Saturday 10 January 2015

Breaking the myth of the hippo in the tutu

On grace and the larger dancer.

I'm not sure how it happened, but apparently I am a "larger dancer". I'm not plus sized, but in a roomful of professional oriental dancers, I'll be tipping the scale a bit.

I'm finding peace in this. I have never been a delicate flower, even when I was "skinny" the bulk of muscle on my thighs wouldn't fit comfortably into my size 10 jeans. I am strong, powerful, curvy, and I'll never be slight or petite, I'm just not built that way.

There are stereotypes around bellydance that suggest we should look a certain way. They are all wrong.There is no "should" in the way anyone looks, and dancers, as artists, are human, and part of the beauty of art is seeing the humanity in the performer. The individuality in aesthetic should be celebrated as much as the individuality in musicality or costume design.

I love seeing how movement looks on different bodies, and I love seeing a dancer who has learned how to refine her movements so that her body and technique come together to produce something uniquely beautiful.

But what I want to talk about today is almost the opposite of that, because although it is true that we can take advantage of our shape and size to enhance our dance, it is really important not to build walls for ourselves, or assume that our body size excludes us from any aspect of our art. While today I am considering bigger dancers, the spirit of this can apply to any dancers, that bellydance is for every body, all of it. Not conforming to the stereotype for a particular style, shouldn't be a barrier to learning and performing.

Blueprints and assumptions

My first teacher was a lovely dancer, she was 6 foot tall, slim, blonde and graceful. When I, as a baby dancer, watched her dance I was mesmerised and I wanted to be able to be like her, but put us side by side and I clearly wasn't.

Her favoured style was Classic Orientale, elegant, graceful, it suited her willowy form and at the time, I mistakenly assumed that her grace came from her height and her long, lean limbs, and therefore was not something that I could ever achieve. She was always very encouraging, but I had it set in my mind, that wasn't the style for me.

Our cultural blueprint for grace in dance is strongly influenced by ballet. So perhaps it is reasonable to assume that to dance gracefully one must have the figure of a ballet dancer. In truth however, ballet schools restrict their intake to girls of a particular body type, not because that is the only figure that can accomplish grace, but because of a traditional aesthetic that has little to do with skill.

I decided to focus on earthier styles. I could put my juicy hipwork to good use in Baladi, and the costumes are more flattering, I love the style and I stayed comfortable in the assumption that I could never be graceful.

Facing the demons

It was when I was about 20 weeks pregnant with my first child, that I found myself facing the elephant in the room. I was going to Shona Hagan's monthly advanced class. It was brilliant, 4 hours worth of drills, performance skills and great feedback from Shona and the rest of the group. Every month we would prepare 1 minute of performance, for critique. This month, Shona had asked me to prepare something in the Orientale style, because she hadn't seen me dance it yet - for reasons explained above.

I prepared a dance, but I hated it. I was not only now a stocky dancer, I was a pregnant one. I imagined that when I danced I looked like the sterotypical hippo in a pink tutu. Half an hour before I was due to leave for class, my husband came in to find me sat on the floor in tears.

To be fair, the sitting on the floor crying stage is fairly vital in the creation of any decent performance of mine. If I haven't come to a point where I believe everything is awful and I should just give up dancing and go live in a cave, I'm not trying hard enough. This episode actually helped me become more mindful of this, and overcoming it, but that isn't the point here, so we move on.

So he gave me a hug, and told me that simply, if I didn't want to do it, I didn't have to. I could skip class, I could go and not perform, any of those things would be fine. However, now I knew that, why didn't I take a deep breath, and give it one more try, no pressure.

So I did just that. Then I realised it was actually OK and I decided to go to class, and you know what? It was OK. I got good feedback, I learned that maybe Oriental style wasn't off limits to me. Maybe the barrier was just something I imagined.

Why grace belongs to every dancer.

It's easy to assume that if you are bulkier, that you are going to have a harder time being graceful, but that's rubbish, let me tell you why.

Grace is not the result of a lack of bodyweight. It is not determined by height or dress size.

Grace is the result of strong and controlled muscle movement. Graceful arms come from correctly engaging your strong upper back muscles, freeing your shoulders and arms to move as if your arms are actually weightless. Graceful footwork comes from balance, which comes from core strength and fine control.

So you don't have to be light to tread lightly. In fact I would be more inclined to suggest that grace is the product of good technique and a high power to weight ratio. If a slight person can be clumsy, then a stocky person can be graceful.

If you are fit and heavy then you are already strong. You can move your bodyweight,you train for this all the time, so you are not disadvantaged merely because your bodyweight might be greater than the next dancer.

So let's lose that barrier, and remind ourselves that like anything else in dance, grace comes with practice and training. There are no absolutes, allow your limits to be defined by your own ability and drive, not a stereotype.

I'm not willowy, but I am strong, powerful, I have gooey hips, explosive shimmies and yes, I have grace.

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