The term "body shaming" might bring up memories of that instructor from your own training who made critical remarks about—or even poked and prodded—dancers' bodies.
Thankfully, we're (mostly) past the days when authority figures felt free to openly mock a dancer's appearance. But body shaming remains a toxic presence in the studio, says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet: "It's just more hidden and more subtle." Here's how to make sure your teaching isn't part of the problem.
Watch What You Say...
The cardinal rule of a body-positive teaching style: Correct your students' dancing, not their bodies. Say you're about to ask a dancer to take up more space, possibly because that dancer's legs are on the shorter side. "Just tell them, 'I see you're holding yourself back and I think you could travel more,' or 'I love how fast you can move, but you need to work on making that movement expansive,'" suggests Kathryn Morgan, former soloist with New York City Ballet and Miami City Ballet. "The only time I'll bring somebody's body into it is in a positive way, like, 'Your arms are so long and beautiful. Let's use them more.'" In Morgan's experience, there's always a way to reframe a correction so dancers don't conclude that any given body part is a problem that needs fixing.
Jenifer Ringer, former New York City Ballet principal dancer and current dean of dance at the Colburn School in Los Angeles, is careful not to set damagingly narrow expectations when using imagery. To get a young dancer to engage their core, she asks not for a "flat tummy," but for them to bring "belly button to spine." Morgan adds that there's a world of difference between "Why is your butt out?" and "Lift the front of your hips."
Ringer also regularly encourages students to feel and express gratitude for their chance to dance. "I remind them just how miraculous their bodies are," she says. "I want them to marvel at what they're asking their bodies to do." (This is far from just a feel-good ritual, by the way: Gratitude has been scientifically proven to improve poor body image.)
Jenifer Ringer. Photo by Paige Ray, courtesy Colburn School
...And What You Don't Say
If paired with a misplaced frown or a terse tone of voice, even a neutral comment from you can trigger a shame spiral in a self-conscious teenage dancer. Of course, teachers can't always leave their own problems outside the studio. Still, be mindful that negative nonverbal cues might be misread as disgust with a dancer's physicality. For students who are mature enough, a little self-awareness and transparency from you can go a long way. Dr. Christina Donaldson, a licensed clinical psychologist who co-founded the Soul Meets Body self-esteem workshop for dancers, says, "When I work with teens, if I have a bad day I'll tell them, 'I've just had a tender day. So if I come across in any way that seems odd, please don't take it personally.'"
Speaking of self-awareness, even the best-intentioned dance educators have internal biases against certain body types. Be honest: Do you devote more time and energy to students whose physical characteristics remind you of your own? Do you agree that "every body is a ballet body," yet tend to give harsher (or fewer) corrections to dancers who don't fit the traditional mold? "Treating dancers who look a certain way differently is a subtle cue that only certain bodies have potential," says Kaslow. Distribute your gifts as a teacher fairly.
Approach With Caution
All that said, there are times when a dance teacher feels the obligation to talk to a student about what's going on with their body. The most obvious instance is sudden weight gain or loss, which usually (but not always) means there's a new emotional or physical issue in the student's life. Because "most children don't have control over what is bought and put in front of them to eat," Donaldson suggests talking to the caregiver if you're concerned about a student aged 18 or younger.
If the student is older, Morgan suggests leaving out the question of weight unless the dancer brings it up on their own. "I would ask, 'Are you okay? I've noticed you seem a bit tense/unhappy/unfocused/anxious.' Start by making sure, in a way that has nothing to do with their body, that they're okay mentally." This strategy becomes especially key if a dancer is intentionally limiting food intake, because giving attention to the visible changes in their body could actually motivate them to double down on restricting. If the student brings up any body concerns of their own accord, you can then "address it from a health and life standpoint," Morgan advises. "Make sure they know you care about them as a human being, not just as a dancer."
Kathryn Morgan. Photo by Travis Kelley, courtesy Morgan
Body-Positive Studio Policies
A major cause and result of body shame is the drive to compare one's appearance to others'. A thoughtful dress code is one way to reduce this urge to compare and despair. Morgan remembers what a relief it was to put on black tights for partnering class at the School of American Ballet—"which we especially appreciated during the run-up to our periods"—and to wear a skirt during after-lunch classes. When Ringer was formulating Colburn's dress code, she decided that tweens and up would wear dark shades, not pastels. "They're also allowed to wear any leotard they feel comfortable in, as long as it's in the color scheme," she says. Building some flexibility into your dress code can help students feel their best in the studio.
Keep in mind that members of your studio population who already feel different or marginalized—dancers of color, male dancers and trans or nonbinary dancers, to name a few—are at increased risk of body dysmorphia. Body image isn't just a female problem, says Donaldson: "Dancers who are born or identify as male experience eating disorders too. It's just that they fixate on calves and pecs, not waists and thighs." Consider whether your changing rooms, guidelines on hairstyles and tights colors, and other studio rules are as accommodating and affirming as they can be for each and every dancer.