This Dancer’s Body By Dr. Terry Whitt Bailey, President & CEO, The Madame Walker Theatre Center
Plié. Grand Jete. Pirouette. Arabesque. I learned these terms as a young girl studying ballet in Springfield, Illinois. My teacher was a very short German lady named Dorothy Irvine, and she taught strict Checchetti technique. Every movement had to be precise, and body alignment was a must! I was in my first ballet company by age 11 and, like so many girls my age, I lived to dance!
As the only African American dancer in the school in the 1960s -1970s, I looked different than all of the other girls, and my body shape was different. My body alignment was correct, but I looked different. They were tall and lean, with long legs. I was shorter, with wide hips and big thighs. It was so difficult to accept the fact that my body looked different from the other ballet dancers’ bodies.
I worked extra hard to make my body look like everyone else’s body. I took two ballet classes a day. I took everyone else’s corrections and applied them to myself. I eventually became bulimic, taking diet pills and laxatives to lose weight. I thought those things would change my body. They didn’t.
I went on to study dance education and dance history in college. I eventually met other dancers whose bodies were more like mine. I began exploring modern dance techniques that allowed me to be more expressive and that complimented my body type.
When I started teaching dance, I looked for students who were just like I was – who didn’t have the “ballet dancer’s body”, but who had strong technique and a passion for dance. It was my job to encourage them to keep dancing, and to keep sharing their gift on the stage.
You see, I realized that, although ballet training is very important to the dancer, everyone is not meant to perform classical ballet on the stage. However, as the great Isadora Duncan once said, “If I could say what I mean, there would be no point in dancing.” So, I dance.
In this 16th year of Spirit & Place, The Madame Walker Theatre Center is proud to honor this year’s theme ,“The Body,” by welcoming Dance Theatre of Harlem Ensemble on November 10th. Please join us for a pre-performance discussion on “The Dancer’s Body,” and then witness these dancers’ bodies on our main stage.