After a life of intense dance training, I allowed myself a year long grieving process, in which I actively rejected anyone else's suggestions for how my body should move. Why? Because the most fundamental and meaningful aspect of dance was largely ignored in my training: my relationship with my body. This year gave me the time to reflect on my dance training thus far, and to share those reflections with you, here.
Through the vast majority of my time as a dance student, rather than being challenged to acknowledge the beauty, the strength, or the resilience of my dancing body, I was asked to punish my body for what it could not do. I was largely encouraged to treat my body as a disobedient child, to force it to do what it did not want in the name of discipline, in the name of perfection.
I was indoctrinated. I believed that my hard work would allow my body to overcome its limitations. I believed that without the pain, the suffering, the hunger, the exhaustion, my body would never complete the desperate process of change that I was embarked on.
Most of my dance training ignored any kind of listening and understanding process with the body. Thankfully, there were teachers and students who had survived the culture of the dance community well enough to find a place within it to teach me to hear the impulses within my own body, and to act on them. Many of these teachers and classes were frowned upon by other faculty as 'not real dance'... something that was sidetracking me from the "real" work of increasing the range of my développés.
But something important happened in those rare moments of deep listening and connection with my body. Through the process of struggling to hear my own impulses, I began to get messages from my body that I did not realize were there. Grief, pain, loss, joy, excitement, bliss... they all showed up. I began to ask myself where they had come from, what they meant and why the fact that dance can be a catalyst for these messages was not more of a focus for the dance community I was involved in.
Everywhere I turned, I began to notice more and more that the culture of much of the western dance world was employed in actively ignoring this fact. Messages sent from the body through the act of dance, whether through a painful, strained ankle, or a bout of "irrational" emotionality were seen as highly inconvenient to the act of performance. The messages from my body were not tools to be employed, but rather outbursts to be contained and disposed of later.
I want to add here, that as my vision widened, I recognized that there were many spaces within the dance world in which these issues had been addressed or did not exist to begin with. Dance is not Western Dance alone, and I am grateful for that fact. However, many young women and men do enter the dance world through either ballet, modern or jazz techniques (whatever the fidelity to the original intentions of these techniques, in the United States today these are the techniques that are largely facilitating the culture I've described thus far).
I've always been a contrarian. It became harder and harder for me to continue to ignore my body in the service of capital D, Dance. In my last year of college I isolated myself in a dance studio and I listened deeply. I challenged myself to not take even one step that felt inauthentic. I recognized the impulses that came from shame and self hatred, and those that came from compassion and love for my own body. The latter choices felt too good to ignore.
In those moments alone with myself, I learned more about dance then in over a decade of prior dance training. I became aware of what a transgression it had been to have started dance training in an environment that actively shamed the body and worked to homogenize it. It had set me back in my ability to fully express with the instrument of my body. And yet I was grateful that somehow, within the confines of the dance world I was beginning to push against, I had still come upon this discovery. My body hadn't given up on me.
I wonder what the world would be like if every little girl who yearned to be a ballerina, was taught to cherish the impulse to move that her body had gifted to her? What if, instead of imposing a set of rigid, antiquated movements onto young girls' bodies, we asked them to show us what their bodies' dance looked like? What would we see? What fires are extinguished by teaching young ones that they must punish their bodies if they wish to dance?