Here Is Why Saying I Have a Dancer’s Body Is Not a Compliment
Someone told me I had a “dancer’s body” the other day, and I pretended it was flattering.
“Thank you,” I said, since I hate refuting compliments (and believe intent matters more than execution), but inside I felt conflicted. Gross. Sad. I felt conflicted-gross-sad because the term “dancer’s body” should mean a lot of things, but when we say it, we only mean one thing and we know it.
It doesn’t take much to see the marketing behind the “dancer’s body” concept in the world at large (or, rather, a world that wants us to be very, very small). And I’ve written about this before, of course. Ad nauseam. Amid nauseam. Take Zofran (ondansetron), repeat. But I haven’t written about my own background in fitness and fitness marketing, or how much I’ve willingly contributed to diet culture myself.
Most of us have seen the dance-inspired workouts and barre programs that tout terms like “long and lean” as the primary descriptor for the elusive and exclusive “ballerina body type.” But even if it sounds like “posture and pose,” “long and lean” means one thing and one thing only: skinny. And even though I’m ashamed to say it, my past is littered with a litany of long-and-lean linguistics, especially in my certified personal trainer and lifestyle blogger days. In fact, it was my favorite catchphrase.
Oh, how wrong I was.
When we say “dancer’s body,” it should mean a lot of things we don’t mean. It could mean strong. It could mean agile. It could mean mobile — except that’s problematic, too. It could mean expressive. Dynamic (my new favorite term). Tough. Tenured. Treasured.
The problem with everything I just said is that I am not a lot of those things. Mostly the strong part. I am not always strong, and it’s not for lack of trying. My skeleton is not always supple, like we think a dancer’s should be. I have a fake spinal disk, a port-a-cath, a gastric pacemaker, an implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a G-tube, and a J-tube inside my person alone. That’s a lot. I feel gross just listing it all.
I can’t seem to arabesque (lift my leg to the back) without literally ruining a disk or two and taking 20 steps backward (this time metaphorical). I keep wondering, “If I never did an arabesque again, would my body last longer?” Maybe. I’ve tried to adjust my technique and approach over and over, and still can’t avoid the mayhem that ensues after one too many times. So maybe that’s the time I’m in now. The time of life when we say, “What can I cut out so that I can keep being even a fraction of who I used to be?”
I have a dancer’s body from the outside, maybe — but it’s all a lie. I am a figment of your very habituated and accidentally brainwashed imagination. Because within this “dancer’s body” is someone who can’t dance 50% of the time. Who can’t seem to go more than eight weeks before the next skeletal Tinkertoy tower crashes down. Who can’t eat well, or enough, or with enjoyment the majority of the time.
There are limitations here, and maybe that’s good thing. Maybe if more dancers and athletes and adults-who-like-moving-in-their-own-way admitted to not being what they’re told they should be by now in life, we’d all break ourselves a little less. I know I am not everything I want to be. I can’t hit hard or heavy like I should in modern. I can’t hold my leg up to my ear for hours at a time, or ever. I can’t flex and fold and mold like my friends.
I am a Tinker Bell who just smoked helium, and that’s simply how my body moves. And it’s the only one I have. No amount of self-hatred, or deprecation, or targeted workouts, or strange stretching techniques, or “just do this or that” will reinvent the mold I was born into. I can learn everything in the world about how to be a better dancer (and I certainly am trying), and still never be able to think my way to a new body.
This body is my body and she helps me dance, but she is not a dancer’s body because there is no such thing. I used to say a workout would make someone “long and lean,” or that the way our body looks matters when we dance.
Oh, how wrong I was.
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