NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Katrena Cohea, Different Drummer Dance. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
#ballerinafeet, #flexibilitygoals, Under Armour athletic wear campaigns and voting rights. These are just a few of the ways dancers have created buzz in the social media world, drawing attention to not only the wider dance industry and community, but to important missions, ideas and change inspiring movements.
The pervasiveness of social media, viral videos and hashtags of the past few years have seemingly done the dance world good. Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter aren’t just platforms for CEOs, entrepreneurs and celebrities anymore.
To be a part of the buzz can feel good for dancers, dance companies, dance studios, and dance teachers. We want to stay relevant, share our knowledge, and feel a valuable part of our community.
But one of the risks of jumping on a follow train is doing so without realizing what, exactly, a movement, idea, or hashtag is all about.
Body Positivity is one of those things. For a phrase that wasn’t mainstream until a couple years ago, it’s gotten a lot of attention, but not a lot of definition. So what is body positivity anyways, and how is it affecting the dance world?
Like many ideologies, there are a variety of definitions and layers that have to be stripped away to answer that question, so I’ve asked a variety of dancers to hear what each of their definitions are and see if there’s any overlap, common ground, and blank space to help direct the dance community on how to embrace the body positive movement.
Melanie Mentrel Moniez is a multidisciplinary professional dancer, teacher, and choreographer based in France who’s made body positivity a cornerstone in her life inside, and outside dance. She defines body positivity as “accepting your body and loving yourself as you are.” She credits this healthy mindset to the accepting choreographers and teachers who didn’t force her to change her body for the sake of ballet’s traditional aesthetic.
Bodies, much like seasons, change all the time depending on age, activity level, injury, and physical or emotional trauma. Despite the dance world making progress in leveling the playing field for dancers of different races, genders, ages and ethnicities, there’s still a void when it comes to embracing different seasons of the body. When Melanie found herself gaining weight, she says, “it took me a long time to understand that despite [gaining weight], I could still live my passion, love and accept myself.”
Mimi Tompkins, a professional dancer with Ballet Arizona similarly defines body positivity as “acceptance and appreciation of all types of bodies”. Personally, she describes body positivity as “understanding your worth and loving yourself.” She points out that there are two sides to body positivity: a physical part and a mental part, and that hopefully they work together to create one holistic sense of self worth. Tompkins also points out, “I think people create these bounds as to what beauty is, but to me, beauty is that self confidence in your own skin. Having ownership of who you are makes your self worth infinite.”
It’s true that human nature likes creating boundaries for people, situations, and even for ourselves. Whether we’re dealing with beauty, or something more complex like safety, creating boxes of “beautiful”, “not beautiful”, “safe”, or “not safe” is an evolutionary tactic that keeps our world orderly and easy to understand.
So how do dancers, who tend to have love/hate relationships with our bodies, and be part of an industry that’s extremely aesthetic based, move beyond those boundaries and boxes to expand our horizons on who, or what bodies are capable of dance, and learn to appreciate our bodies in whatever shape they might be in? Tompkins says, “as a professional ballet dancer, your body is your tool. Being hypercritical is something I struggle with. There have been times where I’ve gotten lost in my own insecurities or created disappointments in myself that have brought me down, but I have to remind myself that I am here because of me, and this is not the final destination. There is ALWAYS room to grow and that’s what makes life exciting. The most important thing is to be your own teammate, because in the end, that’s all you’ve got.”
Viewing our bodies as a teammate could be a revolutionary way of approaching body positivity for dancers. As dancers, how often have we felt like we’re working against our bodies to reach the next level of training, overcome injury, or meet a goal? Body positivity is about creating our own personal harmony between the mind and body, but that’s just the start.
Body positivity as a concept goes beyond what our personal interpretations of it are. Colleen Werner is a young dancer who’s journey with body positivity began during her recovery from an eating disorder. She’s spreading her message of body positivity being a political movement not only through her popular Instagram account (with 15k followers), but as a key player with Project HEAL, a mental health service that provides access to healing for all people with eating disorders.
For Werner, body positivity means “looking at how all bodies are treated in society, and seeing how we can make the world a place where it is safe and welcoming for all people...it’s acknowledging that body positivity goes past our individual bodies and is a larger movement.”
When asked how she works to actively be a body positive advocate now, Werner says, “I wish that in the past I would’ve been more cognizant of how body positivity is a greater movement and not about just my individual body.”
So embracing body positivity seems to be just the tip of an iceberg; on top there are issues of self worth, acknowledging negative self talk and negative personal beliefs, as well as realizing the narrow view traditional dance culture has on what bodies are “good” bodies for dancing. But when we look deeper there are also larger political issues that deal with marginalization and societal pressure to conform to a norm.
What’s the secret then, to creating body positivity in our dance classes, on stage, and in our communities? That iceberg can feel big, overwhelming, and confusing. It starts, as most important issues do, with ourselves. Deciding what body positivity means to you personally, and finding thoughtful and sensitive ways to embrace that definition and spread it outwards is a great first step. Continue having conversations, especially difficult ones. Hearing different points of view, and staying open minded are also vital. Start your own conversations - with students, colleagues and dance professionals. These steps will create a buzz (and maybe even a new hashtag) that’s not just topical, but can affect real change; change in how we teach dance, in how we treat ourselves, and how we treat others.
Katrena Cohea has been teaching dance for over 10 years, at both for profit and not for profit schools and serving a diverse community of dancers. She graduated with B.A. in Theater and Dance from CSUEB, where she trained with noted Bay Area directors/choreographers Nina Haft, Eric Kupers and Laura Elaine Ellis. She has performed and taught across the United States and Canada including Vancouver, New Mexico, and New York. Katrena is the Owner and Founder of Different Drummer Dance, a bi-coastal dance studio on a mission to teach dance from the inside out. Different Drummer Dance takes a bright, fresh, and big-hearted approach to dance education, focusing on growth mindset and positive affirmations so dancers grow up knowing that their bodies and ideas are powerful. Katrena is also a writer for the magazine The Wonderful World of Dance, a member of The Royal Academy of Dance and the National Dance Education Organization. She splits her time between Northern California and upstate New York, and travels to as many new places as she can with her husband and dance shoes in tow.
Photos by Justine Fernandez