It is no secret that dancers have complicated relationships with their bodies. On the one hand, our bodies are our art, our livelihood, and our means of expression. On the other, as we train in dance, it is easy to feel as though we are fighting against our bodies—like we are being held back by our physical limitations and by the ways we don’t measure up to our industry’s ideals. This paradox was the impetus for creating Love Your Body Week. Managing and facilitating Love Your Body Week is by far one of the most rewarding parts of my job, and having it as a part of our studio calendar each year makes me proud to be a faculty member at All That Dance. During Love Your Body Week, we take time out of each class for activities focused on fostering healthy body image in our dancers. It is our goal to create a culture of kindness among our students and staff, and to cultivate an environment that is accepting and supportive of all sorts of dancers and body types. We certainly aren’t trying to diagnose or treat any disorders, or to claim any sort of expertise in that area (though we offer contact information for professional resources to dancers or family members who express interest). As so many dancers do, I struggled as a teen and young adult with my own body image issues. I have known what it is like to be consumed by negativity and self-doubt, and, as such, Love Your Body Week is very close to my heart. Helping young dancers navigate their own road to self-acceptance is such important work, and it is an honor and a joy for me to be able to devote so much of myself to that cause.
Love Your Body Week at All That Dance was started in 2005 by my dear friend and mentor, Rachel Stewart. As teachers, we all witness those distressing moments where our young students experience body dissatisfaction. Rachel was struck by one such moment in particular, when some of her 5-year-old students were comparing the sizes of their thighs. Rachel was compelled to work to counteract the negative messages about our bodies present in the media every day, and also to acknowledge the additional pressures that young dancers face. Rachel approached our studio founder and director, Maygan Wurzer, who supported the endeavor wholeheartedly. Maygan’s vision for her studio was always one of a warm, supportive environment in which all dancers, regardless of body type, can feel at home. It was clear to her from the beginning that Love Your Body Week would be an excellent addition to her program. We started involving student leadership in 2006. Rachel collaborated with another instructor, Emily German, to work with the members of our chapter of the National Honor Society for Dance Arts (NHSDA). These high school dancers are in our highest technique levels, and on top of maintaining high GPAs at school, they are very involved in our studio community. They participate in dance-focused service work, and Love Your Body Week has become a big part of that mission.
I started working with NHSDA in 2009, and it has been such a pleasure to continue to build Love Your Body Week. As our NHSDA Chapter Sponsor, I work to develop the week-long curriculum each year and oversee the facilitation of the event. For me, watching teens take ownership of Love Your Body Week is always what is most exciting. NHSDA members begin the event by spending a Sunday afternoon preparing and decorating the studio. Each year I am truly amazed by the enthusiasm that these students share for Love Your Body Week, and their investment in its message. As the week progresses, NHSDA members visit classes to lead activities with younger dancers as well as with their peers. Each student writes or draws something that they appreciate about their body and tapes it to the mirror. For our littlest dancers, this means choosing a favorite body part to draw a picture of and thinking about what that part allows them to do. Older children pay compliments to their classmates and to themselves. Teens dive into deeper conversations exploring body positivity through a number of lenses, such as the way an individual’s energy can influence those around them, or the value and potential pitfalls of a dancer’s relationship with the mirror. By the end of the week, our mirrors are completely covered with positive words and images about our bodies. This makes a powerful visual statement about focusing on the things our bodies can do rather than on what we look like—not always an easy task for the young dancer.
At the beginning, Love Your Body Week felt revolutionary, and in some ways it still does. However, I think what is most significant is seeing how normal and expected it is for our dancers now. Love Your Body Week is just as much a part of our annual schedule as our year-end performances. It is a beloved studio tradition, and most of our current students don’t remember a time before its existence. These dancers have grown up with the clear and intentional expectation that they be kind to one another, as well as an understanding that it is important to also be kind to themselves. These are the things we want them take with them into college and adulthood. It is our hope that our dancers leave us as graduates not only with technical proficiency and a solid work ethic, but also with an appreciation for their bodies and for the joy that can be found in dance.
Teaching young artists is an enormous responsibility. As dance teachers, we have the ability to empower and to inspire. We can help to shape the way our students perceive themselves, the way they connect to dance, and, really, the way they process the world around them. It has become clear to me in my own teaching that confidence and a sense of self-worth are hugely important in the development of artistry. As I watch my students grow and mature, I can clearly see that when a dancer believes she has value, she is more willing to push herself, to take risks, and to put herself out there and be vulnerable for the sake of her art. I know that we can’t save all of our dancers from ever experiencing feelings of self-doubt or insecurity. We can, however, do our best to invest in each of our students, to help them feel acknowledged and supported, to help them see and appreciate their gifts and the potential that they each hold. I also know that Love Your Body Week can’t serve as a band-aid, and that we can’t solve any of these problems simply by spending one week talking about them. We must be mindful about how we interact with our students and the messages that we send them throughout all of our time with them.
Love Your Body Week gives us a chance to step back and remind our students, and ourselves, to be grateful for what our bodies do for us day in and day out—that we are lucky enough to have the opportunity to dance, and to share in that passion with those around us. At All That Dance, we believe that if we are able to create a positive and encouraging environment for our dancers, they will leave us with enough self-assurance to be able to maintain their love for dance in many different contexts. Some will choose to pursue dance in college or beyond, others will not. Either way, we want to help them find a greater appreciation for themselves and help ensure that their time as dancers constructively influences their identities throughout their lives. Working with children and teens as they negotiate complex questions of body image is challenging, even heartbreaking at times. Dancers have complicated relationships with their bodies, and that fact may never change. Still, as dancers, we can also become exceptionally connected to our bodies, a truth that can influence who we are in so many wonderful ways. Dance can build us up, teach us to push beyond our limits, fortify our minds, and embolden our spirits.
Mary Pisegna Gorder is a dance instructor, Ballet Department Lead and National Honor Society for Dance Arts Chapter Sponsor at All That Dance in Seattle, WA. She teaches children and teens ages 4-18, and holds a B.S. in Psychology with a Minor in Dance from the University of Oregon.