Physical and Emotional Aspects of Dance

Physical and Emotional Aspects of Dance

Dance Bodies

Body image can be a huge issue among dancers. The studios have walls filled with mirrors and the dance attire fits close to the body. Dance focuses on turning the body into a strong and aesthetically pleasing dance machine.

Fitness is vital to success as a dancer. Simple feats like bending over to touch your toes are easier with a lean body. Jumping and leaping to preferred heights, is easier to attain with a lean body. When one dancer lifts another into the air, a lean body is crucial.

In many dance forms, the lines developed and shown during performance are of great importance. This refers to the literal lines the body can make when executing a variety of dance steps. When looking at a dancer, you can see the line made from the tip of the finger to the stretch of the toe. The line is different in each step, but the cohesiveness is the same. Lines show more clearly on a lean body.

A dancer can develop the body beyond the boundaries of heredity traits by using the body in a specific way during years of training. The muscles become long and lean with the help of strengthening and stretching exercises. It is not unusual to see a short, overweight parent with a long, lean dancer.

When students start comparing their body type to others, problems can arise. Lean does not mean skinny. Most professional dancers are thin, but to perform at their peak, they must maintain a balanced, nutritional diet and proper sleep and rest from a physically challenging schedule.

The idea of the ultra-thin ballet dancer can be traced back to George Balanchine and his muses. Mr. Balanchine is one of the most celebrated twentieth-century choreographers. He was cofounder and artistic director of New York City Ballet. He filled his company with thin, tall dancers, most notably Tanaquil LeClercq and Suzanne Farrell, who were both naturally long and lean. In an effort to work within this trend, many dancers began the quest to look like these women.

Other forms of dance can be less demanding of specific body types, yet an artistic director or a show choreographer may choose to overlook the most talented dancers in favor of a unified body type for a production. For example, one only needs to look at the Rockettes; if you are less than five feet five inches tall, you have no chance of dancing in the chorus line. Your legs must be as long as the other dancers’, and a weight allowance is written into the contract. As you see, many of these demands are out of one’s control, predestined by genetic makeup.

Female dancers in the Martha Graham Company tend toward long bodies and strong legs. It is not inconsequential that Ms. Graham also had this body type.

The famous jazz choreographer, Bob Fosse, not unlike Balanchine, had a certain type of muse. His dancers, including his most famous muses, Gwen Verdon and Ann Reinking, had long, beautiful legs and an ability to move within Fosse’s distinct style of jazz.

Are Dancers Born or Made?

Like life, dancers arise from a combination of nature and nurture. Certain physical attributes greatly benefit dance. As mentioned before, flexibility, turn out, and ability to develop a great deal of strength are essential. In ballet, good feet and a natural demi-plié are especially praised. The natural turner is envied in all forms of dance.

Some dancers have taken their traditionally negative attributes and overcome them or turned them into benefits.

Bob Fosse comes to mind, as he struggled with turn out, a rotation of the hips essential to ballet and used often in all dance forms. As a choreographer, he created a style of jazz dance that showcased the turned-in style as part of his distinct technique. It is now a staple in jazz performances and Broadway choreography.

No matter how physically talented, dancers must have the drive to accompany the talent. They must be willing to work hard and accept the challenge of the dance world. Sadly, the hard work and acceptance of the dance world cannot always overcome the lack of natural talent.

Physical Attributes

Your student may be lucky enough to hear that he or she has a physical gift for dancing. The traits that phrase refers to will be similar in most types of dance but may vary slightly.

A ballet dancer who was born with flexibility, turn out, straight or slightly hyperextended legs, and a high arch in the foot will have an easier time tackling the necessary skills. A deep demi-plié (the ability to bend the knees while keeping the heels on the floor) will also help with the jumps needed, especially for the male dancers. A physical propensity for strength and leanness is also vital.

A modern dancer will benefit from the physical gifts of a ballet dancer, but those traits are not as rigorously necessary as ballet dictates.

Jazz dancers benefit from flexibility and high arches but also must be able to have a good deal of core body and hip mobility. Jazz dance bodies can vary, but the style is appreciative of lean yet definitely female body types for women and fit, strong masculine body types for men.

All dancers need an understanding of the music. Most can learn this understanding, but occasionally a student is born without it or the ability to develop the skill.

Some forms of dance are more aerobic than others, and these forms will help your child slim down. All forms build stamina, but not all maintain the aerobic level of a Zumba class at a gym.

Some young children who are still carrying some baby fat can easily develop long, lean bodies through dancing. Children who are slightly overweight or obese do not slim down as much as they would in a more aerobic endeavor like swimming or track.

These children have a harder time mastering the skills of flexibility and grace, as their girth can be a deterrent. This trouble can contribute to negative self-image rather than encouragement of fitness. However, students’ temperaments and personalities define how they see themselves in the class. Children with a fuller body type can still benefit from all aspects of dance. Regardless of body size, most who study dance will not pursue it professionally, but all can appreciate its benefits.


Fad and excessive dieting do occur in the dance world; they are dangerous and should be discouraged at all costs. Giving up health to meet a physical ideal will not help students succeed as a dancer.

Dancers must learn to take care of themselves. This care includes nutrition, rest, and mental stability.

Diets can be very distinct to the dance professional. Small meals throughout the day may allow a dancer a consistent energy level. Some dancers may fuel up in the morning and evening, preferring to keep little in their stomachs while dancing.

Students, however, especially those still growing and developing, need not restrict their food intake. Their food choices are the key to keeping fit. A balanced diet is important and need not include potato chips or soda. Everything in moderation—a child should not feel hunger. Small snacks of fruit, vegetables, or low-fat granola bars are a good way to keep the stomach from hunger. Though this may surprise some, chocolate milk has been found to be a good source of energy for physical activity. It is available in fat-free and sugar-free varieties.

Eating Disorders

Dance alone does not cause anorexia, an eating disorder in which sufferers starve themselves, however, the focus on trim bodies can contribute. It is therefore important that parents pay close attention to their child’s eating habits and weight. It is equally important that parents not become part of the obsession.

Parents can help by stocking the fridge with skim milk, fruit, and yogurt. Low-fat snacks such as pudding made with skim milk or frozen yogurt, as opposed to ice cream, are excellent substitutes and will allow growing bodies the sweets they may crave. Balanced diets and proper proportions are the key. Children should not be denied food when hungry; they can receive extra portions of veggies, fruit, and protein in place of carbohydrates or sweets.

If you have concerns about your child’s body image, you should talk with the teachers at the studio and consult your doctor. If you need to take action, it is essential that intervention start as soon as possible. Anorexia and another eating disorder, bulimia, can cause irreversible damage to the heart, teeth, and esophagus, among other parts of the body.

Signs of eating disorder can include:

  • Dramatic weight loss in a short period of time
  • Obsession with weight
  • Obsession with calorie intake
  • Trips to the bathroom after every meal
  • Excessive use of laxatives
  • Self-starvation, food restrictions
  • For girls, loss of menstrual cycle

More complete lists of symptoms can be found by searching the Internet or by consulting a doctor.


When the time is right, help your student understand the need for cleanliness and the use of a deodorant. Young students aren’t always gentle with their observations of body odor, and feelings can definitely be bruised.

Students must wear clean workout clothes daily. Parents can help by either participating with the wash or ensuring that students have enough different outfits to last through a week of classes.

When dressing for class or rehearsals, students should use deodorant. They can use a lightly scented powder to help neutralize the perspiration. The powder also works well to keep shoes from becoming too smelly.

If students sweat during class and rehearsals, they can take a hand towel into class to stay the perspiration once it starts dripping.

Hand washing is as essential in the studio as out. Lots of contact during partnering or group dances can spread germs as well as odors.

Menses should not deter a young woman from taking classes. With the thin pads available, they should be invisible even in a leotard. Tampons are easier to use and preferable when the dancer is comfortable with that choice.