If you’re a human--and you’re reading this, so I’m going to go ahead and assume that you are--you’ve likely experienced change in your life. Whether that’s on a massive or a minuscule scale is relative to you and your life experiences, but all of us feel it at some point or another. As the philosopher Heraclitus put it, “the only constant in life is change.” For dancers, change of a particular kind can have a somewhat ominous cast. Physical changes, or changes within our bodies, can be something that is both longed for and feared. Body dysmorphia, or the incessant fixation on any flaws perceived in one’s appearance, runs rampant in the dance community. We often work hard to attain the physique, stamina level, muscle tone, and flexibility that seems to make us who we are as a dancer, and the thought of losing or even slightly changing those things can spark terror.
However, just as time passes, summer turns to fall, and taxes come due every year, changes are going to happen. Likely, if you’re past your teenage years, you’ve already gone through the major physical shift of adolescence, but there are other situations like injuries, pregnancies, or aging that can alter your perceived appearance in a way that might upset you. Heck, even if you are maintaining the exact same training and diet regimen week in and week out, you will still experience physical changes because you are a dynamic, living, breathing creature with cells that are continually working to keep you alive. Your body will not feel the same day after day, nor should it. It’s easy to feel good about yourself when things are going well, but self-love on an off day is just as important and valuable. The harsh standards by which the dance world judges our bodies will not change overnight, but if we can start to accept ourselves as we are, day by day, maybe things can be a little healthier for the next generation.
Your body is dynamic, and that is what makes you an artist.
Issues with body dysmorphia and body image in dance can start with the physical shifts of adolescence. Most kids will hit puberty at any time between ages 11 and 18, and the sudden growth spurts can throw off balance, tighten muscles, and spawn muscular weakness and injuries. This initial loss of ability, mobility, and strength can scare a child who was once able to whip out three pirouettes and can now barely crack a single without wobbling. Educators should be sensitive to the natural physical changes that are occurring and reassure a worried student that this progression is normal, and it certainly won’t last forever. It is also important to be diligent about health and nutrition at this time. To retain a smaller, unrealistic prepubescent shape, some young dancers may turn to unhealthy eating habits. This can cause a vicious cycle of malnutrition and injury that can be hard to overcome.
Usually, time allows the teenage dancer to reclaim their temporarily lost abilities, but the experience of puberty may have left them a bit leery of the mirror, unhappy with the changes that Mother Nature has brought. However, even if a dancer has journeyed through puberty relatively unscathed by body image woes, other obstacles still lie ahead. Injuries, whether minor or catastrophic, often involve some form of modification. This might mean not dancing on pointe for a while or not dancing at all for a while. Returning from an injury can be a daunting task. Firstly, dancers need to remember not to overdo it as they come back since they may just re-injure themselves and be back to square one. Secondly, it is important to be patient. Muscular atrophy and a loss of stamina, strength, or flexibility have likely occurred in either the injured area or all over the body, depending on the severity of the problem. As you slowly make your way back into your regularly scheduled routine, be kind to your body. Feed it well, and seek out additional care and support, like a physical therapist. Many dancers often see a positive change after an injury, noting that they’re stronger now because they’ve learned how to properly cross-train, fix a technical error, or journey through a recovery process.
There is another change that, unlike puberty or injuries, won’t affect every dancer: pregnancy. Should you find yourself pregnant, there are certainly a lot of questions hanging in the air, and they differ depending on your circumstances. Pregnant dancers are often fearful of what pregnancy means for their bodies and their careers after the birth of their child. Undoubtedly, the body changes at an alarming pace during the nine months of gestation, and this has a direct effect on what you’re able to do both throughout the pregnancy and in the immediate aftermath. Your balance will change since the growing baby radically impacts your center of gravity, and your stamina will likely feel lacking since your diaphragm and lungs will have less and less room to work as the pregnancy progresses. Heavy abdominal work needs to be avoided to keep diastasis recti (rectus abdominis separation) at bay--that will only make your recovery more frustrating and difficult. Another thing to be mindful of: relaxin. This hormone is designed to loosen the ligaments in the pelvis to prepare for birth, but it also tends to loosen up the rest of the joints and muscles throughout the body. Additional flexibility might sound great in theory, but it also means you can injure yourself far more easily.
Although all of these changes might be for a positive reason in a pregnant dancer’s mind, it’s also perfectly normal for fear, resentment, and body dysmorphia to creep in. We’re so used to pushing ourselves to the brink, but when you’re pregnant, things like overstretching, overworking, and overheating can be dangerous to you and the fetus. So even though you might feel like a wimp for backing off, it really is better for your health. Furthermore, seeing your body grow might be equal parts terrifying and cool. Remember that it’s okay to feel the way you’re feeling, and the fear of what your body may or may not look like when it’s all said and done is a natural part of pregnancy, even for non-dancers.
Unlike pregnancy, there is something that’s coming for us all: aging. Thankfully it is more and more common now for dancers to have long careers that stretch into their forties and beyond, but this doesn’t mean our bodies aren’t changing. Though dancers often see better physical health than their non-dancer peers, it is normal for losses in flexibility, range of motion, and even strength to occur. Older dancers may have to change their cross-training and maintenance behaviors, seeking out help from a physical therapist or doctor to assist them in maintaining their physique. Once again, good nutrition is always helpful, as is an open mind. You can’t take class the way you did at twenty-two once you’re forty-five. This can cause a crisis for some dancers, since it is, in a way, facing their mortality.
Both the face and the body in the mirror are slowly becoming a bit different, and that means the dancer is a bit different too. However, it’s important to retain a little perspective: what you might lose in youth and elasticity, you will gain in artistry, wisdom, and talent. Seasoned dancers are valuable assets who know how to reach an audience on a physical and an emotional level. This is an ability that young dancers have often yet to capture. So be kind to your body as time works on it. It has so much more experience to offer the world.
What we need to avoid is an unhealthy fixation with some kind of physical ideal.
Finally, let’s address the elephant in the room: COVID-19. This has done a number on society in many more ways than I can delve into here, but more than likely, no matter where you are in the world, you dealt with some form of bodily change thanks to Covid. Perhaps you were quarantined, unable to dance on a proper floor, so you didn’t jump for months. Maybe you got sick and had to rest for far longer than you would have liked. In circumstances that are outside of our control, there often isn’t much we can do. The gyms and studios were all closed, but we did the best we could. We danced on concrete, performed over Zoom, created outdoor shows for hungry audiences, did what we could to get by, and things still aren’t completely normal. Of course your body changed, and whether you want to credit that to a life-altering event or not having studio access for a while is up to you.
It is important to remember that our bodies are wonderful, pliable things that can morph in and out of various circumstances. If you feel negatively about any changes your body has experienced thanks to the last two years of upheaval, take comfort in the fact that you can always change again, and the body you’re living in danced you through a very atypical circumstance. The idea that we’re always supposed to be the same and be able to do the same things day after day is laughable, since we’re humans and not automatons. The dance world has treated us as such for far too long, and simply put, it has always been an unrealistic expectation.
So whether you’re a scared teen, an injured professional, an expecting parent, or just a dancer trying to survive in the 2020s, please remember that your body is dynamic, and that is what makes you an artist. The tiny quirks and variables are beautiful aberrations that only you are capable of producing. Life will always have some new circumstance to hand us, whether wonderful or terrible. Change is unrelenting, but self-love can be a consistent practice. You’ll likely still feel negatively from time to time about your body, and this doesn’t make you a bad person, it just makes you a person. What we need to avoid is an unhealthy fixation with some kind of physical ideal. It won’t make you happier, richer, or more talented. I’ll leave you all with a quote that’s been credited to people like Dolly Parton and Jimmy Dean, but my dad used to say to me when I was a kid, “You can’t direct the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”