Ballroom, Body Image, and Lousy Bargains

[Disclaimer: this is my personal experience and not any kind of representative sample. Also, all the stuff I’m talking about here has been my experience as a professional; my experience as a student was very different, so please don’t anybody think I’m talking about your experience, your situation. I’m really not.]

•     •     •

Two years ago: I was having coffee with a friend, my competition fake nails (bright orange) wrapped around the white mug which I thought looked cool. 

“If it makes me too crazy, I’ll stop,” I said. “I can keep it straight in my head.”

“I don’t know if you’ll be able to,” she said. “Is it worth it?”

“I think so,” I said. “It’s hard. But I think I can keep it from getting to me, too much.”

•     •     •

A year ago: a conversation with a coach.

“Take it from me,” he said. “Unless you look the right way, they just don’t take you seriously.”

“I know,” I said.

“The judges won’t even look at your dancing,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

•     •     •

Two weeks ago: a conversation with a student.

“You look amazing,” she said. “Like, you always looked great, but now…”

“Well, thanks,” I said, “I’ve been training pretty hard and I’m happy with where my dancing is.”

“No,” she said, “I mean, sure, your dancing is awesome, but I mean… YOU look great. Like, you’ve lost a lot of weight and, I don’t know, you look like a real ballroom dancer now.”

*     *     *

When I started dancing again three years ago, I was pretty seriously out of shape, for lots of reasons. Still, I had worked hard in my own brain to be okay with who I was and how I looked.

It would take me a long time, but I finally managed to mostly stop that horrible thing where when you feel bad about yourself, you say the worst things you can think of in your brain… why? I don’t know, I think it’s sort of like emotional cutting. It’s really nasty. Anyway, my go-to most horrible thing was always, you’re fat, you’re ugly. Simple, distilled, and unvarnished.

And it worked, until one day I (thanks in no small part to feminism and body acceptance activists’ writing) I said to myself, dude, seriously – you are fat. Relax. It’s fine. It’s just what it is. And you’re not ugly. And even if you were, why is that like the worst thing in the world? Who is it hurting? 

And after that, I would still, when I felt horrible, fall into the thought pattern of: you are so disgusting…but then I would think, eh, maybe? But whatever. Not that big a deal.

Changing that thought process and actually appreciating my body for what it could do instead of hating it for being a constant disappointment was no easy task.

Which is why when I started dancing more seriously and getting into better shape, it felt almost like a betrayal.

I hated that I was getting non-stop positive reinforcement from people – you look so great! Yay for you! Oh my gosh, you look amazing!

Which basically just meant, in my brain: you know all that damaging shit you thought about yourself before? Yeah, you were right. And everybody else thought it too.

The problem is, on the floor, your body is your instrument. That’s what you perform with, that’s the site where your art is produced. So you have to be okay with it being the object of other peoples’ regard, with their critical gaze – that’s part of the JOB. But it also sucks because, you know, it’s you. Added to which, the emotional intensity and honesty that dancing requires means that if you ARE separated from your body, if you are not truly engaged with your movement, it doesn’t work. So you have to fully inhabit your body and accept that it will be constantly critiqued. It’s difficult not to take that personally.

I know – I absolutely know – that in many ways, ballroom dancing is a shallow fucking industry. That’s okay. Take it or leave it, right?

But some days, the lack of critical awareness is harder than others. And it’s even tougher when you’re a smart cookie who doesn’t look like a ballroom dancer is supposed to look.

I am not a tiny Russian woman, with legs up to my eyebrows and perfect ballet feet. I never will be. At my highest potential, when I am eventually in the best shape I possibly can be, I will be super strong and powerful, but still short and pretty compact. That’s just how I’m built.

Right now, I’m still Ballroom Fat (TM) – basically like Hollywood Fat. Defined as: actually totally fine and in good shape and in a normal, uncrazy world, not really meriting comment; but in your weird twisted world, so gross.

And you know what sucks about that the most? I see these other girls on the floor, thin and pretty and tan, and I am objectively better than they are. Like, my turns are faster, my footwork is cleaner, my connection is better, my dancing is just of a higher standard. But it does. Not. Matter.

Until I look the right way, I am not going to have an easy time finding a serious partner, and I am not going to be marked well by the judges. It sucks out loud, and I hate it. Because I actually like how I look and my whole situation, but I know that I am in the minority on that one. There is a certain standard, an appearance, A Look – and it’s just the ante you have to throw on the table, your cost of admission. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it, but it’s how the system works.

So now, unlike before, the shit I say to myself is true.

Why doesn’t that dude want to dance with you? Because you’re fat.

Why did you not make the finals? Because you look the wrong way.

I know that it’s shallow and stupid and that’s okay, I guess, because mostly I don’t feel bad about myself, I just feel tired. It is exhausting to know that you are looked at and judged and that you fall short all the time, and even worse to realize that when someone actually takes the time to see you and your dancing, they recognize the quality. Always the tone of surprise – hey, you’re pretty good!

Fuck you.

But really? What I dislike the most is the crazy bargains it makes me deal with, the chock full of nuts ideas it makes me entertain.

*     *     *

A week ago: drinks with another dancer.

“I need the judges to look at me and not say, oh, that fat girl is a pretty decent dancer,” I said.

“Totally,” she replied. “You want them to look at you and say, oh, that girl is a good dancer.”

“Exactly,” I said.

“But you’re doing it, right?” she asked. “I mean, you’re in better shape and you’re eating better, and, like, you must feel better…”

“I am, and I do,” I said. “But how fucked up is it that I don’t really care about any of that? Like, if you said to me: you can dance for the next twenty years and stay pretty much how you are right now, or you can dance for five years, blow your knees completely, but look thin and amazing for that period? I would take the five.”

“And I hate that I think that,” I added.

“Yeah,” she said, thinking for a long moment. “But I’d take the five too.”

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