since when must I be skinny to be able to dance?

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Do me a favor and think of a female dancer. What kind of body does she have? Tall? Short? Curvy? Skinny? Slim? Muscular? If the image you conjured is one who is lean and toned with flat abs, then you as well as hundreds of thousands of people around the world, most likely possess the stereotype that dancers are slim people.

Most of you readers may probably know this, but just so you know, I’m a dancer. I started dancing since I was 17 during which I first did belly dancing for a year before joining my school’s dance team and did hip hop, street jazz and reggae (and probably about 5 lessons of contemporary dance). I did street dance til I was 21 before giving it up because of my ED and when I went to New York on my student exchange program at age 22, I picked up latin dance in which I did salsa and bachata and have been doing so ever since coming back to Singapore in January 2014. I’m doing much more salsa and bachata now though I attend street jazz open classes every now and then, have tried my hand in a lyrical jazz class and am considering going back to belly dancing lessons as well because I miss it.

A strong reason behind why I stopped dancing when I was 21 was because I hated the way my body looked when I danced. I’m not a slim dancer. I’m muscular/curvy. A lot of dancers I’ve come across, be it in person or on screen, are pretty slim, especially contemporary dancers, and I was jealous of them. They had slim or skinny bodies which gave no doubt gave them an advantage because dance requires you to be fast, strong and light on your feet. Some routines – though this may usually apply for stage performances –  require the men to lift the girls and being petite is an added advantage because it makes for easier lifting. Ballet dancers are perhaps the most extreme. The ones we always see are usually pretty thin and you always hear stories of bigger and/or muscular ballet dancers being asked by their dance directors to lose weight and/or being rejected because they weren’t willowy enough. I know that curvy/muscular female ballet dancers exist, but rarely do we hear about them do we? Rarely do we all see curvy pole dancers too, do we? The perception of a pole dancer is a woman who is more muscular than skinny but lean and toned at the same time. Not one who is curvier.

Street jazz was my preferred style. Think of the dance routines you see on music videos by Britney and Christina. Its sharp, its fast, its sexy and its spicy. However, I felt my body was too big for that type of dancing. In the mirror I looked big and lumbery. I felt like I took up too much space and my movements  whereas the other dancers’ movements looked swift & razor sharp in comparison. Asian girls do tend to be smaller than their Western counterparts and since many of the female dancers I come across are Asian & I just so happend to be an exception, this just made me want to lose weight even more. Some girls wore clothing that showed off their lithe figure. Cropped tops. Tight pants. The works. On MTV and dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance, I never once saw a curvy female dancer like myself, unless you count the ones with the big butts dancing next to Nicki Minaj. But all in all, most dancers I came across are pretty slim and fit. I would have thought that the many hours of street dancing I put in would have made me lose weight but apparently it didnt because my restricting and binging cycle wasn’t quite resolved. Nevertheless, one thing was for sure to me: many dancers (at least for the types of dance that I do) have slim figures and this made me feel incredibly conscious of my own body to the point that I concluded that my body just wasn’t good enough to be a dancer’s body. I decided that my body was wrong. Sometimes for performances, dancers are required to wear costumes that showed their bellies and I always dreaded that because I knew I’d be the only girl without the flat tummy. I didn’t think a wobbly belly would look very good on stage compared to my counterparts. Most dancers I saw had flat abs, toned arms and slim calves. I had none of those.

Having said that, its not true that all dancers are thin. I’ve come across dancers who are curvy.  They’re curvier girls like me but I didn’t see many. I’ve seen YouTube videos of other people dancing and they’re not skinny themselves. They have bodies of all shapes and sizes. Curvy, muscular, big buts or ample chests etc. My belly dance teacher was plus size but she belly danced like a queen. In salsa and bachata, I meet some female dancers who are bigger than me but they’re still dancing. But sometimes I experience this strange pressure to lose weight so that I will have the stereotyped “dancer’s” body because it makes for easier dancing, especially in salsa where the men have to at times, guide and/or dip the woman”. I’ve heard some male dancers tell me that they find it easier to lead a woman who “isn’t so big” because if she is, she’s slightly harder to lead.

It made me think about my own body and how men find it easy to lead on the floor. Were the men using a lot of force to try and guide me to a certain position as compared to girls who were lighter than me? Logically speaking, girls skinner than me will be easier to guide because they’re lighter. When I was performing bachata in New York, I was afraid of letting my partner lift me because I was afraid that I might be too heavy. I even thought I could hear him grunting with effort to carry me. It felt…not good.

I love dancing, but sometimes, I feel the pressure to diet and lose weight so that:

  • I’d look more lithe, graceful and supple on the dance floor
  • Men will find it easier to lead me and lift me, especially for salsa
  • I wouldn’t feel like a giant lumbering on the dance floor by taking up more space.

Shows like Black Swan, the Step Up franchise, So You Think You Can Dance and even music videos reinforce the desirability and idealization of having a thin body to dance in and such can be a draining and damaging and overwhelming notion because dancers are required to look at themselves in the mirror, more so for women who tend to be more critical of their bodies. Body diversity is (very) slowly making its way into mainstream media but I think body diversity still isn’t a celebrated aspect in the dance scene. I don’t see why I’m being judged on my ability to dance because of my body shape. Dance should be more about technique, about spirit of the dancer, his or her stage presence and connection to the audience, the story of the choreography and the passion than about my body shape. Just because I’m bigger than the “stereotypical” dancer doesn’t mean she’s better than me. Hell I’m curvier than many female Asian dancers here in Singapore but I look sexier dancing bachata than some of dancers because they can’t do body waves and hip gyrations like I can thanks to my belly dancing and reggae background. Men have complimented me on my bachata and have told me I look good okay so don’t give me that “oh you can’t dance because you’re not skinny enough” crap.

Yeah maybe I don’t have a skinny waist, small arms and skinny calves but that doesn’t make me less of a dancer. Part of me still does wish I can have a slimmer body (hey I’m human after all) but the thing is, I’ve spent a lifetime hating my body and I really don’t need anybody giving me another reason to hate dance, or my body even more for that matter by making me feel like I can’t engage in my love for dance because of my body shape. I work out and continue engaging in my intuitive eating (for ED recovery) for more my health and sanity than to achieve a skinny body and to me that’s good enough. I dance because I feel free when I do so. I enter a different world. I feel like I’m telling a story, like I’m expressing myself. I want people to look at me and say “wow that girl can dance her technique/style is amazing and she has such amazing stage presence” instead of saying “wow that girl can dance even though she’s not skinny”. I know that I can never achieve a certain body shape because of genetics but honestly its just so daft of you to expect me to lose weight to be skinny as minnie just so I can dance.

Here are some videos for you to watch about big girls challenging dance stereotypes.

“Obviously i’m a bigger lady and i’m just hoping that people see that i’m good at what i do”

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misty-copeland

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And yes, that’s me with my choreographer, Martin Gonzalez of Alma latina Mexico 😀 I performed a bachata routine on stage last month for the Singapore International Latin Festival andwearing a body suit was slightly nerve wrecking because I was self-conscious about my body shape and calves from the front view but stage fright made me forget those body woes.

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