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Youth Body Image in Dance

Dance studios are a special beast in the educational arena. We teach and, in the best cases, also provide mentorship and positive role modeling. However, we do so in an environment that is known as relying heavily on the physical form. Physical form, in dance, does not solely refer to a person’s body shape. In the case of technique instruction, this also encompasses the proper and safe shapes and alignment needed to execute the art form. This often means dancers are surrounded by mirrors and asked to wear clothing that allows the instructor 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, and more. The circumstances of each of these class types can give rise to a shift in confidence and can, in some instances, exacerbate existing insecurities about body image. In classes dedicated to teaching children, this may be the first time their attention is drawn to how their body is different from that of another. When teaching 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. How we use our words can have a great impact on whether the shift in confidence in classes is positive or negative. While the advice stated here is applicable to adult dance instruction, the context of their body image and how we can provide a safe, encouraging space for them will be presented at another time. 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 and, in an attempt to obtain a quick result, lose an opportunity to educate young dancers about anatomy. Because this pervasive language can cause or contribute to 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 ok to look at our teaching habits and realize there’s room for change. It’s also ok to admit that you have room to learn more about anatomy. For years I, too, use to say “pull in your tummy!” After several injuries, wherein I learned more about my body, I simply changed how I talked about the body. There are several 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.

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