On ballet and taking space

“Don’t make yourself small”. Mme. R. shut her eyes and opened her arms widely to show me. “You have to use those long arms!” Something about the words “long arms” didn’t sit well in my stomach and for the rest of the class I struggled to concentrate.

If you saw an old photograph of me from my primary school days, you would recognise me instantly. I was hard to miss. I was skinny, tomboyish and tall – taller than most of my other classmates. I was never bullied for my height but, as is the case with most children, I didn’t like being different. I wanted to be small and “cute” like the other girls in my class. So over the years, I formed habits, mostly subconsciously, to help make me seem smaller. I slouched my shoulders, bent my knees ever so slightly whenever photos were taken and generally did all I could to take up less space.

Then puberty hit and my growth spurt stopped and suddenly I wasn’t the tallest girl in class anymore. But while I felt more comfortable with my height, my old habits still prevailed.

When I started dancing seriously again a few years ago, I came face-to-face with these subconscious behaviours. Slouched shoulders are a no-no in ballet class, as are bent knees (aside from the plies of course) and taking up space with long elegant lines is what one is meant to do. When my teacher mentioned my “long arms”, she hit a nerve that was still raw from my childhood days. She meant it as a compliment but in my mind’s eye all I could see was a lanky kid who didn’t look quite as “cute” as the other little girls.

We all know how body language changes our internal state – people who are open-minded tend to have more “open” body language and vice versa. So I began to think about what my body language was saying about me and my internal state. Why am I so afraid to take up space? Do I not feel I deserve to? Or is it just a result of social conventions of “femininity” (“women should be small”)?

The past few weeks, Mme. R. has been trying to get me to lengthen up and take up more space. She keeps telling me to use my long arms and make myself “bigger”. This, I guess is another case of how dance can ultimately lead to self-acceptance and a better feel of who we are.

I know many people who were tall kids/are tall adults who have all developed their own “creative” ways to make themselves seem smaller. What would happen if we deemed ourselves worthy of taking up the “space” that is rightfully ours?

Something tells me that if we let our bodies unfold, our minds and hearts will undoubtedly follow.

Dance helps your body and mind unfold!

4 thoughts on “On ballet and taking space

  1. I’m very small and always have been, plus I was younger than everyone going through school which made me extra small. At my full adult height I am not even 5 feet tall (about 150cm). I’ve spent a lifetime folding into myself as well. I have good posture when walking but in terms of spreading out, reaching up and out – no. And it’s oddly uncomfortable to take up too much space in ballet class. I, too, have been struggling with the concept of dancing big. I think that for me much of it has been my instinct to be exceedingly polite! My classes are inevitably crowded and I don’t want to get in anyone’s way – especially of the “good” dancers. Another issue for me is standing out, I’ve always been uncomfortable in any kind of spotlight and I can’t help but feel that dancing big is somehow showy and self-aggrandizing. It’s not really, dancing big and full is beautiful, but it is outside my comfort zone. Of course, taking a ballet class is outside my comfort zone, a leotard is outside my comfort zone, dancing is outside my comfort zone – so since I’m already there… why not dance big!

    1. Hahahah! Exactly! It’s nice to hear about this from the perspective of a smaller dancer. I’ve never thought that smaller dancers might also be subconciously making themselves smaller! I guess we’re all in the same boat – We all need to “dance big” no matter how tall or small we are 🙂

  2. Usually, I am the tallest person in class. I used to hate that, but then I decided worrying about my body type was not going to help my dancing. I feel a lot better now I am taking up the space my body needs. After all, who cares?

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