Dancing with Beauty Standards
“I'm watching with new eyes and I can't imagine how toxic this shit was for you. As much as I love super wig....I love you most as you.”
A friend dropped me this message on the weekend, in reference to some dance experiences I’d had.
I felt so seen.
Super wig was the incredible vacuum wig I got after the first time I’d lost my wig while dancing. Belly Dancing outdoors with a veil as a prop, you could say that one was on me.
This is not the first time I’ve told part of this story, but as with all our stories, they shift as we grow and evolve as humans. Our feelings, memories and beliefs around these stories can change as much as we do.
I recently spoke to another dancer, the first time I’ve ever spoken to another dancer with Alopecia. Of course we bonded over hair loss in general and we talked for over an hour despite never having met before. We explored each other’s stories and what resonated and what was different.
We also discussed in detail our experience as dancers without hair. The wig wearing, the desire to fit in, the journey to performing as our authentic selves and all the feels that accompany such a journey.
We came from very different dance backgrounds, with years of difference in our ages. Our stories are different, but in witnessing the challenges she had encountered, I could truly reflect on some of my own.
So I wanted to write a story. It’s definitely drawn from my experiences, and my life but I’m going to write it from the perspective of ‘we’.
The ‘we’ I am talking about is not just me. It’s the older dancer, the curvier dancer, the shorter, or too tall dancer. It’s for all the dancers who have been told that some part of who they are or what they looked like did not fit the mold.
The dancer who's been told their arms are too long for their body. They’re too heavy, too small chested. That their hair should be a different color or texture, or that they should wear a wig.
The dancer who held themselves back because they believed they couldn’t be a dancer.
We were young when we started dancing. For some that’s 3 years old, for others that 18, others 50. However old it was - we were ‘young’. Young in mind, young in spirit, young in curiosity and knowledge. We were thirsty to experience something exciting and new and fun.
So we danced our hearts out. We looked up to “older” dancers for guidance. We watched their performances in awe, only wishing that we could do what they could do and dreaming of making the advanced class.
We practiced and practiced and practiced. Seeking feedback, journaling about every little thing the teacher said we’d done well and rewatching videos of our performances to see what we could work on next.
And it was FUN. So much fun. We laughed all class, we made friends for life. We shared car trips to festivals, shopping trips for costumes, drinks and food after our three hours of classes in a night.
We could not get enough of it. It became life.
A competition rolls into town and we get so excited. We’re chatting every day via email, though we should be working. What are you going to wear, what song are you using, how is your choreography going? We bond ever deeper through the excitement and anticipation - even though we’ll be competing against each other, we’ll be 100% behind each other.
That’s how strong this bond is.
Before competition day, we seek guidance again from our mentors. Is this the right costume? Should I wear a wig?
And we hear: Maybe wear a dress not a two piece? You better pad that bra more. You should wear a wig.
We know this isn't quite right, something feels off.
We prep the wig though we’re terrified it will fall off. We put our favourite costume aside and choose a different one instead. We stuff our bra until we “look” the part.
We take the advice and move on. One of us wins the competition, a couple of us tie for second. We feel elated and the sting of what we’ve been told about our bodies abates.
We keep dancing. It’s still all we want to do.
Despite our families confusion, our partners gaping at the credit card bills and our friends lagging interest in yet another 12 hour hafla. We love them to bits and they love us, even if they’re all a little mystified.
Almost a decade on - we are still in the advanced class. There has been audition after audition for the professional troupe. We are told repeatedly, keep practicing, you’re doing great, do a solo at this student hafla. But no, we’re not quite ready for being “a professional”.
Dancer after dancer is chosen, citing dedication, investment, practice, perfect moves and so on. But we start to notice, they all have that look. They are gorgeous people, inside and out and we 100% support them as they have supported us our entire dance journey, but we still can’t seem to shake the feeling that something is off.
We love dance. We love performing.
We’ve been exploring other communities. Other dancers and teachers and mentors and we are finding incredible opportunities in these new spaces. Whether it’s a different type of a dance entirely, a fusion style based on our current skills or the same dance with different teachers - we’re starting to find a place where we belong.
We travel overseas, expand our circle of dance friends, learn what others have experienced. We are not alone.
We are honest and open about our past experiences with one of our new mentors and they take our hand and tell us it’s okay. They see our hard work and they see what we’ve tried to hard to achieve and they get it. They ask us to dance exactly as we are.
They say - wear the costume you feel most comfortable in, dance without a wig if you want, find a bra that supports your form.
We breathe a sigh of relief.
We let go of all the times we regret not standing up for ourselves. We forgive our younger selves for doing what we thought was best. We know that dancing as ourselves is truly okay.
We slowly unravel and unlearn the judgments, the shaming, the fear and the anxiety around whether we will fit in or be accepted as we are.
We choose what, if anything, we will change or alter about our appearance. Not because we are told we have to fit in, but because we are empowered to decide which opportunity is best for us.
We still support all of our friends, we share our stories and they share theirs.
Being what the director, teacher or troupe is looking for does not undermine all the practice, love and energy they have put into their performances. It does not take away their opportunities or change the hard work they did to get where they are. It doesn’t diminish the work they’ve potentially done to fit the mold of what they wanted to do.
We support each others’ decisions to do exactly what we want to do.
We hope they are doing it from a place of empowerment and self confidence.
We go to their performances, we watch them in awe, we cheer and clap as hard as we can. Celebrating wins that all of us have seen hard won.
We love them.
We understand now the complexity and intricacy of how these shows, troupes, performances, communities operate and we know we can see another way.
We look to mentors, leaders who are breaking the barriers, flipping the script and challenging these prevalent narrow standards and we support them instead. We gather around the dancers doing the work to break down the barriers that are in place to keep everyone but the ideal out.
We dance our hearts out for shows that demonstrate acceptance, diversity and inclusion. These days we get online, we venmo or paypal a tip for the dancers and we scream in our lounge rooms as each dancer has their moment and brings something so different from the last.
Our partners and pets think we’re nuts.
We are no longer bound by the constraints placed on us by those with little imagination and limited vision.
We are excited about what’s next, who we can support and what we can do to change the stories, so the dancers who are just starting to learn have strong leaders to follow.
Why I told it
I hesitated to write this story down. Partly because I didn’t want to come across as a victim. Partly because it’s personal. Partly because it’s complex.
My journey is as a white woman, dancing a form of dance which came from MENAHT (Middle East, North Africa, Hellas (Greece) and Turkey) cultures, and admittedly doing it for many years with a decent amount of ignorance around how it impacted root dancers. Being an active part of discussions ongoing around the impact of appropriation and colonialism on these communities, and how we can ethically proceed as students, teachers and performers is currently a huge part of how I’m considering moving forward with my dance path.
I think the story though, applies to all dance forms (drawing on experiences I’ve read about and heard about in other communities as well). It applies in general to the narrow standards of beauty that abound within and outside of these communities.
It crosses the boundaries of age, color, size, weight and shape, as I continue to explore how ideal beauty standards make all of us feel less than.
Unworthy, unseen, unheard, undesirable, unimportant.
How they continue to render incredible humans that I see as beautiful and stunning, depressed and unhappy with how they look. Humans that have so much energy to dedicate to things they want to do, that is taken up by worrying how they are seen or perceived by their society and culture.
My current mission is to help the world change. To encourage people to feel okay just as they are. To embrace their differences and to empower them.
I’m honestly not sure how I’m doing at this, but I’ve been working on it myself for much of my life, so I can only keep sharing what I’ve learnt.
I’d love to hear about your dance stories, what beliefs have you had to unlearn? Part of my battle with this is hosting a FREE event in April - check out the details here: The Toxic Lie of Cookie-cutter Beauty: 3 Simple Steps to Shake yourself free of hair loss shame, and join the rebellion.