Conference abstract: ‘It’s really amazed me what my body can now do’: Creating a body-positive community in and through dance

This is the abstract from a conference presentation (presented at Gender and Physical Culture, Gothenburg University, December 2013). The work is from our Positive Movement Subcultures project, funded by a seeding grant from SSEHS, Loughborough University.

Joanne Hill and Rachel Sandford

Physical culture is acknowledged as a key site for the construction of embodied identities and a context in which discourses around gender-relevant/gender-appropriate behaviours are often central in shaping individuals’ understandings, engagements and experiences in the field. Much research in this area has focused on the challenges faced by individuals as they negotiate the complex terrain, often citing negative impacts such as dissatisfaction or disengagement for those who do not conform.

Within this paper, however, we seek to examine the benefits of a physical culture context that is committed to body-positivity. We present data from an on-going study with adult learners and teachers in a dance school whose physical culture is founded on providing an LGBTQ-friendly, gender-neutral and body-positive environment. The case study research is part of a broader international project looking at positive movement subcultures through an appreciative inquiry lens; an attempt to investigate and build upon ‘what works’ rather than identifying and addressing perceived deficits.

Data were generated through observations, interviews and the collation of written materials and a thematic analysis was undertaken. In this paper, three themes are discussed. Firstly, the importance of community: all participants valued the relationships they developed within and beyond classes, suggesting that the sharing of values promoted inclusivity and safety. Secondly, the (re)development of embodied identities: physical changes to the body (and associated changes in perceptions of self) were celebrated and the gaining of a powerful physicality reconnected many ‘dancers’ to their bodies. Finally, body capability: individuals often commented that their perception of what their bodies could do developed positively when heteronormative and cisnormative boundaries (in dance movement and performance) were eliminated. It is argued that this work has relevance in creating an understanding of how a body-positive physical culture might benefit both individuals and communities.

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