Dance is art meeting athleticism, celebrating the body as an incredible instrument.
Yet for years, many professional working dancers and those striving toward dance careers have felt pressure to achieve a specific body shape and aesthetic. Today this pressure has trickled down to many young dance students, who often respond to the edited and filtered photos of supposed “ideals” that scroll across their social media by developing a negative body image or disordered eating.
Studio owners and dance teachers have the opportunity and the responsibility to push back against that pressure. Every class, every rehearsal, every communication is an opportunity for you to model positive body image.
The following is a four-pronged approach—classroom language, costuming, modeling positive practices, and encouraging body-positivity with parents—that you can use to create an educational environment at your studio that fosters an appreciation for each and every dancers’ unique and beautiful body.
Language that focuses on movement keeps dancers focused on improving their movement quality or technique rather than criticizing their bodies. Avoid negative adjectives: “weak” limbs, “heavy” landings, “lazy” spotting. Opt for specific, action-focused corrections: “Be sure to land your leap by rolling through the foot, toe-ball-heel, for a safe and smooth transition.”
Keep corrections focused on the body’s action, not appearance. Even praise for a dancer’s body or appearance, while seemingly positive, can cause confidence issues if the dancer begins to equate her value or identity with her appearance.
Use anatomically correct terminology whenever possible. Keep language appropriate for the age of the class; for example, kindergarteners may not be ready for a detailed explanation of the layered abdominal muscles, and “knit together your transverse abdominis” may be too advanced for young or beginning dancers. Instead, try “Can you reach your belly button towards your spine? That’s using your core muscles!”
Costuming, hair/makeup directions, and required tights and shoes can all impact a dancer’s body image. (See The Look of Confidence by Erika Hogan.) Consider the skin tones of the dancers in your program. Providing options for appropriate tights or, say, pointe shoes other than “ballet pink,” will help dancers feel seen and valued.
Remember, not all hair types fit into a slick bun, and providing additional options to your required styles will help each dancer feel included and appreciated. Communicate that the purpose of stage makeup is to prevent dancers’ facial features from being washed out due to bright stage lights and the distance between performers and audience. Avoid using makeup to change a dancer’s appearance to meet an aesthetic standard of beauty or to make a student look older.
When students try on costumes, think of it like a “shoe shopping” exercise: if a shoe doesn’t fit, the “blame” is on the shoe, not the foot. If something doesn’t fit, try saying “This costume isn’t long enough” instead of “You’re too tall for this costume.” Label costumes for distribution with dancers’ names and the day/time of class rather than who gets a “small” or “medium.” Consider offering free or low-cost alterations to help dancers feel confident with a personalized, just-right fit.
Model positive practices
Studio owners, managers, and teachers are role models for impressionable, young students. When a teacher wears a certain style of clothing or hairstyle, students will copy. Similarly, dancers are likely to follow what adults do regarding body acceptance and relationship with food. Whatever your role at the studio, you are an influence on the dancers. Demonstrate self-compassion: speak to and about yourself the way you would a friend. If someone speaks negatively about their body or themselves, jump in and object: “Hey! That’s my friend you’re talking about!” and encourage those around you to do the same.
Model healthy hydration and a healthy relationship with food. Build regular water breaks into class and rehearsals. Let your students see their teachers and directors eating throughout long performance or rehearsal days. Remember that food has no moral value: no food is “good” or “bad”—it’s our relationship to food that matters. Occasionally enjoying potato chips is far healthier than feeling shame about eating chips, obsessing about or labeling chips as “forbidden,” or secretly binging chips. If you avoid certain foods due to allergies, intolerances, or lifestyle choices (such as following a vegan lifestyle), keep your explanation simple and fact-based.
Encourage body positivity outside the studio
All of your body positivity efforts can be incredibly impactful on students. Amplify this impact by sharing these ideas or other guidelines you put in place with studio families through private groups on Facebook, a studio blog, or apps like Team App and Band. With luck, your good example will encourage parents to adopt similar practices at home.
From true-life testimony from ballet stars to melodramatic movies such as “Black Swan,” the dance industry has gained a reputation as a dysfunctional environment regarding self-esteem and body-image. But winds of change are blowing—TV commercials, videos, and catalogs now show happy, healthy dancers of all shapes and sizes. With thoughtful words and actions, your studio can assure that all your dancers embrace and appreciate their bodies—their very own creative instruments.