicey when your Fairy Princess becomes (gasp) an adolescent.

So back to the spandex and chiffon of the studio I teach at. A few weeks ago I was at the studio on an evening that I'm normally not. The group of teen dancers that I instruct were having their class with the studio owner. They take from both of us each week. Both of us love the idea that they are getting instruction from more than one teacher. What I don't catch, another teacher can. A student just learns more. Anyhow, my colleague waved me in to watch a dance she had been working on with the girls.
After the dance, she made mention that she was going to declare Tuesdays "No Pants Tuesdays". How could anyone help not laugh at the thought. Of course the "No Pants" referred to the not wearing of shorts or dance skirts. My fellow dance teacher said that she had made them do most all of the class in just their tights and leos, and that it was quite enlightening for all involved, especially the young ladies (13-16 being the age range). The group of students all had looks of agreement, and maybe a little relief to have survived the ordeal. By the time I was in the room, towards the end of the class, the previously shed items were back in place.

The funny thing was that, a day or so prior I had been thinking about something very similar. The thought of them possibly going to various auditions for summer dance programs being among my thoughts. I thought about how, as young female dancers, they would need to not be distracted by how they would look in just the lines of tights and leotards. Even though spandex shorts are skin tight, they have a different line than that of the basic uniform. Dance style shorts sort of break up the lines, or rather curves of the hips and upper thighs.

I expressed my thoughts.  - "Ya know, Ladies. That's actually a really good thing for you guys to do and get used to seeing. There will be times that you will have to present yourselves in just tights and leos, and you need to get used to knowing what that looks like. Get comfortable with it, and not let it be a distraction." The looks on their faces were pretty much this- "Yeah. It's a sucky reality, we know we can't escape (sigh)." It's impotant for me to point out that this is a group of lovely young ladies. While their body types vary from one another, they are each beautiful.

Oh, and by the way...Those lines and curves, as subtle as they may be given their youth, have every right to be there. More so than any lines demanded by any dance form ever created. I'll get to what I told them the next day in a minute.

As early as 5th or 6th grade I remember developing a sincere hatred for my upper thighs. As I matured into early adolescence my body shape developed into one of a small waist, hips that went straight down with extra curves in the upper thighs. Think saddlebag region. In retrospect, I had just a regular female shape. Women tend to carry important fat stores in the upper thighs. It's a design feature for our, and our offsprings' survival. Overall, I was, for the most part, evenly proportioned. But for whatever reason, those damn inner thighs became my nemeses. It's like I couldn't see past them. I let them define me. They became my art, my technique, my measure of success. Failures were both stored there and sprung from there. Through much of my adolescence and early adulthood my obsession with controlling that specific part of my body was the very thing that tore away at the fabric of my art, my technique and my success. It wasn't until one summer afternoon, while in Richmond, Virginia, that I first really saw how much it had torn.

I was in the last week of an 8-week summer intensive dance camp. Things were wrapping up. End of program performances were going through final rehearsals. Students still in high school were getting ready to go home. Dancers like myself, high school grads interested in dancing as a profession, were hoping for company apprenticeships. In this case, with the Richmond Ballet company. The dancers of the company were all settling back in after being away for their summer breaks.

Many of the workshop students had high hopes for their next opportunities. I was not one of them. I knew I was in bad shape. I barely had any jump in my legs, no length in any of my lines (think dried out Thanksgiving turkey), as well as an ever deepening depression. I barely had enough strength to manage my own limbs, let alone negotiate maneuvers with a partner, which was very unfortunate, as partnering was always one of my favorite aspects of dance. I finally saw myself in the mirror for what I actually looked like. I looked like a drowned rat. My hair was thin, limp and dull. My eyes were sunk and almost completely void of any spark. My skin was the horrible color that comes with emaciation. I had the slim upper thighs I'd always thought I wanted, but the rest of me looked like a corpse. I realized that I looked like the walking dead. I had gone too far a field. I was lost. I needed to find my way back. Not just to dance, but to live. I was at a crossroads. Fight to survive or just accept a slow, painful act of wasting away. Who or what did I have to wage war against? I had a seriously distorted view of my body image. I had had it for so long that it had invaded every fiber of my being.

The story of my way back is for another day. But fight my way back I did.

So it's pretty safe to say that I have some pretty strong feelings when it comes to issues of body image.

Before I go further...Something amazing happened...

While I was in Virginia preparing for battle with myself, something happened that would fuel my fight for years to come and contribute the feeding of my soul, as well as my body.

The professional dancers of the ballet company had trickled back into town after their summer break. They had a performance coming up, sort of a heralding of the upcoming season. They were works from the previous season.

One of the pieces consisted of three pas de deux. Each of the partnered sections represented different stages of a relationship. I can't remember the name of the original piece. Poorly nourished body = poor memory and cognitive skills. Anyhow, there were two main female, or principle, dancers in this company. One of them had stuck around for most of the summer. Quintessential ballerina would be the best way to describe her. Painfully slender, blonde, long limbed, aloof. Seared into my memories of my summer in Virginia are of her stretching those long limbs and doing arm exercises with dainty 1 lb. weights in between cigarette breaks (think ballet dancers are beacons of healthy choices? Think again. At least in the 80's). She was indisputably beautiful to look at. Ballerina Q.

The other principle female dancer had a very different body. Tall with a sturdy structure, she had a good 20 pounds on Ballerina Q. My first thought on seeing her in pedestrian mode was, "This is their Prima Ballerina? Somebody enjoyed their time off." Ballerina E (soon you'll learn the what the E stands for).

We, as workshop students, got to watch their rehearsals. The first two pas de deux did their thing. One of the couples included the beautiful Ballerina Q. Exquisite in her waifish aloofness.

Then came Ballerina E and her partner. Watching her and her partner rehearse in the studio that day would become what can only be described as my first religious experience. She moved with a confidence and grace that defines artistry. Her presence was bold and commanding, yet capable of giving the comfort and security that only Gaia herself could provide. Her curves served to bring life to mere steps that meant nothing till she executed them.

25 years later I still feel intense emotion threaten to overwhelm me when I think of the first time I saw her dance that day. I think because she represented the elixir to my ailment. The enlightenment (there's the E) to my disillusionment. The promise of a cure for my disease. The Ballerina Q in me would need to be sacrificed, because the Ballerina E in me, the part of me that truly wanted to survive, had been awoken. The Valkyrie had given her cry of war. Ballerina E was, in addition to being an amazing artist and dancer, a very kind, congenial and enlightened person. Damn, did I have my work cut out for me.

I would have liked to get to know Ballerina E better, but my time in Virginia had come to an end. The scholarship that had been granted me for the 2 month program would not be renewed for a longer stay. Most likely due to my declining health and performance abilities. It was time to return home, lick my wounds and get on track. I had to put the dream of dancing professionally on hold so that I could start addressing the realities of survival.

"Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans" -
                                                                                                              John Lennon.

No regrets. I love how my life has turned out. While I have my battle scars I have wisdoms to pass along because of them.

So what did I tell my adolescent students about how they should regard the images of themselves that they see in the mirror? In essence, I encouraged them to disregard.

I reminded them that they are beautiful and perfect the way that they are. I reminded them that it's not all about how you look but rather about how you present yourself. Take a 90 lb. waif who is shrunken in on her self, slumped shoulders, arms folded across her stomach (I. Hate. That. Stance. I have been known to ban it in my classes), a meek look on her face. Oh, she's tiny and thin and dainty. Now take her counterpart- maybe she is 20 or 30 lbs. heavier, but she is alive and vibrant, brimming with confidence. Which light will garner the most moths? Who will complete the loop of energized interaction? Focus on building confidence in yourself. Be strong and brave, because that is how the world will see you and regard you. That is the image that you want looking back at you in the mirror. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise can go...Oh yeah, I'm talking to young'ins! You get the idea.

Thanks for reading.

Enjoy the dance that is life!

Here are a couple of resources for information and help in regards to eating disorders, and National Eating Disorders Assoc. (NEDA).


  1. Wow Erin..thanks for sharing. What an inspiring message. I too hope to instill the virtue of love who you are and embrace strength inside & out to my kiddos. I love the idea of ballerina Enlightenment!

    1. Ballerina Enlightenment should have her own dance! I feel like girls and young women get inundated with what they should "look" like, instead of what really brings success and happiness. May we all find our inner Enlightenment!

  2. What a wonderful way to share your story Erin. I appreciate how you weaved your enlightenment as an eighteen-year old with your present experience from the teacher's perspective. Beautiful!

    As a former ballet dancer and Pilates Instructor, I have to agree with the looser dress code at your studio and also with the no-skirt/shorts sometimes -- there are benefits of each and change is indeed educational, even inspiring.

    1. p.s. this is Addie commenting :)

    2. Hey Addie! Thanks!
      Sometimes I wish there was a simple way to let young women and girls know that "it gets better" as you grow and become wiser. Hopefully helping them to focus on their achievements and assets will be a start. I know its what I want for my own daughters.
      Its good to hear from you!