For as long as I can remember, from as many sources as I can remember, I have been told that as a modern/contemporary dancer I need to be hyperaware of the food I put into my body and the way I maintain my physical fitness. From the required “Dance Science” course in my already physically intense undergraduate dance department, which emphasized the importance of cross-training through mandatory, guided trips to the gym; to articles from dance publications which walk me through the almond butter, chia seed rich diets of professional dancers; the messaging is clear: my body is my instrument and if I choose not to maintain it, it will fall out of tune.
The not at all surprising irony of this constant dialogue on dancer “health” is that it has caused my relationship with diet and exercise to suffer. I, like most people, feel healthier and happier when I get regular exercise and eat well. However, the reason I visit the gym or take a run is almost always tainted by fear and shame. I hear a constant murmur in the back of my head that if I take too many days off, I will get out of shape and no longer be valuable as a dancer. My relationship with food has shifted throughout my life, and I have gone through periods of restrictive eating tendencies due, in part, to the idea that controlling what I eat would give me a “dancer’s physique”—which is coded language for thin and lean muscled, though of course many dancers I admire have physiques unlike this.
Another irony of the persistent messaging that dancers, as practitioners of the body, need to be hyper-vigilant about our diet and exercise is that there is an equal and opposite argument to be made.
Dancers, more than almost anyone, recognize the body as much more than a functional tool. While movement in the day-to-day exists to serve a purpose—reaching for a glass on a high shelf, running to catch the bus—dancers exemplify the idea that the body moving in space can be an end of its own. The body, without any external goal or task, can be joyful, sorrowful, inquisitive, exploratory: the body is art.
It’s counterintuitive that this expansive philosophy on movement is so often paired with such a perfunctory one with regard to food and fitness. The approach which views the body as a machine in which one can put in healthy foods and good behaviors and achieve a more well-performing vessel is antithetical to the dancer’s philosophy that bodies are more than their ability to efficiently complete essential tasks.
Should we not strive for a contemporary dance culture which rejects a dehumanizing approach to our bodies? Can we apply our broad, wide-open understanding of movement to our approach to health?
Of course, living a healthy lifestyle is important for anyone. Some dancers need to maintain certain exercise practices, especially if dealing with injury, imbalance, or a particularly demanding piece. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach to health, and neither “health” nor “fitness” is a synonym for wellness. Wellness requires adaptability and acceptance of the ebbs and flows of one’s body, mind, and spirit. While fitness can be achieved by following strict routines, a pursuit of wellness requires us to acknowledge that any routine which causes mental pain, no matter how beneficial to the muscles and joints, is not a net positive. To be truly well, we have to find pleasure in the foods we eat and the exercises we do. Wellness requires curiosity rather than the prescriptivism of fitness or health. If we do need to cross-train, can it be as an experiment in the mechanics of our bodies rather than as moralized proof that we are committed to our craft?
I am trying to practice what I preach. I am trying to expand my schema beyond the view of eating and exercising as uncreative, functional acts which will either add to my dance ability or subtract from it.
When judging my diet, I am trying to forget the sugars and fats and instead focus on how joyful I am when eating, how the food feels in my body. When I go to sleep at night, I am trying to remember what it felt like to eat my breakfast.
I am trying to measure the success of my fitness routine not by the frequency of my gym visits or how many miles I run, but as another way that my body moves in space. It’s a practice of recognizing that anytime any body moves in space we are bound to have a layered, complex physical, emotional, and psychological reaction.
I am trying to envision a future dance field unburdened from the weight of restrictive eating and fitness routines. I would like us to relish each minute detail of our physical selves in the way that only dancers know how. I want us to be amazed at the miracle of what a body in space can do every single time, regardless of its workout, what it eats, or if it is our own. I dream of a future where we feed and exercise our bodies not in shame or fear, but in wonder and delight.