Many dancers receive unfortunate messages from teachers, peers, directors, ads, and social media that they’re “too tall”, “too short”, “too curvy”, “too muscular”, etc. Examples abound of dancers ignoring these labels and finding their place in the dance world, yet these messages often do impact how dancers see themselves and their bodies.
As dancers strive in this competitive environment, it makes sense that many become overly focused on their body shape and body weight. The reality, though, is that we don’t have much control over our body shape and weight since our physicality is primarily determined by genetics and physiological factors. Any efforts to change these qualities often create problems and distract from the rest of a dancer’s training.
To consistently dance and perform at your best, you need to have a working relationship with your body. Asking someone to love their body is often unrealistic (though it can be a goal!); however, a certain level of body acceptance is necessary to achieve the physicality and artistry required of dancers. Though the process takes time, let’s discuss 5 tips to build a better body image:
#1: Cut Back on Mirror Time
While dancers often rely on mirrors throughout their training, how dancers look in the mirror can have a major impact on their body image. Focusing on parts of your body that you don’t like will only magnify those “flaws” – just as choosing to obsess about a pimple on your face will make that pimple look bigger!
Instead, widen your field of vision when looking at your body in the mirror so that you see your whole body in the context of the surrounding environment. Use mirrors only when necessary – as a learning tool to adjust alignment and form. With less time spent staring at the mirror, you’ll feel better about yourself and focus better on your dancing.
#2: Stop The Comparisons
We’re often biased in how we compare ourselves to others. We typically don’t scrutinize other people’s bodies in the same way that we do our own, and only fixate on certain body types. Pay attention to how much time you spend comparing yourself to your fellow dancers. Ask yourself: “Is this behavior a good use of my time?” Notice the variety of shapes and sizes that surround you. I imagine you’ll find that there’s more diversity in dance than you originally thought.
#3: Caution Body-Avoidance
While you don’t want to obsess over the shape of your body, it’s important that you do feel comfortable with your body. Avoiding the mirror by standing behind other dancers at the barre, covering yourself in warm-up attire, and taking quick showers will only increase your anxiety about your body shape.
Instead, challenge yourself with exposures. Volunteer to be in the front during center work, show off a new leotard without a skirt or try a self-massage. It will likely feel uncomfortable at first, but if you can stick with it, you’ll gradually reduce your anxiety and become more connected to your body.
#4: Re-Label The Bad Days
We all have days when we feel less confident than usual. Perhaps you “feel gross” or you just don’t want to wear a leotard and tights right now. Consider the possibility that something else is lurking behind these poor body image days –it’s usually an intense emotion, a physical sensation (caused by illness or fatigue), or an upsetting event.
The next time you’re not feeling great about your body, ask yourself: “What am I actually feeling and why?” You’ll shift the power away from your body image and enable yourself to work on the root of the problem.
#5: Enhance Other Aspects of Your Life
Placing too much emphasis on your body shape and weight is risky, especially considering the limited amount of control we have over it. Putting a lot of mental energy toward that one aspect naturally leaves less room for other interests and components of your training. Choose instead to spend time with family and friends, explore new hobbies or set technique-based goals for your dancing. Engaging in these areas of your life will divert your attention away from your body, increase your resilience, and make you a better dancer.
Guest Post Written By Catherine Drury. Catherine Drury, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in supporting dancers through injury, stress, burnout, and career change. At her Manhattan-based private practice, Catherine treats adolescents and young adults with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and histories of trauma using cognitive-behavioral and evidence-based treatment modalities. She also delivers workshops and lectures to dance companies and schools, fostering resilience and emotional intelligence among dance students, educators, and communities. More information and contact details can be found at catherinedrury.com.