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Bringing Body Love Into Dance Class: A New Way of Teaching

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.
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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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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Eventually, these concepts become muscle memory and the dancers don't need the imagery anymore. The directions make themselves at home in the dancers' bodies and we move on to new things.

For instance, once these concepts are habitual, I next make it a point to compliment the strength of my students' legs. I teach them that plié's are the ultimate test of strength, and the fact that they can lower and lift their own body strength is quite a feat for their legs to accomplish. I always tell my girls how NFL players have to take ballet as part of their training, and they love that.

I then ask my girls to engage their leg muscles throughout the entire plié. What do they feel as they lower? What do they feel as they raise back up? Occasionally I'll take the time to explain what a certain muscle is called, but when I see it going over their head we move on. Asking them to use all the music for each move often helps them understand this concept of engagement. I'll start to see the wheels turning in their focused heads as they take the knees out over the toes on each bend and press into the floor on each release.

We giggle a lot when we talk about our muscles and our imagery, but while we are at the barre and we are dancing, everyone is extremely focused on using their new muscle memory to their advantage. It's amazing to me to see these girls self-correct themselves without me ever saying "suck it in" or "tuck under."

All I have to say is, "where's your tailfeather headed?" and the plié changes drastically. Say, "I can't see what color your necklace is" to a student, and watch their posture change immediately.

My goal is to teach the girls all the amazing things their bodies can do, and I never bring attention to their weight or their body type. In fact, just this past week, we started a new exercise at the barre where I ask each girl what her favorite part of her body is. Most said legs, some said arms, and next week I'll ask them for a different one. If we start encouraging these young ladies to love their bodies now, the Photoshopped magazines and the Hollywood red carpet will take a longer time to affect them.

It is possible to raise the next generation of dancers without hating their bodies. It is possible to turn out great artists who are aware of how amazing their bodies are, regardless of what it looks like in a leotard. Misty Copeland proves this every day, and I am determined to give my young dancers the tools to join Misty's ranks and dance no matter what they look like.

We can be the new generation of teachers who changes the way things are done. Bringing body love into the classroom is groundbreaking, inspirational, and necessary for the next generation of young dancers. It teaches our dancers not only to respect themselves, but to respect each other -- regardless of body type, skin color, height, or weight.

I encourage all instructors to embrace new ways of teaching and imagery that will help our students understand their strengths, not their flaws.

It will literally change everything.