Dialogue celebrates bodies marginalized in dance world

Walking, talking, thinking…there’s virtually no everyday activity that doesn’t rely on the body to perform. For dancers, besides an indispensable part of daily experiences, the body is also the essential medium for their artistic expression. Last Thursday, April 3, a dialogue was held among Vassar’s student dancers to explore the issue of body image. 40 to 50 people participated in the conversation and exchanged their experiences in the art of dancing.

The workshop started out with a personal testimony given by one of the organizers, Oriana Catton ’17 about her experiences as a dancer, particularly about how her various identities include body image, gender and ethnicity. Participants then broke up into smaller groups for exercises including group discussion, experience exchange and poster creation. Both at the beginning and end of the dialogue, there were small written activities to foster individual reflection.

Presidents of Body Positive VC, a preliminary student organization committed to fostering body-positivity and body acceptance both at Vassar and in the surrounding community, Nate Wulff ’15 and Catton organized the dialogue together. Specifically, it was intended as an opportunity for dancers to voice their own opinions and experiences about their bodies and identities. “The dialogue was about identity and bodies in the dance community and how they shape us.” Wulff said.

He continued, “Dancers spend most of their time looking in mirrors to judge themselves or receiving critiques and comments about their bodies—their size, shape, and strength, the influence of their ethnicity or race, the ways they conform to or break with gender stereotypes, or any number of other things. Yet, very few dance classes provide an outlet to express any discontent. An art form in which the body is the medium can become dangerous when the participants are given no agency. So, we wanted to give back some agency to the dancers.”

Wulff and Catton observed a lack of outlet for dancers to express the different experiences and challenges they face during the weekly Body Positive VC meetings. Student dancers have also approached them to share concerns and discomfort that they felt in dance classes or groups. These observations eventually led them to organize the dialogue.

Many of the dancers who participated in the dialogue also felt the necessity to address these issues. President of Vass Shakers, one of Vassar’s student run dance groups, Dylan Bolduc ’15 commented, “Body image in the dance community is a wide spread problem both here at Vassar and in the greater dance world, it is also a problem that is not widely discussed. This is an important conversation to start, and I think this was a great forum to do so.”

A ballet dancer, Karlin Gatton, ’15 also appreciated the opportunity because it offered her a chance to talk about what she normally couldn’t. “Conversations about race are pretty taboo in the ballet world, so I was glad the dialogue addressed racial and ethnic diversity as well as body type diversity,” she wrote in an email statement.

The dialogue drew a large audience and while specifc interests differed, most participants decided to be part of the conversation because of their common passion in and dedication to dance.

A member of Flypeople, Cayla Chambers ’15 decided to attend because of her long time interest in the topic of body image. “As a dancer and health intern in the Office of Health Education I’ve always been interested in health, nutrition and body image and how they influence the way that I see myself as a dancer.

“I decided to attend the workshop because I’ve felt that a discussion about body image,” she continued, “especially as it pertains to dancers has been long overdue.”

Others participated in order to hear about and understand different perspectives. “I wanted to have the opportunity to hear from other dancers and people who specialize in other dance styles. I think body image in dance is intrinsically linked to the dance style, so its always great to hear others perspectives.” Gatton explained.

The most significant goal for the two ogrnaizers of the dialogue was to ensure that participants from various backgrounds can feel safe and comfortable to talk about their personal expereinces. The large number of participants also posed new challenges. “I have never organized a dialogue on this scale…Facilitating a dialogue for upwards of forty people with no set follow-through provided a different challenge. Oriana and I had to decide how to establish a space for relatively safe sharing with mixed social groups.” Wulff expalined.

In order to establish an open and inviting space, Wulff and Catton chose a specific location for the dialogue. “We held the dialogue in Dance Studio II in Kenyon in an attempt to reclaim the space from the critique and discomfort of silently accepting the negativity and stereotypes brought up in dance classes. But we also recognized that for many of the dancers, these studios were familiar and comforting, as well.” Wulff remarked.

The specific activities planned for the dialogue were also aimed at creating an environment conducive to honest conversation. “We established community norms to follow throughout the dialogue and Oriana shared a testimonial about her experience with body image, gender, and ethnicity. Both of those set a tone for the dialogue, recognizing the need to open and share vulnerably in a supportive setting.” Wulff explained.

These arrangements were highly appreciated by some of the participants.  Cambers recounted, “My favorite part was breaking into small groups and discussing how our dance experiences as they relate to body image have shaped us as dancers and individuals. It was really powerful to see the similarities and differences in each dancers experiences and moments, where we could connect across dance styles, experiences etc.…The format was really conducive to promoting genuine conversations and creating a safe space for each dancer to share their thoughts.”

She continued, “Honestly, the event went above and beyond my expectations! Body Positive did a wonderful job in bringing a sensitive issue to the dance community in a way that was positive and uplifting. In the future I think it would be interesting to bring the topic of body image to the dance faculty as well as a larger ongoing workshop or series.”

Gatton had a similarly positive experience with the conversation. “My favorite part of the workshop was how positive the discussion was. Frequently, these conversations just turn into venting that while important is not very productive and generally does not leave participants wanting more,” said she.

Moreover, some saw it as a good form of collaboration among different dance groups. Bolduc commented, “Here at Vassar the different dance groups don’t often get to collaborate, so this was a great way to bring together a lot of people to discuss something we love (dance), but also acknowledge that there are parts of being a dancer that can be hard to deal with, such as the constant attention that is placed on one’s body.”

For the participants and the organizers alike, this dialogue is a first step at a more extensive and thorough discussion about body image and identity on campus. “I think this event is a great starting point for a lot of further conversations that need to be had on our campus and in the greater dance community.” Bolduc said.

Wulff concluded, “I think it provided a needed step to allow for a kind of healthy grieving—everyone could explain their pains and challenges—before we set out on a more challenging conversation about how to address issues more thoroughly.”

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