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.
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?
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.
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.
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