What Does “Healthy” Mean? A Look at Dancers’ Body Types and Shifting Notions of Wellness

By Kate Mattingly

December 1, 2013, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

It wasn’t so long ago that university dance programs were affiliated with physical education departments, and some schools were slower than others in moving their dance students into the humanities. At Stanford, this happened in 1996, just in time for Chelsea Clinton’s visit to the campus, when the dance division switched from the Athletics Department to the Drama Department. Dr. Janice Ross, who now heads Stanford’s Dance Division, said the aim of the program in previous decades had been “giving girls a good experience in movement rather than producing artists.”1

With its transition from athletics to humanities, dance has challenged assumptions about its purpose, such as illustrating physical virtuosity, as well as its practitioners, namely agile bodies, especially female bodies. Even so, these definitions remain among some audiences and in certain contexts. Conversations about the role of dancing in societies and who is deemed “suitable” to dance did not always accompany the shift to different departments.

Although there are both schools and artists today that promote dance as a form of knowledge, communication and expression, the definition of a dancer as an idealized athlete is still prominent.  Today’s reality television shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars contribute to notions of dancers as technicians who can be assessed according to physical prowess, versatility, flexibility and strength. These shows equate dancing with vigor and youth; when Buzz Aldrin, then 80, competed on Dancing with the Stars, he didn’t last long, with critics saying he was “clearly outmatched.”2

The blurring of dance and sports is visible on concert stages as well. A recent New Republic article entitled “Crisis in Contemporary Ballet” reported that there is “too much athleticism” in the art form, stating that “artists today seem more attached to form than perhaps ever before—wedded to concept, abstraction, gymnastic moves and external appearance.”3  A week later another New Republic writer responded, “This dearth of feeling might have something to do with the growth of competition culture, in which artistry is scored and treated as just another variable.”4

Dancers may have a hard time extracting this art form from associations with athletes and competitions because these are dominant forces in American culture and politics. As far back as the Greek Olympics, physical training was valued for its role in nurturing endurance and patience, and these qualities were linked to being a good citizen: disciplined, devout and virtuous. The chiseled bodies of Olympic competitors became synonymous with strength, competence and health. Even President Kennedy participated in this ideology of linking aesthetics and health when he wrote an article for Sports Illustrated in 1960 that derided the “soft American.” He stated, “The President and all departments of government must make it clearly understood that the promotion of sports participation and physical fitness is a basic and continuing policy of the United States… the federal government can make a substantial contribution toward improving the health and vigor of our citizens.”5

“Our bodies are battlefields,” as Doran George said recently at CounterPULSE during the Dance Discourse Project #17.6  Physical appearance triggers countless assumptions and associations. Dancers in particular know that discussions of health that begin with physical attributes often mask underlying conditions and neuroses. Even the politics of dance schools and companies often nurture deep-set pathologies and damaging behaviors.

For Catherine Long, a dancer based in England who has a non-canonical body, questions about what or who defines health, wellness and ability are at the core of her research. She says, “the current work I am engaged in, Stalemate which was originally choreographed and performed by Doran George, is defined against the history of late 20th century American contemporary and integrated dance. [Stalemate] intervenes into a tendency in ‘integrated’ dance that sublimates disability into existing aesthetics of elegance by highlighting the ‘beauty’ of ‘difference’ while focusing on what bodies ‘can’ do.”

Long’s rehearsal process is invested in “translation,” meaning how to create a vocabulary that suits her physical structure and artistic aims. She adds, “Focus will be on the process of dancing, executing movement in a way that is beneficial for my body; reducing pain and creating physical sustainability. The work therefore creates space for my kinetic capacity in a hypothetical sense, with the aim of it being to critique ideas of virtuosity and elegance.” Her career as a choreographer and performer was inspired in part by DV8’s performance of The Cost of Living that she saw 15 years ago: “It involved a diverse range of bodies and their physicalities, and how culture constructs and influences attitudes towards bodies.”

Jostling conventional ideas about who’s a dancer is a trend that’s now 40 or 50 years old. Liz Lerman incorporated multiple generations of performers in her work, inspired by an idea of community by Robert Nisbet that advocated for the establishment of new forms, “forms which are relevant to contemporary life and thought.” 7  With the current generation of artists in the Bay Area and abroad, this search for relevant forms continues. Artists like Catherine Long, Eric Kupers and Sean Dorsey challenge us to dismantle associations of bodily aesthetics as “ideal” or “healthy.” Years ago Lerman noticed that if “one dancer is her own self, the more another dancer can be his own self.” 8

This ability to honor differences, which includes cultivating a sense of groundedness and awareness, keeps dancing, the art form of our bodies, alive and healthy. Kupers, director of Bandelion, adds, “I crave art that is raw, that stays human, that has glitches and rough edges. I want to leave a show, my own or other artists’, feeling more alive, more human, more accepting of all parts of myself. But usually I feel alienated from apparently ‘perfect’ bodies doing ‘perfect’ movements that I feel I could never do, and especially that those not trained in dance feel separate from. What’s the point of paying a bunch of money to feel more separate?”

Sean Dorsey, the Artistic Director of Sean Dorsey Dance and Fresh Meat Productions, says, “Modern dance, as a physical mode of expression, has the tremendous potential and capacity to empower, liberate, inspire and connect diverse communities. It also has tremendous potential to expand what we think of as ‘beauty’ and ‘grace.’ But modern dance doesn’t always do this: modern dance often ends up enforcing all the hetero-normative, racist, gender-binary rules that we’ve been so busy FIGHTING against on the streets and in the courts. Why drop our politics as soon as we enter the theater? Many of my dance heroes have challenged the racist and white supremacist assumptions of modern dance; others have challenged the sexist and misogynist; others of my dance heroes have challenged the able-ist codes. Transgender visibility and gender norms are the very last to be challenged in modern dance. Transgender bodies, queer bodies, bodies brimming with complexity – these bodies are beautiful and full of grace and I ache to see them dancing, in leadership, creating, performing. This is my life work and it’s a JOY and a privilege.”

Inspired by Keith Hennessey, Liz Lerman, Bill T. Jones, AXIS Dance and Sins Invalid, Dorsey says “their luminous challenges to dance’s definitions of WHO can dance, and what makes a ‘healthy’ body” are important to his understanding of dance and performance. “I feel I’m part of a great big family of shit-disturbers who make beautiful, powerful work in the process of changing minds. I’m also inspired by transgender artists like writer Kate Bornstein, singer-songwriter Shawna Virago and filmmaker Christopher Lee.”

An artist and scholar invested in building awareness of disability cultures, Petra Kuppers writes: “I am fascinated by how artists use specific experimental techniques towards self-empowerment, system critique and identitarian allegiances (in various combinations).” 9 Dorsey responds to this quote: “Too much is at stake for us NOT to critique the system. This is not an academic exercise for my community: my transgender and queer communities died by the hundred, by the thousand during the early AIDS crisis. No one talks about all the transgender women that died. History doesn’t remember them. Yes, my work is absolutely about self-empowerment. I hear it every week in emails I receive from young transpeople, LGBT elders and straight dancegoers. ‘Self-empowerment’ is a fancy term (five syllables!) for: I want you to see your unique body reflected in art & culture; I want you to hear your unique story there; I want you to feel entitled to tell your story; and I want you to get to tell that story and know it will be listened to.”

As dancers have persisted in expanding definitions of who can perform and what people can dance about, audiences have embraced a diversity of body types on stages as well as an understanding of performances as sites that shift dominant ideologies about ideal bodies. Current generations continue questioning not only what it means to perform, and who we consider a dancer, but also how we interact with performers and how inclusivity can generate collectivity. Kupers’ performances involve artists and audiences of differently abled movers in ever-evolving relationships. He says, “We have choreography and written text and musical compositions to use as a launching pad, but we have to hold those lightly and allow for the mysterious to emerge—to allow for surprise and sudden change. And so we train in becoming intimate with our fusion of art forms and cultivating an ability to relax in uncertainty… In this context, the idea that performers should look one certain way, or have similar body shapes and sizes, or have the same abilities or disabilities is ridiculous. Conformity kills presence. And what we are seeking is presence.”

Kupers advocates for dancing as a performing art that belongs to anyone and any body, and his work challenges notions that dancers must present specific images of grace and beauty. This presses against missions of mixed-abilities companies that still aspire to create athletically daring or physically virtuosic programs. Kupers adds, “The idea that a dancer’s body has to be thin and young and highly athletic and able-bodied is to me a complete affront to the power of dance. Dance is a birthright. If we are breathing we can dance, and some would say we already are dancing. Yes, highly-trained concert dance can be beautiful, but no more so than street dance and ritual dance and club dancing. Each has its place and its function… ”

Janice Ross writes in her book about Anna Halprin, “Dance, more than any other art form, is weighted toward showcasing the kingdom of the well. Both those who create and those who perform dances are presumed to be healthy… The more visible the body, as in athletes or dancers, the more developed and refined [their sense of] control tends to be, conveying an impression of underlying health…”10

Halprin, similar to Isadora Duncan before her, advocated for dancers’ health rather than “lockstep duplication.”11  Decades earlier, Duncan said that ballet was “an expression of degeneration, of living death,” and the bodies of such dancers consisted of “deformed” muscles and bones. In contrast, Duncan described her mission as expressing “what is the most moral, healthful, and beautiful in art.”12

In the 1950s and 1960s, as Halprin rejected the tendency to define dancers through body types and its accompanying idea of dance as the display of vigorous feats, she also tapped into the variety of intelligences carried through bodily movement. In the documentary Artists in Exile Halprin explains her interests, “It became vital to me that we deal with people’s feelings, that we deal with the differences that we have. That started this whole idea for me of healing. How can dance look square in the eye at itself as some ‘Look at me!’ kind of dancing or ‘Look how clever I am!’ or ‘Look what I can do!’ Who cares?! I couldn’t care less!” Halprin’s rejection of dancing as athletic display coincided with her growing interest in the role of performers, and a specific interest in salutary experiences for these people.

Asked if he considers dance an art form that promotes healthy living, Kupers replied, “‘Healthy’ is highly subjective. It is not about where we fit on lists, statistics or probabilities… Health includes blood pressure and cholesterol and immune systems and metabolism and aerobic exercise. But it also equally includes state of mind, ability to flow between diverse emotional states and not get stuck anywhere, confidence to sing and dance just as you are, relationships with each other, relationships with the natural world, energy levels, ability to access joy in the present moment, ability to acknowledge grief and loss, finding one’s ‘calling,’ aligning one’s career with one’s deeper values, ability to help others, ability to be helped by others, ability to ignore statistics and probabilities when our intuition tells us something different, and so much more.”

1. Stanford University News Service, “Dance division joins drama department,” October 22, 1996.
2. Allyssa Lee, The Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2010 latimesblogs.latimes.com/showtracker/2010/04/dancing-with-the-stars-results-the-next-elimination.html
3. Jennifer Homans, “Crisis in Contemporary Ballet,” New Republic, October 4, 2013. newrepublic.com/article/114707/crisis-contemporary-ballet-essay-jennifer-homans
4. Alice Robb, “Ballet is in Crisis because it’s turning into a Sport,” New Republic, October 14, 2013. newrepublic.com/article/115169/ballet-competitions-turn-art-sport
5. John F. Kennedy, “The Soft American,” Sports illustrated, December 26, 1960. sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1134750/
6. Doran George was one of the several panelists who spoke October 16, 2013 during the evening entitled “Sex and Performance in the Bay Area”
7. Liz Lerman, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer, (Wesleyan, 2011), 32.
8. Lerman, Hiking the Horizontal, 60.
9. Petra Kuppers, Disability Culture and Community Performance: Find a Strange and Twisted Shape (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 10.
10. Janice Ross, Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, (University of California Press, 2007), 300.
11. Ibid, 303.
12. Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen, What is dance?, (Oxford University Press, 1983) 282.

This article appeared in the December 2013 issue of In Dance.

Kate Mattingly is a doctoral candidate in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.