Life and Style Writer Emily Breeds, shares her experiences with pressurised dance classes and how they can cause problematic body confidence issues

English student. Writers' Bloc's Journal Editor and Redbrick’s Culture Editor.
Images by Pixabay - sobima

As second year approached, I was excited to take new opportunities this year. I began to think about joining a sports team, but quickly became anxious at the thought. My head was filled with worrying thoughts such as I won’t be as skinny or toned as the other girls. They’re all going to be better than me. I’m going to be left out or made fun of. Then I suddenly remembered I’d had the exact thoughts when I did dance classes. I realised how problematic my thoughts about my body image really were and began to wonder how they came about.

I put down the fact that I couldn’t jump as high or extend my legs as much to being too heavy

I have been dancing since I was two, meaning the seeds of looking and performing a certain way have been sown from the beginning. My housemate Lily said that she ended up hating ballet, as puberty made her butt and hips larger, but she was still encouraged to tuck her butt under in order to ‘look right’, despite this being uncomfortable. Similarly, I would start wondering what was wrong with my body when I couldn’t position myself in the right shapes. Whilst I loved dancing, I found that the older I got and the more my body changed, the view I had of myself became worse. I hit puberty pretty early, so when everyone else remained petite, I began to grow curvier. When everyone remained a size 6 or 8, I was the one of the only size 12s in the class. Despite being 5’3, I was taller than a lot of the girls, so I began to feel out of place. Combined with the fact that I wasn’t the best dancer, I began to become incredibly self-conscious. I put down the fact that I couldn’t jump as high or extend my legs as much to being too heavy. Realistically, I didn’t do as many classes as the other girls and wasn’t as serious about dance as them and didn’t have as much stamina or flexibility as them. But I put it down to weighing too much, and because of that I wasn’t enough. Looking back, I was extremely fit for someone my age. Yet I hated the fact that cellulite (which is completely normal) covered my abs. I hated my strangely-shaped thighs. I hated my acne and that my curly hair didn’t sleekly drop down my back like everyone else’s. I hated my body even though it was giving me strength and keeping me alive. I would actively avoid looking in the mirror, even though its aim was for us to improve our dancing and see where to move to next.

When our bodies do not perform in the way we expect them to, we try to push them into a certain shape, instead of accepting them as they are or realising our worth in other areas. Dance, especially ballet, is a beautiful art form. The emotions you can convey through the graceful movements of your body have been used again and again in other art forms such as sculpture and painting. But the focus is on the body. We find ourselves marvelling at dancers’ muscles. In fact, whilst leotards are designed for movement, they also show off every curve and contour, which can be uncomfortable if you do not have the ‘ideal’ dancer’s body type. Our bodies are responsible for movement, so when we cannot jump as high or stretch as far as we want to, we blame them. Other girls would openly hate their bodies and compare themselves to each other, so I also started behaving like this, engraining an awful mindset of self-hatred. Yet we should not blame ourselves. If there is any blame to place, it is on a society that gives us low self-worth and creates an unrealistic image for most people. Shockingly, according to a 2013 survey by GirlGuiding UK, one in five primary school age girls say they have been on a diet. If the pressures to look a certain way, entrenched at such a young age, are boiling away in the dance class environment, this can get very unhealthy.

If the pressures to look a certain way, entrenched at such a young age, are boiling away in the dance class environment, this can get very unhealthy

Yet are teachers to blame for these issues of body image and perfectionism as well? My classes were split into two or three rows, and it was obvious that the best, most serious dancers were placed at the front. This subtly pushed the narrative that I wasn’t good enough, no matter how hard I tried. I began to think again that maybe my body was the issue. Maybe I looked weird when I danced. Maybe I wasn’t smiley enough to be fully seen during shows. My teacher would encourage us to work even harder during warm ups after the Christmas holidays to burn off all the food we had consumed, as if doing press-ups and sit-ups wasn’t already hard enough. In order to be better at these hard exercises and look as skinny yet toned as the other girls, I started entering unhealthy dieting habits and rigorously exercising, and felt intense guilt when that slipped. I remember my teacher going along a line of us, telling us whether we had big or little feet, as that apparently affected our abilities to dance. This is not to say she was a bad teacher or horrible person. She always made sure we were performing the moves correctly but to the best of our abilities, and would always encourage us when we individually danced across the room. Most of my friends who did dance were not so lucky. A lot of them said they started dance classes in their childhood, but teachers would tell them they weren’t graceful enough (and therefore shouldn’t be taking classes), or they would be more spiteful than encouraging. After sitting in on my German exchange Saskia’s class for an hour, taught by the ‘Drachen’, who kept shouting at each of them for not being good enough, I knew that I would be put off dance for life with her as my teacher.

The narrative of improvement can be dangerous if it only adheres to certain body types and abilities

It is easy to blur the fine line between pushing and punishing yourself in dance. There is nothing wrong with improving your skills, especially when moves have to be performed a specific way. The feeling of developing a skill and feeling confident in your ability is wonderful. Without improvement we would not have world records, and watching dancers would be incredibly boring if they weren’t great. Similarly with sport, competitions wouldn’t be very fun to watch. This being said, it is harder to quantify the quality of dance when people have different dance styles and body types, and the narrative of improvement can be dangerous if it only adheres to certain body types and abilities. I was focusing more on living up to an ideal, rather than celebrating the happiness I got from dancing. If I was feeling like that about a hobby, then what of professional dancers? Are they doing it for enjoyment or because they are striving for perfection? As a society, we love to follow the narrative of always striving to be better, but we actually spend our lives chasing something constantly unreachable. Even if we did reach it, we just end up wanting more. For example, we set ourselves goal weights, thinking we will finally be happy with our bodies. But when we get there, we notice more flaws, so we set another goal weight. And so the cycle goes. However, the archetype of the ideal dancer is changing. Ballroom and Latin American Dance Society secretary Zoe, praised the fact that the focus in competitions is shifting away from the dancers’ body types (though smart appearance is still important) and towards their ability to perform the moves. In the first competition she went to this term, she noticed that some advanced couples who made the finals didn’t have what the media portrays as the ideal dancer’s body type, and there was a variety of body sizes amongst the dancers. This is a positive change, as it will hopefully encourage people to enjoy dancing and hone their skills rather than feeling as much pressure to fit a certain ideal.

Therefore, it is important to remember that no matter your ability or body type, dance to make yourself happy. Dance because it feels good. Dance for yourself, and hopefully the heavy pressures of society will begin to lift.