Your Words and Shaping Healthy Dancers

My relationship to my body has been, like most women – let alone dancers, quite a journey.

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Heather Vaughan-Southard teaching a master class at Dance in the Annex. Photography by Tim Motley

My body, when training as a young dancer, seemed to be a determining factor of what I should do with my career and dance interests rather than a celebration of what I can do and how that joy could inform my path.

At 5’2” and weight ranging as a teen at 115 pounds to an adult at 135 (and up), I was first made aware of the disadvantage of my height, then the roundness and over-development of muscles (I had some gymnastic training as a youngster), then gently pushed to generally lose weight, and ultimately try to fit the mold of whatever company for which I thought, or someone thought, I might be a candidate.

Now, as an adult, I still carry the “shame” of my body not living up to the ideal image but my attitude is changing. I still hear the hurtful words from instructors 15 or 20 years ago but I am starting to be able to see the criticisms don’t still apply. Even if they do, it is up to me to determine how much control they have in my life and practices. I finally feel ready to take care of myself and to make choices that are good for me and not just my career. What might have happened if I felt this way 15 years ago?

My role in dance has shifted, it’s true. I am not auditioning anymore. My role in life has changed as well, I am mom to two young kids. My relationship to my body is a current focus whereas in the past the image of my body had been a focus first, with somatics coming second. Over the last year I have lost the residual weight from carrying children and have tried new strategies for movement- running and most recently, Bikram yoga. By reinvesting in my own health – physically, mentally, socially – my consciousness of the plight of young people, particularly young dancers, is heightened.

Setting the Example

In training young dancers, I use the health and wellness of my body and spirit to speak to young women and young men about their bodies. I am honest about my challenges but also my strengths. I give examples of how I overcame challenges or how I continue to work on them. I use this as a way to get them thinking about their own bodies- limitations and strengths- and maybe as a way for them to identify with me as a person as well as a dancer.

I don’t specifically share the harsh criticisms I have endured. When I have heard instructors do this, I felt it became an odd opportunity to “brag” about their perseverance and claim to fame in “who” had doled out the abuse. I gained nothing from the experience except a further concern that I may not measure up or worse, the fact that I may not want to measure up if that is the reality and what might that say about my “passion” for dance.

Choosing Words Carefully

In class, I choose to verbalize the benefits and outcomes of commitment to movement throughout class and throughout the course instead of shaming some students for not doing the work. As dancers, most of us have felt the judgement of a lifted eyebrow or curl of the lips as an instructor’s eyes scan up and down. We have heard the scarring lines that last a lifetime- things like “you fed it, you lift it” or “you’ll never be able to lift a fly”.

My theory, though, is that some students just simply aren’t ready to do the work required – emotionally, socially, technically, physically.

We, as a class, try to focus on the positive and leave the responsibility of choosing “readiness” to each student, with guidance, of course. Soon, the students want to feel the reward, see the reward, and it is contagious. Class engagement improves, the progress of the entire class improves, the program improves- as does empowerment and ownership.

I am not harsh when I explain to a student that they don’t seem ready, I just state the obvious as neutrally as possible – no judgement, no snark. My job is to teach, not belittle.

It can be hard approach to maintain at times, especially when my patience is low and their attitudes are high or when I feel they are selling themselves short. Ultimately though, decision must be theirs. I will not follow them through life, they have to make the decision to do the work.

In Practice

For example, in one middle school elective class consisting of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, only a handful were dedicated to all portions of class- conditioning, warm-up, progressions, phrases, as well as strategies for tracking personal growth in a written portfolio (next year this will include a digital portfolio).

Instead of harping on students for not committing fully, it soon became very obvious that some students were gaining strength and flexibility and others were not. Students were able to feel the difference in themselves and see it in others. They were rewarded with more advanced movement vocabulary that seemed more “interesting” to those that had been less committed- things such as more sustained balances, multiple turns, more risky inversions, and best of all, deeper understanding that led to deeper conversations.

Before long, those that had been less productive started asking why selected students were given harder material, to which I was able to reply, “their hard work has paid off and they are ready for more. I think you could be ready, too, if you reconsider this portion of class. What do you think?”

Not only have we encouraged dancers to commit to the full class experience, we are also promoting healthy bodies through engagement – something we can actually control.

Setting the Tone

Do the snarky comments and dirty looks elicit results? Sure, in the short term. But they can also scar for the long term.

Just knowing that “we all” share the baggage, isn’t comforting to me.

While it is part of the tradition of dance, I don’t think it has to be part of the future of it, particularly when it means ultimately driving dancers away from dance. They may not leave now or in the next few years, but it is likely that they will at some point and when they do, they may not even return to watch dance.

Let’s be clear also, that we are honest in what should be discussed versus what is discussed.

Don’t use body image as an excuse not to have more challenging conversations relating to skill, technique, or your perception of whether or not a dancer will find success.

Being mean and being honest don’t have to be the same thing.

Choose your approach, carefully, you may never know the lasting impact of your words on one’s spirit.

More Dance Advantage reading on health and wellness:

How are healthy dancers developed in your class?

Heather Vaughan-Southard
Heather Vaughan-Southward specializes in connection and community building. She offers project-based learning in K-12 and healthcare contexts, pedagogy consultation, and creative-self-care experiences. Heather formerly directed dance programs in Higher Education and K-12 settings and danced professionally in Chicago, NYC, Los Angeles, and through-out Michigan. She represents Dance for the Michigan Arts Education Instruction and Assessment project (MAEIA), serves as a columnist for Dance Advantage, authors the blog EducatingDancers, and was invited to the Editorial Board of the Journal of Dance Education. She is a national conference presenter in the fields of dance and movement pedagogy and is completing a comprehensive pilates certification through the McEntire School. Heather currently serves as Director of Health and Education Services for Happendance, Inc., a non-profit dance organization based in Michigan. Heather is married to author Scott D. Southard and has two children who seem to be in perpetual motion.
Heather Vaughan-Southard

Comments

  1. Thank you, Heather! I’m having trouble with the links to the supplementary articles, FYI. So much of what you say here resonates with me and is so quotable that it makes me salivate. It’s so important for instructors to understand the difference between being healthy and being thin…this article is a good place to start!

    • Heather says:

      Thanks, Lauren. Sorry I missed your comment until now. Thanks for your kind words. I STILL am struck by how many dancers experience “dance-trauma”.

  2. Thanks for writing this! Body image is a huge concern for dancers, both male and female. There is always great pressure to look a certain way, be a certain weight and fit in. Educators as role models need to be careful what they say to encourage healthy mental, emotional and physical wellness. Great tips!

    • Heather says:

      Thank you! YES- male and female-Yet another aspect that is commonly misunderstood or at least over-looked.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights! We have a great opportunity to change our tradition so that belittling comments are NOT a part of dance training and I think we have an obligation to future dancers to do the very best that we can. I especially appreciated your pointing out that sharing what has been said to you is really just a dressed-up way of bragging. I would love to see more articles showing how different teachers manage honestly without meanness.

    • Heather says:

      Obligation- yes. I am hopeful that many ideas and traditions held in dance are being reconsidered and updated in favor of health, wellness, innovation, and positive connection. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Christine H. says:

    After reading your article I found myself wishing you could be my daughter’s teacher. She is an amazing dancer. She has won many competitions, was featured in a popular dance magazine and has booked many jobs in Hollywood. Until puberty. Then, her tiny little 4’11” frame blossomed into a tiny little woman’s body and she suddenly had hips and other things that stood out more than her peers. She HATED seeing herself in the mirror during dance class, so she quit. Hollywood, dance competitions, dance clothing lines tells her that she’s too this or too that or not enough of this or not enough of that. Her close dance friends turned on her as she could no longer manage some of the more difficult flexibility moves. Coupled with all that she was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition that makes keeping her weight down so difficult. But, she is still an amazing dancer. It is so so sad that dance is only appreciated by people if the dancer fits some stereotype. Her choreographer has taken her under his wing and made her his assistant and now at 15 she is teaching private lessons and helping to do choreography but it isn’t that same as performing. I wish she could have been in your classes during this difficult time because just maybe she would have been able to overcome the labels and the scorn of not being stick thin and super flexible. Thank you for sharing this. There are many dancers out there who need positive role models like you!!

    • Heather says:

      Christine,
      I am so sorry that I have only just now seen your comment! Thank you for your kind words.
      No- assisting, teaching, and creating are not the same. The good news is, nothing is final, AND the work she is doing now will help her craft an environment in which she CAN still perform. When you do the creating, you get to make the decisions of where, when, who, and whom the work is for. Perhaps this will be a catalyst for her to help change the landscape of dance.

  5. Heather, this information is SO necessary and teachers like you are making changes. Thank you for sharing this. My experience and what I hear from the dancers I work with is that teachers make this comments about body or musculature and then provide no guidance as to how to achieve the desired aesthetic or say some simple statement like “eat less cake”. How can they think something healthy can come from that? Or do they just think the dance world cannot be a healthy one?

    Anyway, glad to see your speaking up as a change maker in this area. It’s one of my goals through my coaching programs for dancers at thewholedancer.com and I’m always thrilled to see more positive messages coming to light!!

    Thank you and keep doing what you’re doing!