It seems that dance should be the one place where the pleasure of the body is paramount—that the basis of dancing should be how we inhabit our bodies and the enjoyment of those capabilities. However, we are in crisis with our bodies. Statistics show that eating disorders are on the rise and cosmetic surgery flourishes. Talk to any performer and you quickly learn of the many perceived “imperfections,” especially the desire to be thinner. Being fat in our culture is almost a sin and, in dance, it can cost you a job.
We are a culture intent on outward appearances. Self-loathing is a subtext in many people’s lives. Women, and increasingly men, struggle with the impossible demands that contemporary culture places on them in terms of beauty and body image. This struggle is magnified in dance where the expectation to be thin is reinforced in the studio by the presence of mirrors. Mirrors teach us to look outward instead of inward. Shape is rewarded over feeling. And yet, we know the best dancers are able to convey the visceral experience of being in the body. Dancers must inhabit their bodies fully.
And so how do we do this? To experience the full pleasure of our bodies we need to be comfortable in them. By relaxing in the body we can feel our bodies and through feeling we can realize the qualitative potential of movement. Self-hate keeps us from fully actualizing our dance technique. And so, how should we overcome our dissatisfaction, this critical quest for perfection that leads to self-loathing?
I was born tall. At 5’10” my desire to be a ballerina was quickly dashed the first time I put on pointe shoes. Fortunately I found a more exciting home in the modern dance studio. I was tall and full-bodied and never thin. I was always being told to lose weight, even though, when I look back at photos of myself in my twenties, I’m very happy with how I looked. But I never felt that way, and was constantly trying various diets to be thinner. I was uncomfortable in my body. And I always felt guilty when I ate pleasure food. The turning point came when at age 27 I was diagnosed with cancer: Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Sadly, my first reaction was “Great! Finally I will be thin.” Unfortunately, this is not so unusual. I speak to many women who fantasize about becoming ill as a way to be thin.
And I did lose weight. After six months of treatments I was thinner but not skeletal. I now know that I have a very strong body and the strength of my body helped during this crisis. But it was during this time that I had my “aha” moment about pleasure and the body. About three months into treatments I was sitting with a friend telling her how miserable I was. At that point I was bald and eating a very strict diet to help “cure” myself and was in the depths of self-pity. She just turned to me and said “Della, it seems like you need to learn how to enjoy life again.” Such a simple statement, and yet quite profound. From that moment on I began enjoying eating in a new way and found pleasure in daily living. I do believe that we are to enjoy life as well as strive to accomplish amazing tasks. But the journey is the thing and in that journey should be great pleasure. If we are always warring with our bodies then that pleasure is diminished. It is a matter of balance in finding how to live and eat well, but with pleasure.
This could be especially true in dance. Dance above all things should be a celebration of the body. And in that celebration should be diversity: fat and thin, short and tall, able-bodied and physically challenged.
In the years of teaching dance technique I strove to emphasize the pleasure of moving. Yes, it is hard work but in that work is the constant acknowledgement of the body and the experience of the body. The pleasure of moving, of falling, of lifting. The pleasure of breath, suspending, finding unison. The pleasure of sensuality. The pleasure of lines, curves, ripples, angles, pathways through space, discovering something new.