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Body of Work

I should be mowing the lawn, really, but I want to try to sketch out some thoughts first.

Yesterday was a good day for me, body-image wise. Today hasn’t started out as one.

There’s no rhyme or reason to it, as far as I can tell. Sometimes it changes, for better or worse, in the middle of things. It shifts on the fly.

I should note that this is progress. It used to be all bad, all the time, no matter what.

Then, for a while, it got weird: like, sometimes I could look at my body and think, “Yes, this is a good and functional and rather nice-looking purpose-specific kind of body, but it doesn’t look like my body.[1]”

  1. I don’t mean I think this on a rational level. I mean, really, on the level of instinctive identity perception, in the sense most disconnected from questions of philosophy, there’s just no there there. There’s no conscious analysis involved, just an unconscious, “Nope.”

How do I explain that concept? For me, I think part of it stems from some fundamental disconnect in the neural circuitry that drives identity-related connections. When I look in the mirror, I don’t feel any sense that I’m looking at myself, really.

I mean, rationally, I know that I am. But the circuit that says, “Ohai! That’s me!” doesn’t really seem to fire. (Sometimes this results in me staring into the mirror for a really long time, trying to figure things out.) I don’t know if this is anything at all like what many people experience, but a few conversations and a fair bit of reading have indicated to me that it’s kind of weird[2].

  1. Please note that “weird” is a word I use without any value judgment. I actually rather like it. To me, it just means “strange” or “unusual,” sometimes “uncanny,” but without the additional sense of “…and offensive or repugnant.”

If you’ve ever seen a recent picture of yourself in which you don’t actually recognize yourself until someone points out to you, “Hey, that’s you!”, that might be a similar phenomenon (though, really, I’m not sure).

Curiously, the effect is diminished in class when I observe myself in the mirror and correct myself accordingly.

Yup, it’s long, so here’s a more tag:
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Ballet Changes Us

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Ballet does strange things to your body.
As a kid, I looked at my sister’s Barbie dolls’ feet and thought, “Nobody has feet like that.”
Now? I have them.

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Then, there’s this. The weird little dip caused by hyperextending the ankle.
I first noticed it on David Hallberg’s beautiful legs. Since I basically didn’t have ankles, I concluded mine could never look like that. Now, they do.
Also, now I have ankles. And beautiful* legs. (*Sometimes!)

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Here’s another thing.
The dip at the top of the thigh. Sometimes cyclists have it, but it’s endemic among dancers.
Even I have it now.
Along with inside-out knees.

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Often, in the morning, I marvel at the architecture of my own feet,
with their marvelous bridges of sinew and bone.
This would all be so much navel-gazing, if it weren’t so hard-won.
For so long, I hated this body so much,
because it had betrayed me,
because it had failed me,
because it did not seem to be mine.

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But ballet has a way of re-creating us in its own image…
…And, strangely enough, when I look at what it has made of this body, what I see — is, finally, myself.

Captions are up now!

You guys, I know this is super hard to read. I’m having captioning issues, so I’ll fix it in the morning.

À bientôt, mes amis!

Ballet Squid Chronicles: On Poor Choices and Owning Them

A while ago, I wrote about returning to class after my extended winter break (link to come).  Among other things,  I said that I felt like a pudgy dancer.

I realized at the time that “pudgy” was the wrong word for a number of reasons.

First,  it wasn’t the word I wanted, and didn’t actually convey the concept I hoped to express, but I wracked my brain and couldn’t come up with the word I knew I was looking for.   Like autocorrupt on crack, my brain kept suggesting “pudgy.”  Finally, I gave up and used it.   Twice.

Second, it’s a loaded word.   Like “chubby,” it’s one of those words that means “adorably chunky” when we’re describing puppies or baby elephants or cartoon orcas or toddlers or what have you, but something else entirely when applied to human adults (never mind that some of us,  myself included, like how “pudgy” looks on other people; I married a slim guy, but I’ve always preferred big guys — pudgy guys, in fact).  So it’s a word that implies a kind of judgment I try not to make, and also reveals the double standard by which I judge myself.  “Pudgy,” in short,  is a word that can hurt.

Third, the dance world is full of implicit (and, sometimes, explicit) judgments about body size.   I’ve written about this a couple of times (again, links to follow).   I try not to participate in this particular hegemony: I think dancers of all sizes can be beautiful.  That doesn’t mean I’m not affected by it,  though.  I am both human enough to admit that I  do experience reflexive moments of size-ist thinking, and to say that those moments are often concurrent with their opposites: one part of my mind will be thinking, “Wow, that one dude in the corps is pretty hefty,” while another part of thinks, “He looks really great up there.” 

The difference is that the first of these thoughts is a conditioned reflex; the second is a feeling.   So while my conditioned thoughts — the ones influenced by cultural dictates — are busy being jerks, my actual gut feelings are appreciating what I’m seeing.   It’s weird, uncomfortable, and cognitively dissonant.

And when I use words like “pudgy” in contexts where they mean something bad (in this case, the word I really wanted was “clumsy”), I reinforce the cultural dictate that says dancers need to be shaped a certain way — even if that’s not what I believe, feel, or mean to convey.

Even if I really genuinely believe (and I do) that dancers actually need to be shaped all kinds of ways, my intentions don’t matter in a static context that doesn’t convey them.  What matters is what I actually write.

Lastly, there’s a part of me that still genuinely believes that everyone else can be great and look great at whatever size but I need to be, in a word, skinny.  That voice is always there.   It was there when my BMI was 14.5.  It was there when my BMI was 30.  It is still there now, when my BMI is 24.

Every time I make a disparaging remark about my own weight, I reinforce that voice.  Yes, I need to talk about that voice, and to acknowledge what it says (ignoring it sure as heck doesn’t make it go away) — but I need to do so in a way that reduces, rather than increases, its power.

I need to do that for me, and I need to do that for everyone else who has that voice (which, to a greater or lesser degree, is everyone).

~~~

I thought long and hard about whether to write this at all.  I’m just going to go ahead and admit that, in short, I was debating whether or not to stick my head in the sand and hope nobody noticed my apparent act of woeful hypocrisy.

I was being a coward, but I guess I was also thinking about what I said (“pudgy”) and why (because my language co-processor was on the fritz, but also probably because I was having a exceptionally poor body image day) and what to write about it (this, it turns out).

I’m glad I did: that is to say, glad I tool some time to think about it, and also glad I took some time to write about it.

If my choice of words hurt you, please know that I’m sorry.   Nobody deserves to be hurt (except maybe masochists who have been really good and done all their chores ;)).  And I guess I should apologize to myself as well, because I am a dick to myself way too often.

For what it’s worth, I really do mean what I say: there’s room in dance for all kinds of bodies, all colors and sizes and shapes and abilities.   All of those different bodies are valid and valuable — and just as painters have expanded their palettes as new media have emerged, it behooves those of us with choreographic ambitions to expand our palettes to include all kinds of bodies (“Oh, brave new world that has such creatures in it!”).

I’m hoping that,  having written this, I’ll think of more to say on the topic.   For now, this is it. 

Go forth and be pudgy and proud, or svelte and sublime, or medium and miraculous: no matter your shape, dancers of the world, the things your bodies can do are amazing.

It’s Research Time!

I think I’ve mentioned this semester’s research project here once or twice. Well, it’s been approved by our Institutional Review Board, and it’s data collection time! If you’d like to participate, read on.

I’m conducting research into attitudes about body size and health at Indiana University Southeast and I’d like to invite those of you who are at least 18 years of age to participate.

My study has been approved by IUS’ Institutional Review Board and assigned protocol number 14.55. Below the cut, you’ll find a full description and a link to the survey, which should take around 10 minutes to complete and which is housed on the Qualtrics website.

Please feel free to forward this link to anyone who might find it interesting. Together, I hope we can learn a little more about how people feel about the relationship between body size and health.

Thanks!

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Ballet Squid Chronicles: Combination

Piqué arabesque,
Glissade,
Assemblé,
Faillé,
Assemblé,
Faille´,
Assemblé.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

When you do it right, it looks like dancing. For some reason it fell apart for everyone tonight going left (there were only three of us in class). I realize now that I kept leaving out the assemblé after the first faillé.

I’ve gotten past the thing last week where I kept getting tangled getting from piqué arabesque to glissade. That was the result of too much thinking.

Things are coming back faster now. There were a few nice pirouettes from fourth. Still a few, “Oh, crap! I’m turning the wrong way!” moments.

For some reason, instead of going en dehors, en dehors, en dehors, I found myself wanting to go en dehors, en dedans, en dehors. But the turns are coming, too.

My barre was kind of meh today — some okay bits, some not so okay bits. A couple of times, I totally lost my place — it was like my brain just opted to reboot mid-combo. On the other hand, a couple of my fondus felt beautiful. Were they? Who knows. But that’s how they felt.

I try to keep it in perspective: when I started dancing again back in March, I would’ve been delighted with today’s barre (especially the frappés, even though one of my “reboots” occurred during that combination). That’s the whole thing about ballet — you’re dissatisfied, so you work hard, and then you sort of “level up,” and you get that “Yes!” feeling.

Then you realize you can do it better; that whatever you’re doing, you can refine it.

I enjoy pursuits in which perfection is a goal, but is one that recedes forever into the distance. In ballet, in horseback riding, in cycling, in music, you can always improve. Even if you achieve technical perfection, there’s always room for more musicality, more expression, more subtlety, or more strength.

In other news, today I put on a shirt that’s been too tight for a long time — and suddenly it wasn’t too tight anymore. I might even be able to use it for ballet class.

I have trouble seeing changes in my body, but even I’m beginning to see what all this ballet is doing for me in that regard. Pretty cool stuff. Tonight I was messing around in the mirror at home after class, doing Pretty Things With My Arms, because as a squid those things are hard for me, yo. I transitioned from first-arabesque arms to élongé and caught sight of all these cool little muscles doing their thing in my shoulders and chest and went, “Wow, hey, that’s my body doing that!”

Pretty cool stuff. Denis always says I’m such a teenager when it comes to that. He’s right. I am discovering this body that, when I really was a teenager, was still this scary thing that kind of betrayed me during a time when bad stuff happened to me. I didn’t look at myself. I didn’t want to look at myself.

So now I’m discovering all of it; it’s all totally new, and it’s beautiful in a way. I still struggle to see my body as beautiful, but when I see it working; when I see it doing dancer-ly things; when I see the beautiful machine working the way it’s supposed to work — yeah, I kind of love it then.

One last bit to close. Tonight, when Tawnee arrived, she greeted us (all three of us, ha) with, “Hello, dancers!”

So there you have it. In case you were wondering: we are dancers.

And that’s pretty great.

A Conversation From Last Night

Last night I met Jim, one of the men who does the Beginner/Intermediate class on Monday nights.  He is a charming older fellow; one of the folks who throws out little improvised dances while Brienne listens to the music and decides how best to torture us next.   I do this, too, so I liked him immediately.

After class, as we put our Normal People Clothes back on, he commented on how hard Brienne works us.   I emphatically agreed.  Then he said something about how ballet training has changed since he was young (I would guess he’s in his seventies) – how there is less focus now on endurance because they don’t want us to wind up with enormous thighs.  He said, “Nijinsky had huge legs.”

Check out those hams.  Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose (public domain in US).

Check out those hams. Nijinsky in Le Spectre de la Rose (image via Wikimedia Commons; public domain in US).

This is true.   Pictures of Nijinsky show not a graceful sylph of a man but a solid little acrobat with legs even bigger than mine.  Standing still, Nijinsky defied modern expectations about how dancers should look.  In action, he was such a glory that he is still – at least among dancers – a household name.

“When he jumped, he just seemed to float,” Jim commented, “It was because of those enormous legs.”

So maybe I should take a moment to appreciate my own enormous legs, my legs-that-get-in-their-own-way-in-fifth-sometimes, my legs that force me to have suit pants specially tailored, which are also the same legs that lend me high, powerful leaps in the studio and sharp acceleration on the bike (and, not coincidentally, also the same legs that made Denis follow me all the way up a major local climb on the day we met).

I guess most of us hate some or another part of our bodies.  We dancers and cyclists can be especially hard on ourselves — we spend hours upon hours dressed in skintight super-suits and, in the case of dancers, starting into mirrors.  Our passions make stunning demands on our bodies and literally reshape them (as a dancer-from-childhood, I am blessed with funky hip sockets; as a cyclist, with Achilles’ tendons you could use to string a crossbow). I am no exception.  I stare at myself in the studio mirrors and I think, Egads, are my legs really that big?

I have been  learning to live with my legs, in part because returning to ballet has made a start at refining them (some days I’m like,  “OMG, I have ankles!”).  Maybe someday I could even learn to love them?

Maybe I am not the next Nijinsky, and my name will never become part of the saintly canon recited by dancers everywhere.  

That doesn’t mean I can’t learn to appreciate the power implicit in these gigantic quads and wholly-unreasonable calves … does it?

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