I have been a dancer for as long as I can remember. I am also in recovery from an eating disorder and an anxiety disorder, so I am constantly looking for ways that the dance world can better address mental health.
The dance world is (unfortunately) known as an industry that is extremely body-driven and far from body-positive. However, one dance teacher from Orange County, California is working to change that.
In class with her 15-20 year old company dancers, she had each dancer put on a blindfold. As each individual dancer was blindfolded, their peers took eyeliner/lip pencil and wrote on the dancer’s body what they “see” in that dancer. Then, the blindfold came off and the dancer stood in front of the mirror and read what she or he saw out loud.
“I left it up to them if they were comfortable in participating. We can’t force this type of thing, and I always want my students to feel they have a say when it comes to their bodies. Some were only comfortable using arms and legs. I left it up to each dancer,” said Addison when I asked her more about the exercise.
I think that it’s very important that Addison gave her dancers a choice about how they wanted to participate. As someone who struggles with my body image, especially in the realm of dance, there are often times where I feel uncomfortable with even just looking at my body in the mirror. Having the option of whether or not my peers would be writing on certain areas of my body would make a big difference for me.
One of the most inspiring things about this exercise is that the things the dancers said about their peers had very little to do with their bodies and physical appearance. They had much more to do with who each dancer is as a person. The dancers wrote things like, “Such a bright soul” and “You make me feel important.”
Seeing a fellow dance teacher guiding her dancers through an exercise like this is incredibly heartwarming and gives me so much hope. The dance world is typically a very cutthroat, competitive, and often even cold, place.
This kind of teaching that involves not just physical training, but nourishes the mind and spirit of dancers as well, is so important and necessary for raising dancers who are not just talented in technique, but authentic in their artistry. I discussed this with Addison, and her response was inspiring. “I also teach this in my dancing. Let them see YOU, all of you. Not just the surface,” she said.
Addison came up with this exercise last summer during a summer teachers’ intensive. After hearing several dance teachers say that their dancers struggle with self-esteem and confidence, she immediately thought of the power of words. “How powerful could it be to open your eyes and see beautiful thoughts so many others see on you every day,” she thought — and she was right.
I know that the words of others have a big effect on me, so seeing these positive messages from my peers in such a concrete way, especially in the dance studio, would have had a huge impact.
Addison agrees that emotional and mental abuse unfortunately do occur in the dance world, however, she also believes that dance can provide a lot of healing. “Dancers do not have to be humiliated to be motivated,” Addison said. “It can be done, and the longevity is greater!”
When I asked Addison about the impact the exercise had on her dancers, she said, “We had some huge breakthroughs! Lots of good tears, and insecurities were shed.” She added that students from all over the US and even the world come to train at Mather Dance Company, and that while it can be hard to be in a new place, this exercise helped those dancers realize that this studio is their second home and that they had each already made an impact in their short time there.
After discussing the impact the exercise had on Addison’s dancers, I wanted to know if it had an impact on her. “I felt their pressure and I wanted them to know this studio is a space to work hard, and it’s also a safe space to express and grow. It also delighted me to see the kindness and thoughtfulness these young dancers created. They really put thought into each word they wrote, and it was unique and meaningful to each student,” Addison said.
Seeing the beautiful impact that this exercise had on Addison and her dancers has inspired me deeply. Growing up in the dance world wasn’t always a positive experience for me, however, I feel that through actions like these we can change the industry for future generations and make it a place that is healthy and inclusive for all, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
In a world that is constantly filled with negativity, hate, and shame, I think we could all use some more positivity and kindness. Thank you, Addison, for being such a light and making an incredible impact on the dance world.