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Naming Toxic Truths in the Dance World

2020 has been a year of reckoning on every level. It has exposed a lot of the pain, oppression and neglect that so many people have faced for their entire lives. Because the issues are so deeply rooted, we have to grab our shovels and start digging— digging into ourselves, into our governments, and into our communities.

So, in this spirit, I want to take a moment to dig into the dance community, and unpack the full truth of my dance experience. My upbringing as a dancer has offered me so much wonderful knowledge, but has also ingrained in me a pretty toxic mindset, which, in this time of isolation, has become more apparent. One of my most prominent habits is to blame myself for things that I cannot control, so by re-evaluating these past experiences and the institutions that created them, I hope that I can reclaim my power and heal. I also hope that other dancers with similar experiences are able to do the same.

Many of us use dance as a means to escape the hardships in our daily lives. Dance is incredibly powerful in this way, and part of why I love it so much. However, I have realized, especially in my earlier years of training, that dance leaders used this need to escape in order to justify a harsh separation between who we were in and out of the studio. I remember teachers, not just in ballet but in many other forms, employing this philosophy in their classrooms as a form of discipline. “Leave your issues at the door,” I remember one teacher saying, “You came here to dance, to work on your technique and artistry. Your baggage from the outside has no place in a dance studio.” This has had an immense effect on my ability to process emotions, especially in dance spaces. It came to a point where dance was no longer an escapist release for me, but a mechanism to further stifle my inner self. I was convinced that I had to enter class everyday with a sense of emotional ‘discipline,’ and that any distractions from the outside were only detrimental to my training. Ironically, these supposed outside distractions that I was experiencing and trying to banish, were actually coming from the inside. Looking back, the way some of my teachers spoke to us and treated us were the source of so much of my emotional turmoil. And because of this “leave it at the door” rule, they were able to avoid accountability for their abuse.

It wasn’t until very recently (maybe a year ago) that I began to understand how to bring my fullest, most authentic self into my practice— that I could bring anger and frustration into my tendus to discover a new sense of muscularity. That I could bring sadness and grief into my petit allegro to find more softness and a deeper shift weight in my transitions. That I could bring silliness and joy into my improvisation to let go of old tensions or habits. Our emotions are meant to be felt in the body, and our bodies are deeply impacted by our day-to-day interactions. To deny these experiences from entering our dance spaces is a disservice to our mental health, to our bodies, and ultimately to our training.

Another really overt and rigid separation that exists in Western dance training is that between the mind and body. When I hear the phrase “mind-body connection,” a lot of complicated feelings come up. On the most superficial level, taking any dance class— whether it’s ballet, modern, hip-hop, jazz, West African, or a fusion— is to train both the body and the mind to become stronger. Certainly, any kind of movement we do as humans requires both physical and mental skills. However, if we look deeper into Eurocentric dance training, we find this fundamental hierarchy that places the mind above the body, and this is an idea that has dominated the world of professional dance and dance education. From my very first years at the ballet barre as a child, I was taught that the body knows nothing, and that in ballet technique, it was the job of the mind to discipline, harness, and train the body to become “intelligent.” When people talk about the colonized body, this is what they mean. We were raised to treat our bodies like the European and U.S. colonists treated the indigenous people in every region that they invaded: the former being the enlightened, superior entity with the knowledge of excellence, and the latter being the uncivilized, naive entity that required this knowledge to thrive (even as I write this, I am realizing how the word ‘naive’ is derived from the word ‘native,’ which speaks to how racism and colonialism have embedded themselves in our language as well as our bodies. But that is a whole other can of worms).

As a young, passionate ballet student following this colonial script, I initially found a lot of satisfaction in it. My driven and goal-oriented personality really liked the idea that if I honed in and worked hard mentally, I would see tangible, physical results. And to its credit, ballet is a great teacher of patience and persistence, skills which I have taken with me as an adult. There came a severe tipping point in my training, though, right around puberty, where I felt like my body was failing me. At age 14, my feet grew out of proportion with my body, which made them interrupt the classical line of my leg that I was trying to achieve. For years, I got incessant comments from my teachers and peers about how awkward my feet looked, implying that I simply needed to point them harder. Then, about a year later, my body began a series of jarring and unpredictable growth spurts. In the span of one summer intensive, I surpassed both of my parents in height. As you can imagine, this really messed with my center of gravity, affecting every aspect of my technique. When teachers saw me struggling, they told me I just needed to “get stronger.” It felt like I was becoming worse the more I practiced, and on this line of colonial logic, I concluded that if my body wasn’t living up to the standard of excellence, my mind was to blame. This logic forms the basis for so much self-deprecation in the dance world, and to this day I struggle with weaponizing it on myself. Aspiring professional dancers demand so much of their bodies from the minute they start training, yet we are seldom taught how to appreciate them, how to give them love, or how to heal them from both physical and emotional traumas. Our bodies are miraculous, despite how mundane they can feel. The more we respect them, the more they will give back to us.

Also, we need to acknowledge what is even deemed ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ in Western dance is based on an arbitrary and exclusive set of body standards. My body— which is long and thin and abides by these standards in some ways, but is also brown-skinned and large, has flat feet and knobby knees, and rejects these standards in other ways— is beautiful in its entirety. I am often complimented or seen in a dance space solely for my European features, but to segregate between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts of a dancer is to invalidate their whole humanity.

Learning all of this (and unlearning my old emotional barriers) has been a valuable part of my growth, and I couldn’t have learned it any other way. But that doesn’t mean that we should continue to enforce these toxic norms. We can be better and do better for ourselves, for each other, and for the next generation of young dancers.

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