Tl;dr The way anatomy and alignment is taught to dancers often puts too much pressure on us to “fix” ourselves. We need to find a balance where we can dance within a risk we find acceptable and still embrace the particular features of our individual bodies.
The other day at the gym, I had to take the treadmill that was in front of the gigantic mirror and, as a result, caught a glimpse of my bowlegs, which has since sent me down a spiral of despair at my terrible body alignment and how that means I’ll never be a good dancer.
The thing is, my bowlegs are not that bad. Or, at least, they weren’t when I first learned about what it meant in an anatomical sense. It’s quite common for dancers that do ballet and other forms of dance that require turnout. “Forcing” turnout (ie. what we’re not supposed to do) forces the shinbone out of its correct inward spiral, creates bowlegs, and, of course, causes improper alignment in the legs and rest of the body, because everything is connected.
My legs were a bit bowed, but I learned this and became very defensive of my small turnout when teachers tried to get me to force it. It knew it was good for alignment, the end. Except no one is immune to the overarching pressures around them and while I was learning about the proper alignment of the shinbone, I was also learning that I would never be a dancer without more turnout. I ended up forcing my turnout a lot more than I thought I was, even while I complacently thought that I knew about proper alignment and that meant I danced safely and properly.
Over the years, my bowlegs have become more pronounced until we come to this particular moment, where I look at my shinbones and want to cry because they’re not Properly Aligned.
Here’s the thing – the new movement to create “safe” dancers, including education in anatomy and kinesiology, is about as bad with body image as all other forms of dance education. And, it has the added benefit of informing dancers that, if their body isn’t within the alignment and anatomy taught to them, they are dancing dangerously. And it includes the nice long list of injuries that can be sustained from it. AND, it implicitly suggests that a dancer is at fault if they get injured.
No body is ever in perfect alignment. I want to argue that dancers’ bodies are particularly bad because we are training to do things that a non-dancing body may never want to do. And, especially now, every anatomy class a dance student takes is offset by aesthetics that are only possible for certain bodies and require all other bodies to go out of “safe” ranges of movement in order to do it.
The point of anatomy and dance science education for dancers isn’t to make us feel ashamed of our bodies or our unhealthy habits, it’s to tell us what we can do better to be better dancers. It’s telling us how to avoid injury.
But sometimes, when I look at my bowlegs and shallow turnout and embarrassingly weak core, I am ashamed. I am ashamed because I’ve known about these “defects” in my body and I haven’t been able to fix them, despite my strong education in how they’re dangerous. It becomes my fault if I get injured. As a result, I am terrified of injury.
Still, I do not want to fix my body, because fixing it suggests that there’s something to be ashamed of in the first place.
I want to be able to celebrate my body. Despite the bowlegs and improper foot alignment, I have never had an injury that has taken me completely out of dance for an extended length of time. That’s fucking amazing for someone that’s danced for thirteenish years and has done particularly high-impact, damaging dance styles (Irish Step, morris dance, pointe work…). I have to admit it’s luck, I seem to have an injury-resistant body at the moment. Because, at the end of the day, injury is often unavoidable for dancers and, while certain habits may help prevent it, nothing can actually prevent it (and someday my look will run out, whether I like it or not).
I’m not saying to completely abandon safe dance practices, because that’s ridiculous. There’s a reason why we warm-up, cooldown, fight for proper alignment, and try to dance within acceptable risk parameters.
But we can’t fix or change the bodies we have. My body is a result of good habits, bad habits (terrible habits), and training, but it’s a good body. It’s gotten me this far and it will keep going. Maybe someday I’ll start sorting out my shinbones, but right now, I’m dancing with them. I know the risks, but I would rather keep finding my pathways in movement than stop everything to fix myself before moving onwards.
And I hope, in the future, to see anatomy and alignment taught to dancers more as “this is how you work with your specific form of misalignment” instead of “this is proper alignment and deviations are dangerous and must be fixed.”
All bodies are good bodies. All dancing bodies are good for dancing. There’s nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to improper alignment.