by Lucy Vurusic Riner
As a high school dance educator you can’t really avoid the issue of body image in your dance class. There are ways to skirt around the issue, maybe even make light of it at times when things are tense, and there is always the batch of us that quite honestly, make it worse.
So I’m suggesting we face it head on. Some thoughts on how we as dance educators can start turning this horrible phenomenon around:
1. This point is number one for a reason. Dance Educators need to check their own personal opinions of body image at the door.
We all, at some point in our careers, have bought into the stereotype of what the dancer body looks like no matter how hard we try not to. Our own images of our bodies may have even prevented some of us from following a dream we had in dance because we assumed our bodies needed to look a certain way. We also all know a teacher that said something mean or inappropriate to us (and we remember it don’t we?); those teachers that said it in our best interest right?
Being a woman in this world is hard enough; being a dancer can add a whole other layer to our insecurities if we aren’t taught in an environment that is safe and nurturing. How do we address body image in our classes to let young girls, especially many at the middle and high school level that are experiencing puberty, know that they have to love and respect the bodies they are in? How do we talk to our students about being healthy without looking like we are passing judgment in one way or another?
I try to emphasize that we have different bodies and that they benefit us all in different ways. I want my students to focus on their strengths. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to work on the things that are challenging for them but I want them to be able to look at their bodies and point out the things that they love about them.
I do an ice breaker exercise early in the year where everyone has to share one thing about themselves as a dancer that they love. You would have thought I asked them to help raise the debt ceiling. Blank stares. But if I asked the opposite question, “If you could fix one thing about yourself as a dancer…” we could spend an entire semester in group therapy. I actually think some of the girls in my classes do like themselves more than they let on–they just think it’s taboo to let anyone know they like themselves…..Geesh.
I always try to point out the benefits of how each of my dancers is built and how that is special to who they are as movers. That doesn’t mean I don’t give corrections or feedback, it just means that talking about their physical bodies is irrelevant. Sadly, there are plenty of places in our society that try to keep us down as women by focusing solely on our bodies and how they SHOULD look. My job is to continue building my students up regardless of that.
2. Use your body as a way to show young girls how to appreciate who THEY are.
As in any subject, teachers have their own teaching styles. Some of us maintain professional but distant relationships with our students while others tend to be professional but also personal. It really doesn’t matter what kind of relationship you have with your dancers as long as you allow your students to see you comfortable and loving your own body.
This isn’t always easy to do but if our students notice that we don’t love ourselves it brings out their worst inner fears about themselves. I can get pretty personal with my students and I had to learn to never put myself down in front of them. I was blessed with a nice behind but no chest for miles…..These were my insecurities as a young woman and I imagine we all have them, but I want to model to my young dancers that I am happy with my body the way it is and that I want that same feeling for them too. Our students are capable of picking themselves and other young women apart with no assistance from us. What they need to see are role models who are comfortable in their own skin and not afraid to show it.
3. Teach your dancers how to give and take compliments.
This point goes back to the icebreaker I spoke of in point #1. Giving compliments comes pretty easy, although you will find that they compliment the superficial. When I ask students to give each other feedback it’s always, “that was beautiful…..” or, “you’re so pretty.” I don’t allow that type of feedback anymore. To me, that is a given.
I want to hear something with substance. “You had such intense focus while you were dancing that it took me in” or “you dance so fully that I really feel like your arms and legs extend beyond the room”. This kind of feedback gets us out from under the body image microscope. It allows girls to consider that maybe we weren’t only looking at your body in relation to it’s size but rather to it’s facility.
The next step is to teach them how to TAKE a compliment. It’s so much easier to disagree or answer back with a counterattack on oneself. It took me until about two years ago in my own professional dancing to really let people say nice things to me and actually believe it. When someone tells you that they enjoyed your performance in class or on stage, and expresses what it might be about your performance that moved them, the proper response is “thank you” – and then allow that feeling to wash over you.
4. Be upfront about an issue when it comes up; it’s a teachable moment.
I think it’s a bit ironic that we are the “touchy, feely” gender that likes to talk things out, yet when it comes to body image and eating disorders we silence ourselves. There is no doubt that it’s a slippery slope, but our students do recognize the elephant in the room when something is up.
I have had situations where a student is hospitalized and we all know what has happened but are too afraid to say anything about it. It’s in those moments that I can see the anxiety fill the room. There are other times that we may have seen something in the media that really disturbed us, but yet we don’t feel it’s relevant to bring it up in class–yet it weighs on our minds.
I say seize the day. I take the time to stop and talk about it. I want my students to know that my classroom is a safe place to express their concerns or fears. What better place to do it? And then maybe even dance about it! I often have my classes improvise around events that are hard for us to talk about. We may circle up and talk about an issue and then put some appropriate music on to just free form dance about it, or I might actually guide or narrate an improvisation to help get them moving and expressing themselves.
5. Dance SHOULD be a positive coping mechanism for our dancers.
This final point is also my conclusion. I have had many students with body image issues and eating disorders that have not been able to come back to dance class. They can’t be in a room with mirrors and they can’t help but compare themselves to other dancers in the room.
How can they take back that love for dance so that its power can be used for healing?
Can your classes be organized in a way that allows struggling students the ability to feel reassured so that they can start developing new ideas of themselves and the body that they are in? I have moved my class to a room without mirrors at times. I have had them face away from the mirrors or even covered them at times when space was limited. I have also allowed for students to come back to dance slowly, maybe dancing in the studio alone after school for a bit, or with a close friend. The goal is always to have dance be the thing that makes us happy to be us–not disgusted with ourselves. It’s easy to see how dance and body image can become interwoven into a girls unhealthy vision of herself, but good teachers can take the time dispel that belief.
Dance teachers NEED to take the time to dispel that belief.
Dance has not only been my creative outlet over the past 25 years, it’s been an OUT, period. If it becomes the place that harbors the worst parts of how we feel about our bodies–well then we’ve missed a connection that we need to rewire.
Dance teachers – how do you address body image issues inside and outside of class? We’d love to hear from you!
Contributor Lucy Vurusic-Riner is a native Chicagoan who has been supporting and contributing to the dance community for over twenty years. She received her Bachelor of Science Degree in Dance Performance and Dance Education from Illinois State University. Lucy has been a member of Molly Shanahan/Mad Shak, RTG Dance Company and Matthew Hollis’ “The Power of Cheer.” She has also had the opportunity to be part of the community casts of White Oak Dance Project and David Dorfman Dance.
Lucy has taught modern, hip hop, and jazz at numerous studios and high schools in the Chicagoland area. She was the Director of Dance at Oak Park and River Forest High School from 1999 to 2012. In 2005, Lucy completed her Masters Degree in Education from National Louis University and also received the Midwest Dance Teacher of the Year award and was the youngest of four finalists in the running for the National Dance Teacher of the Year award. Lucy and artistic partner, Michael Estanich, formed RE|Dance Group in 2010. RE|Dance Group investigates humanity in movement through long distance collaboration.
In 2012, Lucy joined the dance faculty at New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL. When she is not immersed in dance, she is at home with her two great kids, Margie and Luka, and her very supportive husband, Jim.