A dancers body should look like a human body!
Dance is a risky area for the development of self-image issues. However, this means that there is an opportunity for dance coaches out there, to make a difference and influence development of a healthy body image.
Through my studies I was fortunate to learn about effective ways to instruct pupils, so that they developed a healthy self-image as well as their sporting skills.
Unfortunately I have not seen this trickle down to grass roots coaching (well, not systematically through coaching courses and the like), but hope that it will soon be on the agenda.
Often we associate ‘beautiful dancers’ (particularly female ones) with a slender, streamlined body, however I have seen many ‘beautiful dancers’ of all shapes and sizes.
This is because becoming a good dancer is about achieving mastery over one’s own body and this is achieved through development of strength relative to one’s own body composition.
Coaches need to be careful about what they are saying about their dancers’ bodies when teaching and giving feedback.
Here are some suggestions:
Instead of: Pull your tummy in!
Try: Pull your belly button in to protect your back!
Instead of: Your legs look heavy!
Try: your legs seem heavy when you’re doing your elevations. Aim for more height!
Instead of: Pull your bottom in!
Try: tuck your tail under, to get more extension at the front of your hips
(Obviously you will need to change it for the age group you are teaching, but I hope the above is clear as to what type of talk we are trying to avoid)
This type of talk also applies to costuming. Design functional costumes for your pupils, so that they can dance without worrying that they will come out of their costume. Design age-appropriate costumes. Think about what your costume is communicating about the dance.
When measuring dancers for costumes, don’t show them or anyone else their measurements – this facilitates and condones comparisons that are not useful to the dancers’ self image nor the purpose for which you are measuring (to give each dancer a costume that fits them well).
Avoid comments like “we need to make Jody’s costume bigger here” or “Riley is tiny!” The comment about Jody is only useful in the mind of the seamstress who is trying to make the costume fit Jody. If you must comment, how about saying “she’ll need more room to move in this part of the leotard” – this makes it about the performance of the dance, not what they looks like or what size they are. The comment about Riley suggests, although not overtly, that to be tiny is a desired physical attribute, and it is not healthy to condone this.
When talking about dance and dancers (because, let’s admit it, we are all expert arm-chair critics!), avoid comments like, “she’s good for a big girl” – save your breath and leave out the last 4 words. If she’s good, she’s good. She has achieved physical mastery over her own body to achieve beautiful, entertaining and engaging movement.
As a coach, our biggest mistake is assuming that a dancer has limitations because of their size. He/she is not ‘too big to get off the floor gracefully’, he/she simply needs to develop more leg and core strength, just as the smaller dancer needs to develop more strength to propel and control their own body through time and space.
Lastly (for now), is another area where we can get caught out making comments about body size and weight that our dancers can take to heart – partnering and lifts. As coaches we know we need to partner dancers so that they are safe when dancing with one another and taking the weight of another dancer. We instinctively would not put one of our larger dancers with one of our smaller dancers.
I always match dancers for height as this is a good indicator of similarly matched strength in most cases. Rather than assuming the ‘heavier set dancer’ (if there is one), will need to be the lifter and not the lifted (or the catcher rather than the caught), I give the dancers an opportunity to try both options. If there is not a clear preference I then make the call as the coach by saying something to the effect of “it looks more effortless/in control when Jaime lifts Corey so let’s keep it that way“. If your dancer is saying “no, I don’t want to be lifted, I’m too heavy for him/her“, I will usually say something short like “well, lifting is about how well you can control your own body when lifted and how strong the lifter is, and we don’t know until we try”, and then move on quickly rather than initiating a debate.
In closing, as a dance coach/instructor/teacher we have a responsibility to take care of not only our dancers’ physical health but their mental health. This makes for a longer and more enjoyable dance career!
Here’s to focusing on what our amazing dancers bodies can DO!