Don’t get me wrong, dance has done some incredible things for me. Growing up, dance was always my emotional outlet. It allowed me to escape from my world for a short period of time and release that pent up energy. Dance strokes my creative need. I love coming up with concepts, choreography, and costumes. It’s provided me with many opportunities, such as dancing at Mile High, winning state championships, going to workshops with renowned choreographers. It has taught me many important life skills: how to speak in public, how to present myself, how to fix a run in a tight.
And now that my dance friends and I am getting older, I am beginning to realize just how detrimental, if not orchestrated properly, dance can be.
For one, dance objectifies the body. Cheerleading, gymnastics, figure skating, diving, and dance are all sports centered around viewing the body as a piece of art. Don’t get me wrong–there is nothing I love more than watching the muscle tone of a ballerina as she glides into an arabesque, or the height of the flyer in a basket toss, or the complexity of a figure skater taking off for an axel. The body can do some really beautiful and artistic things. It becomes detrimental when we dump all of our humanly value into what our bodies look like. The goal of a dance team is for everyone to ‘look the same’ so one girl’s moves do not stand out, but, because it’s also about the attention, it’s also about finding ways to make yourself stand out. When auditioning for a professional team, girls will dye their hair or pick up a fake accent just so they can compete for that treasured “red head” or “oriental” slot. On my college dance team, we danced in front of 55,000 people in half tops. Since we could not technically stand out based on our dance moves, we had to find other ways: be the girl with the best six pack abs, the girl with the longest hair, the girl who out ran the buffalo, the girl who got hit by the ball. I was always known as “popper”, or the girl who could jump really high, and I remember one of my team mates saying to me, “I am going to have better jumps than you by the end of the season”. No, we are often not known by our brilliance, our creativity, our moral centers; we are known for how big we can poof our hair, how tan we can burn our skin, how outrageous we can make our smiles.
Because dance objectifies the body, image becomes the sole motivator for all actions. This is why eating disorders run so rampant in dancers. I remember sitting at a retreat, where everyone was sharing some kind of obstacle they had to overcome, and this former dancer admitting, “I couldn’t wear sweats to school until my senior year because I always felt required to be put together all the time”. This “obstacle” sounds pathetic, but it is a real struggle for dancers. As a dancer, you spend more time getting ready than you do actually performing. You are REALLY good at putting on fake eyelashes, pounds of eye shadow, and you know exactly where your blush needs to go. You can poof your hair, bouffant your hair, slick your hair back into a bun. Your costumes always have to have the most sparkles, be the most vibrant, have the most dramatic lines, because the “WOW” factor gives you prestige and makes you memorable, and the image of being put together alludes that your dance also will be put together (I recently worked back stage at a competition, and you could tell which teams would score well, and which would not, strictly based on how they prepared on the practice floor). And, when you are not in the performance venue, you still feel the need to keep up this same image of perfection. You need to wear stilettos, because those make your dancer-calves look nice. You need to wear fake eyelashes, because your inherited ones are not dramatic enough. You need to always appear bubbly, speak in Valley-girl type speak, “oh-em-gee” everything, because that is part of the ‘image’. Multiple of my dance friends checked themselves into counseling from panic attacks, stemming from issues of image: they feel this need to be perfect, and freak out when they realize this image is unrealistic and unattainable.
Dance costs you your identity. While I believe it is important to have an identity to latch onto at certain times in your life, there also becomes a time when latching onto that identity is detrimental. When you are lost and confused as a middle and high school student, having something to latch your identity onto is beneficial, because it gives you direction and purpose. After being in an existential crisis, my best friend recalls that, “most of my identity and the things I value came from high school”. But, then there comes a time when you are 24, 25, 26– that identifying yourself as just “the dancer” becomes detrimental, because it inhibits your other valuable traits. You forgot that you do have more to offer the world than just a pretty showcase. Top 3 most difficult obstacles I overcame was when I stopped dancing, and could no longer identify myself as “the dancer”. For so long, I was known as ‘popper’ that I had no idea who I was when I didn’t have that identifier any longer, and I spent a very long and very tumultuous time trying to re-establish myself, and my identity (of course, it was all worth it in the end).
Dance trains you to view everything as competition. This is certainly the detriment that haunts me the most. The girl with the highest tilt gets to be in front, the girl with the best turn section gets to be point, the girl with the best facials gets her own solo section, so, as a dancer, we are always competing for those spots. A little bit of friendly competition is never a bad thing, but can be unhealthy when it causes you to be a sore loser. For example, a few weeks ago, I struck out twice during my REC LEAGUE softball game. This should not have been a big deal, because I have never played softball before, so I should forgive myself for not being able to hit the ball (especially since, when I first started playing three seasons ago, I hit the ball every time). Except what actually happens is I get mad at myself, I snap at anyone who tries to give me a pep talk, and this bad attitude follows me into the next five games (of which, I still can’t hit the ball, I still continue to get mad at myself, I still continue to snap at everyone, and then no one wants me to be on their team next season).
And, you believe that you must always be the center of attention. People know when you walk into a room. You must always be tell the funniest joke, have the loudest laugh, be the prettiest at the bar. Everyone must always dote over your state championships and your award winning performances. Your parents must send out Christmas cards, plastered with your pictures, and everyone must always be talking about you. You are always competing for attention with your other dance friends, so social gatherings are often very loud. You are a diva, and it sometimes comes at the expense of others, and of yourself. This is a detriment I am constantly trying to work through, and constantly trying to remind myself that it is OK if I am not the center of attention; other people are allowed the spotlight too.
So how do we prevent these detriments? I certainly do not believe taking our daughters out of dance all together is necessary, because I do believe dance teaches many important life lessons (confidence, professionalism, dedication, work ethic amongst them). But, as coaches, teachers, and mentors, I think it’s important that we try to reverse these natural detriments as much as possible. It starts with modeling; our dancers pick up on our own behaviors, so if we are constantly undermining ourselves, making comments about our own looks, judging the appearances of those around us, they will start doing that themselves (even if its subconscious). I think it’s important to model imperfect appearances (for a 6 AM practice, I most certainly am NOT waking up at 4 AM to get full-faced-makeuped-ready). While the nature of the sport is to be aware of the body, I also think it’s important to avoid comments about the construction of the body. It’s ok to point out “your leg is bent on that turn” or “your thumb is out of place”, but can be potentially detrimental to say things like “you are looking really skinny” or “your butt is looking really big” because those comments can be internalized as objectifying. I think it’s important we give them opportunities to be successful, but also opportunities to fail, and coach them through that. We should promote healthy competition, but not competition where people get nasty and make comments like “I am going to make my toe touches better than yours”. It certainly is a fine line to walk, and I most definitely am not perfect at it.
But, I believe we must cultivate young women who exhibit the good qualities of dance, and sift out the bad so that these detrimental traits minimally follow the dancers into their later years.