Body-positivity in dance: the importance of community

For World Ballet Day (1st October 2015), I talk about a recent research project carried out in London-based dance school Irreverent Dance, research that has been published as Hill, J., Sandford, R. and Enright, E. (2015). It has really amazed me what my body can now do’: boundary work and the construction of a body-positive dance community. Sport in Society. You can find the paper at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2015.1073946.

As a scholar of physical education and sport pedagogy, I am often on the look out for good examples of physical activity sites that offer something new for (future) teachers and coaches to learn from. It’s what can help guide developments in the ways physical education, sport and dance are taught. This led me to get in touch with Irreverent Dance, when it was coming up to a year old and offering mainly ballet classes. For me and my co-researchers, Irreverent Dance seemed to offer the sort of positive experiences and environments in physical activity that we were looking to learn from, in its challenging and alternative approaches to dance teaching and practice.

At the risk of starting on a negative point, traditional ballet teaching styles and spaces have often been considered a little exclusionary or marginalising of body sizes and shapes that don’t fit the expected in ballet. Amanda from Irreverent Dance writes here about her perspective on these aspects of ballet and why it is important to challenge them.

While there are many valuable things to say about the teaching styles found in Irreverent Dance, this piece (and the research behind it) concentrates on how the teachers and dancers worked to create a community – in and out of the studio and also online – that supported everyone in that space developing a greater sense of their own body capabilities: that is, how body positivity was encouraged. This idea, body positivity, is highlighted by Irreverent Dance in its promotional material as a central goal. Body positivity is becoming a popular idea that might counter the marginalising of anyone outside the norm. As a goal in sport and physical activity it could be useful alongside well-being, pleasure and other social or personal outcomes. So how does it work in practice? What do teachers or coaches need to do?

We sat in on some Irreverent Dance ballet classes and a showcase, and interviewed dancers and teachers, to find out what body positivity meant to them and how it was developed. Three things stood out to us:

1. Celebrating bodily capability

There was a high level of celebration of what bodies can do. This sense of achievement was expressed both in relation to specific ballet technique and in terms of general physical ability. Irreverent Dancers were able to develop their dancing ability at a pace they were comfortable with, progressing gradually through ballet grades and repeating terms if they wished. Even if the moves were not reproduced in a textbook fashion, the developments that learners had made were much more important. The learners’ reflections suggest that their understandings of the body as ‘not capable’ of doing something might have arisen in previous dance or movement experiences. Learners were instead actively encouraged to think ‘I can’ in Irreverent Dance. As a result, many felt that they could now own the identity of dancer. The community of Irreverent Dance worked hard to create a ‘freeing’ space, with a commitment to inclusion, respect and not judging others. From the first class, learners were asked to treat others and, importantly, themselves, in a positive manner.

2. Committing to gender neutrality

Alongside body positivity, another vital element of Irreverent Dance that appeared to have been built into the environment of the school was gender neutrality. Boundaries of gender in sport and physical activity are usually quite deep seated – separate competitions and classes for men and women, and distinct deals of masculine and feminine appearance or comportment. Irreverent Dance notes that traditional ballet expectations that men and women wear different outfits, different colours, do different dances and take on distinct roles can be quite limiting and normalising. Elements of dance that have typically gendered boundaries were addressed: for example, men were invited to learn to dance en pointe if they wished. Dancers commented that their perception of what their bodies could do developed positively, when heteronormative and cisnormative boundaries (in dance movement and performance) were eliminated.

3. Challenging ballet norms

A central element in the learning and community of ID was deconstructing ballet’s gender boundaries; challenging dominant notions about what gendered ballet bodies look like, what they should do and what progress must be made. Some learners reflected on how they had been looking for a dance class that would suit their ‘uncoordinated’, ‘geeky back of the class loner’ or ‘fat’ bodies. Ballet norms in the sense of technical requirements, language, music and dress styles were recognized but with gender norms being challenged or even removed, this meant that learners who would previously have not had access to ballet could find a space that was safe and positive for them.

Committing to these positions in a dance school might take a lot of work, as dancer habits can be difficult to shake off and the broader culture of ballet still promotes traditional and restrictive movements, clothing, and so on. By working together to ensure a respectful community, learning about having a positive attitude to your own and others’ bodies, identity and physical capabilities has become an integral part of Irreverent Dance, not just learning about ballet itself. In a way, this means that dancers can just learn about ballet, without worrying about how they fit in (or don’t).

My thanks again to the members of Irreverent Dance who shared their experiences.

Theoretically, this paper uses Bourdieu’s ideas of habitus and field to explore how Irreverent Dance and Dancers crossed, transformed or shifted boundaries of physical capability, gender and dance. We developed a methodology based on appreciative inquiry, a strengths-based, as opposed to deficits-based, approach to creating change.

Abstract

Boundaries around normative embodiments in physical cultures can be exclusionary if one’s embodied identity does not ‘fit’. Normative boundaries are particularly marked in codified forms of dance such as ballet. Moves towards body positivity aim to challenge these normative boundaries by redefining what dancers’ bodies can look like and how they should move. This paper stems from an appreciative inquiry undertaken with one such project, a gender-neutral, LGBTQ friendly adult ballet school in the UK; a subcultural context that marks itself as distinct from broader cultures of dance. Interviews with learners are analysed through a Bourdieuian lens to explore the construction and maintenance of a body-positive subculture. Findings suggest that boundaries of ability were crossed, with celebration of all bodies’ capabilities, and boundaries of normative gender expression were transformed through a commitment to gender-neutrality and LGBTQ-friendly behaviours. However, boundaries around technical and aesthetic norms, while shifted or challenged, ultimately remained in place.

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