Body Talk: How Dancers "Should" Look

As I stood in line outside Boston’s Hyatt Regency hotel with hundreds of other people, my fleece jacket unequipped to handle the steady drizzle that the morning sky deposited on New England on May 28, 2009, I kept asking myself how I had been motivated to get out of bed at 4 a.m. and join the mob of dancers and wannabes auditioning for the sixth season of “So You Think You Can Dance.”

It was something I never thought I would do, or even want to do, but I had been encouraged by two of my dance teachers – one of whom drove me there at 6 a.m., the other of whom waited in line with me and also auditioned herself – and I decided, with a television debut and job opportunities as potential rewards, that I might as well break out of my shell and have a new experience.

Two exhausting days later, I proudly put that experience under my belt and almost forgot about it until four months later, when I watched my fifteen minutes of fame on television from the comforts of my own college dormitory. I was traveling the next day – for a dance gig, no less – so I didn’t get to read any reactions from my debut TV appearance until I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Maryland, where I encountered, among other things, the following quotations from amateur blogs and professional publications alike:

“Seriously, it's like he's tapping in a pair of canoes with hubcaps nailed to the bottom. I like that he taps to hip hop, but Ryan lacks the ‘surprisingly graceful tall guy’ thing.”

“Adorable 18-year-old Ryan Casey didn't go to Vegas, which is pure discrimination in my book. It has nothing to do with gender or race or sexual preference, he's just 6'8''. So basically, he's a walking freak of nature. But the dude can tap like crazy, the only problem is that he has way too much body and can't control it all at once, so his hands flail about as if independent from his body.”

“… His upper body looked like the product of a mating session between an accountant and one of those evil trees from The Wizard of Oz.”

I was not so much offended – I went on that show, after all, with complete confidence in my ability and my unique quality of movement, not simply the misplaced confidence of those people who have been deluded into thinking that they possess some kind of talent that the sane among us recognize is absent – as I was dismayed at the ignorance of these writers and viewers (Dare I deign to call them critics?). Since when did my failure to meet what we might call the standard, or stereotype of The Dancer make me a “freak of nature”? How is it possible to have “too much body”?

I am not ashamed to admit that controlling my limbs, and learning to use them in an effective and artistic way (The Boston Globe referred to me as “adorably floppy” this summer in a rag doll duet choreographed by Michelle Dorrance) has long been, and continues to be, a challenge I encounter as a dancer. But it is not so much a challenge to be conquered – in the sense that I should have my limbs amputated; or I should find a different profession; or, as a pair of self-proclaimed reviewers smarmily suggested in one of their YouTube videos, I should take a ride in the clothes dryer and shrink myself – but rather, one to be met and worked on so that, as in Dorrance’s “The Rag,” my physique becomes a commodity rather than a hindrance – a goal I worked hard at in my years of training at The Dance Inn.

During the episode in which I was featured, the show played back, in slow motion, a portion of my solo, to point out the few seconds in which my arms had flailed during a step. It was as if to say, See? This is wrong. This is not what a dancer should look like. Indeed, it goes without saying that a show as universally popular as SYTYCD determines, unfortunately, or at least plays a large role in determining, what dance is and what it looks like. It presents certain dancers and choreographers and styles and themes, and, broadcasting them nationally, presents them as what is current, popular and cool in the dance world.

True dancers may recognize that this depiction of Dance and Dancers is inaccurate, glamorized, exaggerated, etc. When asked whether or not they watch the show regularly, some dancers respond, “Of course; I’m a dancer!” And others will say, “Of course not; I’m a dancer!” But the public does not know. The public will believe that dance is as it appears on SYTYCD, just as an actual trial mimics what they see on legal dramas and crime programs. Those are the people who come up to me after performances and ask if I have been tested for Marfan Syndrome, or tell me that when I stepped onstage, they didn’t think I would be able to dance, because my height “just didn’t seem like it would work.”

To be fair, and not to spend an undue amount of time harping on the misrepresentation of dance on SYTYCD (which the New York Times recently discussed), this narrow-minded, almost dictatorial depiction of what a Dancer should look like runs rampant in dance studios and classes. The tried and true setup of any dance class places students in front of a mirror, which for many becomes a tool not just for telling them if they are doing the steps right, but if they look too skinny or too fat, pretty or ugly, attractive or not. (One might think of Plath’s famous mirror stating mildly, “I am not cruel, only truthful.”)
While studying this summer with Billy Siegenfeld, Artistic Director of Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, he handed out a diagram from Teaching Young Dancers Muscular Coordination in Classical Ballet (1975), by Joan Lawson (see right ------>).

This diagram clearly claims to dictate what a Dancer should look like. It asserts that a Dancer’s body should and must ultimately be different than the body of a normal person in very specific ways.

The first flaw to this idea is, as I said, that it projects a very narrow conception of what a dancer is. A tap dancer does not strive to make their body look like that. Nor, I imagine, does an African dancer. Nor a salsa dancer. Nor a line dancer. Despite being a book aimed toward ballet dancers, it presumptuously (and rather arrogantly, I think) seems to presume that a ballet dancer is a Dancer and, transitively, ballet is Dance. This is not so.

Think, for a moment, of the last wedding you attended – or, really, any wedding you’ve attended. Think of several, if you can. Typically, when people make their way onto the dance floor, there are a few who stand out. Some do, surely, because they resemble Elaine on Seinfeld doing the little kicks, but when your eye is drawn to someone and you find that you enjoy watching them, why is that? It not likely because they have great turnout, or they are kicking their face, or they have a nice arabesque: it’s because you like the way they move. Whether or not they have had any kind of formal dance instruction doesn’t matter. They have a quality of movement that is genuine and fitting and appealing, and they are dancing.

Can’t they be called dancers, too? Well, yes. But, according to Lawson, they are not Dancers.

I have a friend currently studying in the esteemed dance program at Oklahoma City University who was recently told by the department, not for the first time, that she needs to lose weight in order to be at a certain weight that the department requires. If she fails to do so, expulsion from the program would not be out of the question. I find this disgusting.

Look, as another example, at Bob Fosse. It is well-known that he wore a hat because he didn’t like his baldness – a trait that became a trademark of his dancers. He wore gloves because he didn’t like how his hands looked. Another signature Fosse trait. His style capitalizes on the inverse of many balletic principles: a pigeon-toed stance, bent arms, butt sticking out, cocked wrists. He created a technique that rejects so many long-held, deeply inculcated beliefs about what dance is supposed to look like, and the dance world continues to cherish him and his legacy.
What I’m ultimately getting at, via my hodgepodge of anecdotes and examples, is that the conception of a dancer ought to change. We should get rid of the pretentious idea of a Dancer that is governed too much by balletic principles that, while important, are not the cynosure of all dance philosophy, technique or education, as many people would have us believe. We should look beyond, or at least look critically and carefully, at the image of a dancer that is presented on television via programming like SYTYCD. We should focus less on the idea of what we feel a dancer is supposed to look like, and be more open to the notion that anybody can dance and be a dancer (Whatever happened to the proverb, “If you can walk, you can dance”?).

What do you think?

Is society/media unrealistically, or unfairly, portraying what dancers should look like?

How can dance educators address some of the negative effects of these depictions?

How can we help change the ways in which the image of the Dancer is presented?

Please share your thoughts, comments and ideas below!


k said...

Ryan I love that you are digging into uncomfortable territory with this piece. You are asking great questions and I have told several students this week that they should read this. Any body can and really should dance.

Anne said...

And thank goodness that any body can and should dance. It's fun. It's expressive. It's helps each of us understand better the physical shell in which we lives.

I love watching dances of various sizes and shapes for the joy of seeing how different people use their bodies. It makes me feel more comfortable in my own body, and it tickles my sense of wonder to see the whole of a range of creativity and possibility. Thank you for this fabulous piece, Ryan! I'm looking forward to seeing you dance.


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