Stand up straight. Pull your belly button in and up. Your stomach is sticking out. Pull it in. Don't be lazy.
Suck it in. Tuck your booty under. Pull up. Chin high. Belly in. Squeeze the tushy.
Twenty-four years of ballet training. Always at the barre. Always pulling in, pulling up, tucking under, standing straight.
Eventually, it starts to overflow into daily life.
Suck it in. Tuck it under.
I realize now where all my insecurities started. They started in first position at age seven at the barre.
And now here I am, 20 years later, catching myself doing the same things to my own seven year old students.
Oh, but I refuse. Nuh-uh. No way. I'm a body love advocate. How can I tell my ballerinas to suck it in and tuck it under, knowing how much that shaped my childhood?
There's got to be a better way.
So I took a time out. A legit eight week time out, and I figured out something different.
Hours of brainstorming and research has gotten me to teaching the following things, and the results are absolutely magnificent.
1) The usual direction: Tuck the booty under, don't let it stick out when you plié
The new direction: Send your tailfeather down instead of out
Why and how: As girls hit puberty, all of them are going to develop some sort of booty. This is fact, and something they can't avoid. So why tell them to tuck it under and hide it? That's extremely confusing for a little girl who just woke up one morning with a protruding behind.
I have my girls imagine a beautiful "tailfeather" hanging down from their tailbone, and ask them to dip it into a pool of cool water instead of sticking it out behind them. They seem to love this concept and we have a great time designing the colors of our own personal tailfeathers. The imagery of sending the feather down helps them keep their booty in line and it doesn't hint at them trying to hide or tuck their booty anytime they bend. The tailfeather concept keeps their plié's perfectly aligned without them ever thinking about how big their booty is at all.
2) The usual direction: Pull up, stand up straight
The new direction: Display a beautiful necklace on your chest and try not to hide it with your chin
Why and how: "Pull up" and "stand up straight" can mean a thousand different things. Sometimes dancers interpret it as holding their chin very high, or bringing their shoulders up next to their ears. This is of no help to them whatsoever.
We use the imagery of a beautiful necklace made by their favorite teacher or artist. They display the imaginary necklace on their chest and then I ask them to keep lots of space between their ears and their shoulders so they don't disturb the way it's displayed on their neck. They also have to keep their chin away from their neck in order for people to see the necklace, but not too high as to lose eye contact with their admirers. This helps them understand posture, but not use any miscellaneous musculature to make it happen.
3) The usual direction: Suck it in, tummy in
The new direction: Engage your belly
Why and how: "Suck it in" often implies sucking in the belly and pulling up the ribs, causing little girls to raise their shoulders and make their bellies as tiny as possible. This is never what we want. This caused me develop very weird muscles under my bust as a child because no one ever told me that "suck it in" didn't just mean the lower abs. Because I had a "pooch pouch" under my belly button, sticking out no matter how hard I sucked in, I was constantly opening my ribs and pulling my belly up into them to try to make it go away.
In my classes, we talk about engaging our muscles, and what it means to go from limp muscles to engaged muscles. We do a few easy pilates exercises on the floor that I like to call "belly warmers" to give the dancers the feeling of engaging their core without sucking in. Once we move to the barre, we talk about engaging those belly muscles while standing, and I have each student watch themselves in the mirror as this happens. If they try to suck in their belly and anything else in the body changes, we try again and again until they feel the muscles engaging without affecting the ribcage or the shoulders. This teaches my dancers that their belly doesn't need to look a certain way to dance. We engage the muscles to help us balance, not to look more like ballerinas.