Photo by Richard Lovrich
Dance studios are a special beast in the educational arena. We teach and, in the best cases, provide mentorship and positive role modeling. However, it is an environment that, by design, relies heavily on the physical form.
In dance, physical form does not refer solely to a person’s body shape. In the case of technique instruction, this also encompasses the shapes and alignment needed to safely and properly execute the art form. This often means dancers are surrounded by mirrors and asked to wear clothing that allows the instructor to see whether movements are being performed correctly and safely. When taking a choreography class, where formations (the placement of dancers in relation to one another) are important or lifts are to be performed, this may mean that “physical form,” taking the definition of body size and strength, is likely a driver as to who is placed where, who is lifted, etc.
In classes dedicated to teaching children, this may be the first time their attention is outwardly drawn to how their body is different from that of another. In pre-teens and teens, the pressures they already feel from media and their peers can be a source of body image anxiety in a dance class. Adults often come in with years of outside pressure, body changes due to age or childbearing, ideas about “self” formed by their adult experiences in relationships and more. Dance class can give rise to a powerful shift in confidence and, in some instances, may exacerbate existing insecurities about body image.
How we use our words can have a great impact on whether the shift in confidence in all classes is positive or negative. Although the focus for the remainder of this piece is on youth dance instruction, it’s also applicable to adults.
In youth classes, instructors often speak in terms that seem visually relatable for children like “Suck in your tummy!” or another directive that carries a similar inference that we are asking our young dancers to “make their stomachs look smaller.”
As dance educators we know this is not the intent, but sometimes instructors forget the power of their words. Eager for quick results, this approach is a lost opportunity to educate young dancers about anatomy.
This pervasive language can contribute toward the degradation of self-image. I encourage dance instructors to review their directives as they relate to the body. If you discover that some of the language you use might benefit from rewording, find a way to ask for the same outcome by using a more tangible and relevant set of directives based on anatomy—mainly bone structure and muscle engagement. Perhaps you won’t say “engage your psoas” to your youngest, newest dancers, but you can say something like:
Imagine that your belly button wants to tell your back a secret. It has to whisper, so it needs to get as close as it can!
Let’s all whisper something. Did your back hear you whisper? It did?! Excellent!
Then proceed by playing soft music and speaking softly to keep their minds on this fun imagery throughout the lesson. Yes, it takes more time, but it also makes the concept of core engagement fun and takes the size of a dancer’s “tummy” out of the conversation. It also gets a result that is truer to what we are seeking, which core engagement.
Terms like “lats,” “psoas,” “glutes,” “hip flexors,” “external or internal hip rotation” and “pelvic floor” are often missing in our instruction and can be the most troublesome when replaced with less informed phrasing, as their improper engagement can have an aesthetic impact that lends itself to highlighting sensitive body image. Teaching our young dancers about anatomy empowers them to relate to dance in a healthier, more informed way. It provides them with tangible tools to achieve results on a level playing field as that of their peers. This not only helps build confidence, but creates stronger, safer dancers.
It’s totally okay to look at our teaching habits and realize there’s room for change. It’s also okay to admit that we have room to learn more about anatomy. For years I, too, used to say “pull in your tummy!”
There are numerous resources available to dance instructors to help steer a shift in language. One that I keep in my dance bag is “Dance Anatomy” by Jacqui Haas. Two others that I find informative and relevant are by Eric Franklin, titled “Conditioning for Dance” and “Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance.” We can have an important impact on the confidence of our young dancers, their relationship with dance, and their love of sticking with it when we are sensitive to body image.