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Where My Body Belongs

I was 12 years old the first time I was made to feel ashamed about my body in a dance setting By Candice Irwin
  • Photo courtesy of Unsplash

Trigger Warning: talk of body shame and disordered eating

***

I was 12 years old the first time I was made to feel ashamed about my body in a dance setting. I auditioned for a ballet competition and, for the first time, was not accepted. I’m slumped outside the studio, feeling down but not hopeless, when my dance teacher comes by. Looking to comfort me, she leans down and says, “It’s OK. We’ll work on slimming you down so you get through next year.” I can still see her hands tracing the wispy shape she hoped my body would achieve. I can still feel the gut-wrenching, heart-sinking shock of those words. 

Before then, I’d never seen my body as an obstacle to my dreams. I knew that I looked different than other students in class; I was tall for a ballet dancer. Yet, I was unaware that my wide hips and round belly would be barriers to my aspirations. I never made it to next year’s competition. Instead, I quit dance.

Regardless of how much I loved to move, my teacher’s comment blossomed into a constant internal voice nagging at me whenever I entered the studio. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work; you’ll never be good enough,” it whispered to me throughout class. So instead of focusing on developing my craft, I obsessed about becoming thin until I developed an eating disorder. At the time, leaving dance seemed like the only way to save myself from self-destruction. 

A year later I did make my way back to dance through my high school dance program. There I was lucky to be surrounded by teachers and students who encouraged my creative aspirations. Yet, from my teenage years, one of my strongest memories is hearing So You Think You Can Dance’s Mia Michaels say she became a choreographer because not a single person would hire her fat dancing body. I felt my body trying to disappear into the couch cushions as yet another dancer I admired confirmed what my inner voice kept telling me: my body did not belong in dance.

Years later, I’m sitting with dear colleagues and friends, listening to them share their own body shaming stories. They tell me about choreographers who told them that they needed to lose weight for the work to “look good.” Fellow dancers who shamed them for their “fattening” lunch choices. High-profile auditions they hadn’t booked because they “wouldn’t fit the costume.” As they talk, my gaze wanders to their tiny waists. If their bodies aren’t welcome in dance, what hope is there for my soft, rippling midsection to survive in this industry? 

It is comforting to know I am not alone in the fear that my body shape will halt my career but scary to realize that dancers much smaller than me are still being shamed about their bodies. I wonder how many amazing voices, of all sizes, our industry has lost because our obsession with achieving the “dancer body” clouds our understanding of artistry. I worry that prioritizing the body’s physical form has become a distraction preventing us from experiencing the full depth of its expressive potential.

In the frequent moments when I feel that my body is not welcome in dance, I have to fight the urge to save little 12-year-old me by, yet again, running away. When I don’t grasp something in class as quickly as slimmer dancers, I must convince myself I deserve to come back the next day. When I don’t get hired after an audition, I have to stop myself from jumping to the conclusion that it’s because I’m too big. When a collaborator gives me feedback, I need to remind myself that they want my contributions in the room. It’s frustrating and exhausting to constantly be met with this shame. It makes it hard to bring my truest expressive self to work. 

So I thank the teachers who encourage me to expand instead of shrink. I am grateful for the creators who lovingly make space for every inch of me in their projects. And, most importantly, I celebrate the dancers whose bodies break the expected mould and who fight the urge to run away from what they love. You make it easier to remember that my body belongs in dance. 

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