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Guest post by Tatum Lang

In this post, I talk about my experience with aesthetic pressure over the course of my dance career so far, as well as how to exist in an industry that perpetuates the message that unless you look a certain way, there is no space for you.  

aesthetics in dance

My early experience.

I grew up in a small Midwestern town in Minnesota and started dancing at age 3.  I trained in ballet, modern, jazz, and tap through my middle and high school years, and attended a few intensives at well-known professional schools through my high school years. 

When I was 16, I went on my first diet in an attempt to improve my dancing. This led me down a 5–6 year struggle with disordered eating, body image struggles, and low self-esteem.  I had convinced myself that becoming smaller is what I needed to do to succeed at my art, and I wanted it so badly that I did it happily.  

My dream was to be in a ballet company, but I later came to realize that though I loved ballet, there were many factors that would prevent me from ever achieving that end.  Mainly, my body.  Though I tried to fight it through dieting, restricting my eating, and excessively working out, I learned this the hard way through attending summer intensives and seeing a clear difference between the girls who were favored, and those who were not.  

Though I would regularly get noticed for my performance abilities, artistry, and sound technique, I couldn’t compete with thinness, turnout, hyper-extended knees, and high-arched feet.   I had good feet but not great feet.  I had straight knees, but not hyper-extended knees.  And though my size 4 body fits in fine with the non-dancing population, it soon became clear that I was far too “big” for the ballet world.

Challenges in college.

I attended college at a wonderful dance program in the Midwest to pursue a BFA in Dance and a Minor in Arts Entrepreneurship. I kept up with intense ballet training but delved into contemporary dance in a way I had been unfamiliar with. It was amazing, and I soon knew that contemporary dance was the path for me.  

Contemporary dance was so much more inviting to me, and I found more opportunity to express my then chaotic emotions, which was comforting.  However, I was still deep in the throes of disordered eating, trying desperately to maintain a weight that was far too low for my body through extremely restrictive food rules (and eventually bingeing).  My lean figure was embraced at school. It felt good, but in the back of my mind, I was always concerned about what would happen if my body changed.

Eventually, that’s what happened.  My body and mind eventually couldn’t take my restrictive eating habits anymore.  This impacted my health and I started to strain muscles easier (something I had never experienced), and a grade 1 ankle sprain I got from running in the grass with my friends took three and a half months to heal — far longer than it should have according to my doctor.  

I had developed a severe habit of bingeing and restricting, and I even started skipping some of my dance classes because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror.  I often wondered to myself, Is it supposed to be this hard?

Finding support.

After applying for a scholarship for the Dancer’s Best Body Program, I connected with Jess and committed to changing my ways.  I put my dreams and worries in dance on hold because I knew I needed help with my health.  

Long story short, it changed my life.  I can happily say that I am about three and a half years past my eating struggles. I have built a resilient body image for myself, I am the strongest I’ve ever been…and I am a working professional dancer in a major city.  

When you try to pursue an elite career and are bombarded with messaging that teaches you that only the “fittest” can survive, the desire to control your body becomes an addiction.  Control your body, control your career.  

Check out this related post :   When Skinny Isn’t Possible

Keep your body small, you’ll get favorable casting.  Keep your body slim and toned, you’ll be noticed more…you’ll be beautiful.  And even though certain college dance settings and the contemporary dance genre can be more accepting than ballet, it would be silly to refuse to address that there is indeed still bias at the front of the room.

As a teacher myself, though I don’t have any body preferences, when I see a more traditional-looking balletic figure, I STILL think to myself, They are so lucky.  I work daily to ensure that my classroom environment is one where how your body looks is the LEAST important thing. 

In my journey, there were many instances that occurred where I felt so horrible about my body, my dancing, and my life, that I almost walked away altogether.  I was sick of feeling self-conscious, I was ashamed that I had put so much time and effort into something that I felt like I was failing at, and the thought of auditioning brought on a lot of anxiety and feelings of comparison.  

I often wondered how I could consider pursuing a professional career when I couldn’t even survive fitting the mold that I thought was required by my dream career? 

How DO we exist in an industry with such outrageous aesthetic pressure and such deeply ingrained biases about body types?

To me, this is where the rubber meets the road. You have to seriously consider how much you love dancing and what you’re willing to do to keep it in your life.  

Change the narrative of what constitutes success and being “good enough.”  

This is still a daily practice for me. I decide if I am good enough, not anybody else. In my career, I have understudied and I have watched other dancers understudy countless roles.  Though sometimes there is a difference in performance between first cast and second cast, sometimes, the only difference is a “look.” 

Although it can be hard to swallow being seen differently and not being first choice for whatever reason, at the end of the day, what matters is believing and knowing that you are capable of stepping into lead roles, regardless of what you look like.  I try to remind myself that I am doing my best.  One of my favorite affirmations for this is “I trust that opportunities that are meant for me will not pass me by.”

Let your imperfections fuel you to differentiate yourself in other ways.  

How am I relating to the rep I’m performing? How do I tell a story with my movement? What do I add to my company or cast beyond my body?  A huge part of success and resilience in dance is about the way you work, not the way you look.  

If you can become a master of your own body and be efficient and malleable while also capitalizing on your personality and uniqueness, you will go further than someone who just has an “ideal” body.  Remove your body from the equation and look at how you do things.  Dance is hard.  You need grit, patience, and a lot of resilience.  Hone in on those unique skills that only you can bring to the table.  

Take care of yourself and put yourself first. I have learned that if I feel my best, then I’ll dance my best.  I am no longer interested in changing my body for dance, because that does not serve my dancing.  If I am fueling myself properly and in a way that makes me perform well and have joy, then at the end of the day, that’s enough.  

There is only so much you can do to change your body before it hurts more than it helps.  

Though that is a hard truth to accept, you need to accept it in order to preserve your mental and physical health.  Whenever I get tempted to restrict or feel pressure to change my body, I remind myself that even at my very thinnest, I was miserable. 

Check out this related post :   The Whole Dancer 2023 Ambassadors

It was only after gaining weight that I realized how much my body and dancing were suffering by trying to fit the mold.  I can be a great dancer without suffering, and I should not suffer to be a great dancer.  

Decide for yourself what you believe is important when it comes to dance.  Does important work = fitting a mold? Or, does important work involve being in a healthy environment and having a joyful experience?  The product you are a part of is totally important, but if that product (show, company job, presentation) is based around being thin or any unhealthy standard, then I’m not sure how valuable it really is.  

How do your own values when it comes to aesthetics measure up to those of the environment you are in?  If you are receiving messages that are leading you to believe that your body is the problem, it’s time to seriously assess whether or not this is a good place for you.  

Consider being open to finding spaces that appreciate you, even if they aren’t your first choice.  

Put your passion for dancing first. This might look like finding spaces that accept you for you.  It also might mean accepting the fact that your career might not pan out the way you wanted. “If the plan doesn’t work, change the plan, not the goal.”  

Another possibility would be to start making your own work, or simply designing a schedule that allows you to take your favorite classes and enjoy dancing.  This can be a powerful way to rediscover what it feels like to dance for you and not them.

If you find yourself thinking, I only want a dance career if it means I get to perform, and that scares you, it’s okay.  A lot of times as dancers, we spend so much time trying to master our craft that the thought of quitting (even if it’s for the best) feels like failure in itself.  There is this weird feeling of loyalty to the craft that says, “If you don’t make something of yourself, you wasted your time.”  

This simply isn’t true.  There are so many benefits to dancing that don’t involve dancing itself, and there is no shame in deciding that this path isn’t for you.  It will always be a part of you, and the lessons and challenges that you grew from are experiences that hopefully enriched your character and shaped you into the wonderful person you are today.  That is not failure.  

I don’t (and never did) have a stereotypical “dancer body,” but what I do have is a joyful dance career.  As more dancers express frustrations and stories around their experiences with the aesthetic pressures of the dance world and begin to pursue different avenues involving dance and performance, more opportunities and possibilities are created for all of us who feel that we don’t fit the mold, and the dance world (ever so slowly) changes.  

When I learned to embrace both the fact that I don’t fit the mold and the winding and chaotic path that is my dance journey, I began to find more excitement, creativity, and new possibilities amid all of the question marks floating around in my brain. It is so possible to find success outside of the mold. I just had to adjust my expectations and methods of getting there.  

Though it may not feel like it now, your unique journey is a beautiful one. Trust that the opportunities that are meant for you will not pass you by.


For Eating Disorder Resources visit: https://emilyprogram.com

Aesthetics in Dance: How Do We Exist When We Don’t Fit the Mold?

Jess Spinner

Jess is a former professional ballet dancer turned Holistic Health, Nutrition, and Lifestyle Coach for high level dancers. She founded The Whole Dancer in 2015 after identifying a greater need for balance, wellness and support in the dance world. Since The Whole Dancer was founded, Jess has worked with 100's of dancers worldwide at top companies and schools. She has been featured in or written for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine, Pointe Magazine, and Dance Spirit Magazine.

9 thoughts on “Aesthetics in Dance: How Do We Exist When We Don’t Fit the Mold?

  • September 14, 2023 at 5:31 pm
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    Hi, thank you for sharing your story! I’m not a dancer but have a daughter who is a dancer and she has also struggled with not having the right type of everything when it comes to her body. She too has the technique and the musicality but she has learned that to force her turnout to where classical always demands is damaging. She too has found more freedom in contemporary.

    I’m just wondering if there’s a list somewhere that collects all the names of dance companies that enjoy body diversity but still strive for high standards in choreography and performance? We’ve found that even trying to find a list of contemporary dance companies around the world is difficult. It’s even harder to try and find the companies that are more relaxed on things like turnout, how arched the feet are, body types etc. How do dancers who are like you and my daughter fine those places somewhat easily instead of trying to sift through endless articles in dance magazines?

    I find it all very frustrating when trying to help my daughter find these welcoming spaces. Can’t someone just make a list of contemporary companies (often more welcoming of diverse body types) in the US and Europe and also make a list of any dance company that welcomes body diversity?

    Reply
    • September 20, 2023 at 7:24 pm
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      Hi Megan!

      Thank you for your patience in awaiting my reply. Tatum’s story absolutely connects with so many dancers. I’m so happy that your daughter has found more freedom in contemporary!! What a gift.

      I actually have a list like what you describe but for ballet. It’s definitely a need to create something similar for contemporary companies. I find to start the search she might focus on geographical areas she’s interested in living, that have a reasonable cost of living, or that she’s drawn to for some reason. Then, search for companies in those places. Once you find some companies reach out to current dancers (via instagram usually works) and ask them about their experiences there.

      In the meantime, I’ll start working on a list!
      Thank you so much for sharing your daughter’s experience and writing this comment.
      All the best,
      Jess (The Whole Dancer founder)

      Reply
    • November 21, 2023 at 3:00 pm
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      Hi Megan,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your response! I am so glad this post resonated with you and your daughter. In my experience finding a dance job, I did extensive research on the dance scenes in the cities I was interested in. I would Google “dance companies Chicago,” and use Instagram as well to find companies/dancers, so that I could get a glimpse into what the dance scene would look like in terms of body diversity, company rep, and company size. I would read dancer bios and see how their experience compared to mine and watching videos of company rep.

      To be honest, a lot of the companies I looked at ~felt~ unapproachable, but this was more due to my doubts around my abilities to get a contract. I ended up moving to Chicago without a contract (I paid my bills through teaching and planned to pursue auditions once I landed) and began to take open contemporary classes in the city to get a feel for the vibes. Eventually, I started taking open company classes and really started to see just how possible getting a contract could be. Not everyone had perfect turnout or feet. Not everyone had super hight extensions, etc. Bodies weren’t as much of a big deal as I initially thought they would be. Don’t get caught up in labeling yourself as too big, not good enough feet, etc., because I have found it doesn’t matter as much as I thought it did (unless you’re shooting for world class companies).

      It was much easier for me to forge my path once I got to Chicago, as I was able to dance alongside people that currently had contracts and get a real feel for what being a professional company dancer looked like. I could see what company values were for myself, vs just watching a picture perfect promo video.

      Making those initial connections and lightly networking (being a friendly face in classes, not being afraid to talk to people, etc.) is also a huge part of getting jobs (as a freelancer in Chicago). That being said, a company may display to have body diversity, but still not be a welcoming place.

      I wish that there was an all-encompassing list of companies that encompass body diversity, but right now, there’s not. Here is what I did to prepare myself:

      I would recommend narrowing down locations with thriving dance scenes that your daughter is interested in and taking time to really research what is available. If possible, take time to go to these cities for a couple days and see how it feels to you. Do you like the classes that are offered? Are there teachers/companies you are interested in training with? What does the freelance scene look like (project based companies, projects, etc.)? Is there anyone you know who lives there that you could get in contact with and pick their brain? Are there opportunities to pursue dance in a fulfilling way outside of being in a company setting? This last one is important to consider, because the contemporary dance job market is not the healthiest right now. These are all things I did to be the most informed I could – graduating and starting over in a new city in such a tough career is hard!!

      It took me a full year to get on my feet and land a contract. That first year was SO tough – I felt like I was constantly wondering if I was in the right place, if there was a place for me, etc. There was, it just took time, patience and perseverance. Opportunities that are meant for you will not pass you by. Best of luck to your daughter!

      Tatum

      Reply
  • November 9, 2023 at 12:36 am
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    I would love to know how I could access the list of ballet companies you mention. My daughter is a preteen who just realized her true love of classical ballet in the last 18 months and has begun training seriously. Honestly, as a mom, I am frightened by the potential toxicity that comes with this world, especially since she does not have the ideal ballet body type. I need wisdom to guide her in selecting safe and healthy training experiences, especially for summer programs. Thank you for working to make the dance world better for the younger ones coming behind you!

    Reply
    • November 21, 2023 at 3:19 pm
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      Hi Jennifer,

      Thank you so much for reading! The struggle is real. Jess is amazing at helping parents and dancers through things like this. I encourage you to get in touch with her!

      Tatum

      Reply
  • November 12, 2023 at 1:27 pm
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    How did your experiences in college contribute to both personal and artistic growth, especially considering the transition from ballet to contemporary dance?

    Reply
    • November 21, 2023 at 3:16 pm
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      Hi Magda,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment! College really shaped me as a person and a dancer in many ways. I went from training at a studio of around 100 kids in small town Minnesota, to training under many different renowned professors at a big 10 school of over 30,000 students. Living independent from my parents and meeting so many new people opened my eyes to new experiences.

      Regarding dance, I initially wanted to pursue ballet, because I loved the specificity and rigidness of it.
      I was a perfectionist and was a bit addicted to succeeding. As I got older, I eventually realized that pursuing ballet professionally would not be a viable option for me. This was a hard pill to swallow, but college really helped me find a way through those feelings.

      At the U of I, I learned so many new ways of looking at, and experiencing movement within styles I was already familiar with. Every instructor had their own flare. I also learned to view ballet as a transferrable technique and tool for conditioning, vs just a means of training to be perfect. Ballet isn’t necessarily the basis for all other dance techniques, but the muscles and strength you develop inside of it can really help you excel in other forms like contemporary and jazz. I still appreciate ballet SO much and LOVE taking ballet class, but it is more a way of keeping my body in shape and my technique up to par, instead of in pursuit of being a ballerina.

      As I was introduced to more styles of contemporary, I developed a deep love for it. The endless movement pathways and the emotional freedom I felt when dancing contemporary was unlike any other feeling I had experienced. I felt like I could explore my own personality and “play” when dancing contemporary, and that made dancing more fun for me. I wouldn’t have developed those feelings had I not danced in college where I did. My favorite contemporary classes to take are highly technical, and most of the choreography I create is on the contemporary ballet side, as I still love ballet and see a lot of value in how it can inform other contemporary movement practices.

      Tatum

      Reply
  • November 12, 2023 at 1:30 pm
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    From mine point of view transitioning from ballet to contemporary dance in college allowed me to explore a more expressive and emotionally resonant form of movement. This shift not only broadened my artistic horizons but also fostered a more inclusive and welcoming environment for diverse body types and styles. Embracing contemporary dance played a pivotal role in my personal growth, helping me navigate and overcome disordered eating patterns by encouraging a healthier approach to body image. The emphasis on individuality and storytelling in contemporary dance empowered me to appreciate my unique qualities and redefine success beyond conventional aesthetic standards. This transformative journey ultimately contributed to a more positive self-image and a fulfilling dance career.

    Reply
    • November 21, 2023 at 3:17 pm
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      Olivia,

      LOVE this. I totally relate. Thanks for reading!

      Tatum

      Reply

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