It’s Not You, It’s Society: “You Look Like a Dancer”

“It’s not you, it’s society” is a series of rants about socially acceptable and polite comments that bother me. Read more here.

“You look like a dancer.” It’s a pretty common response when I tell people that I am a dancer. It’s supposed to be a compliment, because “looking like a dancer” is something that people (particularly of the female variety) are supposed to want to do, even those who don’t actually want to dance. And I actually do feel a little complimented, but I also feel a little uneasy.

Why it’s a weird statement if you actually think about it:

  • am a dancer. That’s already established, and kind of supersedes the “looking” thing. I mean, making assumptions based on appearances is more useful before you know the facts.
  • How do you respond to being told you look like something you are? “Thank you” or a polite laugh are usually expected in this case, but what would you say if someone told you “You totally look like a human being!”? Umm…thanks?…duh?
  • A whole lot of dancers don’t “look like dancers” in the stereotypical way. That might make their lives harder, or not, but it really has nothing to do with the fact that they legitimately are dancers.

Now people, I get where you’re coming from. The observation itself, though stereotypical, is not totally off base. I too sometimes play “dancer spotting” on the streets (though posture and movement habits can be bigger indicators than body type for me). I just hate that every dance-related conversation has to go in that direction immediately.

People are looking for some relevant comment to add about dance and that’s the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what bothers me. The most publicized thing about dance right now is the “dancer’s body.” The new thing is workouts with “barre” or “ballet” in the titles which promise to make people “look like a dancer” without doing any actual ballet. (Note: if you like barre workouts that’s totally cool. Some of them seem pretty good. I just wish actual dance classes were as marketable/accessible.) Whenever professional dancers are interviewed by mainstream publications, their diet and exercise routine is often the very first question.

Why is this a problem? Dancers do a lot of stuff. We learn and internalize a technique or multiple techniques with an enormous range of details about alignment, movement paths, specific muscle engagement, and quality. Then we selectively use, discard, and warp these details to fit the needs of choreography. Which, by the way, we learn a lot of, often insanely quickly. Sometimes we participate in the creation process through improvisation or movement experimentation. We go on stage fearlessly, making any feelings of unpreparedness, nervousness, or doubt invisible, while simultaneously exposing our souls (for lack of a better word). And that’s just the dancing itself, not all the additional aspects of navigating training or the professional world. Trust me: looks are one of the least interesting things about dance.

“Okay, maybe for you,” you say “but I’m not a dance person and I don’t really know/care/know how to talk about that stuff. I am, however, interested in having a perkier butt.” You are entitled to like perky butts. But I don’t want you to feel like dance itself is something you can’t access. Dance can be expression or intellectual commentary or pure aesthetics or a primal instinct or a ritual or an act of romance or someone bopping around naked in their bedroom or a bunch of people bumping against each other at a party, but it’s always movement. Movement that can feel great and be worth it in itself regardless of the butt that’s doing it or the butt that results from it.

A dancer’s body is a body belonging to a dancer. A dancer is someone who dances. Therefore, a dancer’s body is a body that dances. That’s it. Really. If we elevate non-dancing bodies of a certain look over dancing bodies as “dancer’s bodies,” we’re taking the dancing out of dance. And then, what’s the point?

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4 thoughts on “It’s Not You, It’s Society: “You Look Like a Dancer”

    • Yeah, that seems funny to me considering that a lot of yoga is about working with and accepting your own body. I guess whenever something becomes a part of the commercial fitness “scene,” it tends to get attached to a certain image in people’s minds. Thanks for the comment!

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  1. I just found this blog and I am in love! I am a former adult dance student who loved it dearly but quit many years ago due to other life priorities. I am also a deep-thinking feminist. I appreciate the way you think about things, even dance, analytically. (I say “even dance” because I never have really read anything about dance like the stuff on this blog – maybe I’m just not looking in the right places, I don’t know). And I appreciate your love of an art form that has always seemed so beautiful to me. Thank you for your writing!

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