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Beauty and Shame in Dance

Last fall I discovered that just because you walk away from something doesn’t mean you’ve solved your problem. That might not be news to many. It’s not exactly news to me either, but this was a truth that was felt, which is so different from a truth that is heard or read. When the world went into isolation, for me it was as if one realm closed and another opened. The fourth wall that is my computer screen opened up, and I could instantaneously teleport from place to place, covering digital miles that would take days or weeks to traverse in “real time”, whatever that means anymore. So, one way that I tried to take advantage of this was by returning to old favorites that I had lost touch with, generally because of those same limitations of time. I began again, for example, to take classes in Martha Graham technique. Through contractions, releases, falls and recoveries, I reclaimed my fascination with all things Martha, remembering how voraciously I would read any paper document on her that I could get my hands on. But after only a few weeks of class I started to feel stuck mentally. The attention I got when I returned to class brought up old shame that I thought had stopped because I had stopped. But stopping an activity does not turn shame off. As the movement became more familiar and easier to execute, I felt the push to move up a level or two, to try harder, to push myself to get better. But I also saw the precipice that is perfectionism, self-judgment and comparison to others, the limiting desire of higher extensions, straighter splits and thinner limbs. Hello, body-based shame. That feeling of not being acceptable in my preferred style of dance was still in there lurking, and I had to learn to separate a healthy need for movement, a healthy desire for improvement and progress and even healthy narcissism from the dark arts (as Brené Brown calls them) that have often led me to give up and walk away. Shame, meet consistency, my new best friend.

I’m going to bring up Brené again. She says that “once you realize that your self-worth is hitched to what you’ve produced or created, it’s unlikely that you’ll share it, or if you do, you’ll strip away a layer or two of the juiciest creativity and innovation to make the revealing less risky. There’s too much on the line to just put your wildest creations out there. If you do share it in its most creative form and the reception doesn't meet your expectations, you're crushed. Your offering is no good and you’re no good. The chances of soliciting feedback, reengaging, and going back to the drawing board are slim. You shut down. Shame tells you that you shouldn’t have even tried. Shame tells you that you’re not good enough and you should have known better.” That gem can be found on page 63 of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead”. Often, one of my unspoken goals in the studio is to dance past the point of shame until I find my pride. As a dancer who contends with many voices with strong opinions about what is wrong and what is right when it comes to my body, my dancing, and my body dancing, “shame resilience”, as Brené calls it, has been key to embracing my own vulnerability.

What does shame have to do with beauty? A lot, I think. I plan to write a post about why I generally practice solo. That list of reasons includes the desire to escape damaging expectations and to insulate myself from judgment so that I can hear my own voice. Female dancers are usually subjected to messaging that how beautiful they are perceived to be by certain others is strongly connected to opportunities for visibility, a visibility that is itself often connected to questions of desire and desirability as opposed to a genuine interest to engage in a creative encounter. Being aesthetically pleasing can be a gateway to being seen and heard as a dancer. Enter shame if it has been made clear to you that you do not correspond to the determined standards of beauty. One realization I have had about Western beauty ideals, specifically North American ones, is that beauty is often reduced to what a person should or should not show based on what is popularly considered acceptable. Maybe that is why so many of us want parts of ourselves to get smaller or simply disappear.

It is not my wish to negate the importance or impact of beauty. I look at and admire things I consider to be beautiful. I notice external beauty in others, and if there is an opportunity, I love to admire internal beauty as well. I go to certain places because of their reputed beauty. Beauty has an amazing effect on us. It can be exciting, calming, restorative. It can influence us to part with our hard-earned dollars, to invest, as they say. I am not immune to beauty. But I often have to remind myself that beauty is not a monolith, and I have to do this because the art forms that I engage with often have unyielding ideas about what is acceptable, and beautiful, physicality.

I have been wondering about the place of “form” in my life for a couple of years now. Is it informative? Is it a hindrance? Is it useful structure or an obstacle to understanding my own innate movement? Some of the conversations I hear on this topic in Flamenco are similar to ones I have heard concerning classical ballet and even modern dance. Some people seek incrementally greater freedoms within a form, while others see only constraint and wish to discard form entirely. I do think that form, as it becomes increasingly codified, lends itself to expectations that become increasingly stifling, and that perhaps inevitably lead to shame. Who wants to be told that they are not right for the things they love and admire? We are more likely to blame (and then seek to modify) ourselves than the limited perspective of the codifier.

Given all this, I seek a moving emotion practice, consciously choosing my narrative as I move, and finding that posture of pride. Figuring out what is beautiful about me within the context of Flamenco is complex, but that proud stance is a big part of what I seek to consistently rediscover and reclaim. It feels like a dynamic art project, constantly changing, and waiting for new input.

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lack of faith is the only answer I have been able to come up with so far. trusting the universe, trusting the process, rebuilding self-trust. and in my experience, trust goes hand-in-hand with faith. the stronger the faith, the easier it is to trust and to stay committed to acts that build trust.

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