The ideal dance body and contemporary dance education

Didactics with a focus on vocational dance education

By: My Gren
Position: BA Dance Pedagogy, DOCH, Stockholm University of the Arts, Sweden

The case discusses how the normative image of the ideal dance body influences a dance education, based on the question:
How do the standards of the ideal dance body affect contemporary dance education?
The starting point is jazz dance, but other styles and expressions might also be applicable to the situation.

The original report (in Swedish) can be downloaded here

The Ideal Dance body

I want to start by defining the traditional normative perceptions of the dance body, thus creating a basis for future discussion. Unfortunately, the image given leaves no room for discussion about the new body ideals that emerged parallel to what I describe in the last decades.
Normally, the ballet’s basic technique is perceived as ideal for a dancer. Has the dancer a strong ballet technique seen as beneficial for many styles, and largely the jazz dance. It has given the ballet a hierarchical superior position in terms of body ideals and training ideals. In the book Classical Ballet Technique (Warren, 1989) an entire chapter dedicated to the ideal body structure and propotions for classical ballet dancers. Important components for a female ballet dancer are natural 180 degree outward twist, long heel tendons, vaginal lumbar and hamstrings. Furthermore, the author gives examples of unacceptable looks that may change with the aid of surgery to meet the standard as well as things that can not be done, such as the length. A woman should be short to be able to lift and a man should be tall to lift the woman. It is also important to reproduce the image of the longer man and shorter woman on stage. (Warren, 1989) Although this is re-specific to the ballet, I experience that parts of it have been transferred to jazzen and become general norms for the creation of a dancer’s body, in its ideal form.

The ballet seems to be regarded as “basic technology”. It becomes evident when experimental and norm critical works, claiming they are innovative, in a large proportion of cases, dancers choose high ballet-based backgrounds instead of investing in dancers with other types of training. What is represented on the stage becomes the ideal that dancers compare with and thus the type of body that is mirrored as a professional, and in the long run gets a job.
I would like to clarify that when I talk about “the ideal dance body”, it is a strictly anatomical body that a dancer can not change but also a body that is specifically trained. In this way, a body that does not meet all anatomical requirements can be a body that has ideal bodily knowledge and thus qualifies for the term “ideal dance body”.
The ideal body and so-called perceived body can be seen as two separate phenomena of the dancer, where the perceived body through somatic practitioners helps inform the dancer so that it can evolve towards a more ideal dance body, in the areas where it is possible. (Foster, 1997) The bodies influence and create each other, but by the term ‘ideal body’ a hierarchy is created between the perceived and the ideal body, where the ideal is highest.

Appearance and elegance

Jazz dance has a historical tendency to encode the dancing body as a sexual object, such as burlesqueshower and a presentation of the genre as ‘hot’ with a large dose of public prosecution. At the beginning of the 20th century, it began to be researched in natural motion where the movement of women and men were codified by the Dudley Allan Sargent’s training program spread through the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) to men across the United States and Genevieve Stebbin’s training system based on movement related to emotions primarily studied by women. Through their system, the norm was consolidated by a trained man’s body as a muscular body capable of performing repetitive movements in different types of gymnastic machines with only strength and prosperity as well as the softer female body posing in emotionally expressive positions moving in flowing dynamic movements. (Foster, 2011)

In the paragraph about the Dancer body and its ideals, I described how classical dancers could be imagined beauty operas to fit into the ideal, and in this paragraph I comment on how the jazz dancer is expected to be “hot”. Both of these statements testify to an incredible beauty fix. Dancers are not only expected to be physically competent and have ideal proportions, they are also expected to be attractive. Foster’s historical survey of women’s and men’s training ideals during the early 20th century adds an ideal in how each body should behave and express itself to be attractive.

Pedagogy and the ideal dance body

In the practice of his profession, the pedagogue is forced to comply with the prevailing standards of dancers’ bodies. “Beauties” has traditionally been an aspect to consider, but the question is how the dance world wants it today.

Robin Lakes describes how a former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatredancers under a technology class told one of their students “You fed it, now hold it up there” (Lakes, 2005, p. 7). The dance teacher uses the student’s weight and eating habits as a motor for the student to work better. The teacher also emphasizes that the student’s weight is not acceptable but leans towards the norm of a narrow dance body. I think this is a common occurrence, although it is not always as pronounced judgmental. An example that I have experienced several times is when the dance teacher in front of the strength training cries out: ‘Beach 2015!’ (With different years of course) to get hard work by their students, as it is assumed that they want a flat stomach for the summer season then the most commonly shown in the public domain. Here the norm of the dance body leans towards society’s beauty ideal. The dance body, which according to Classical Ballet Technique, should be “pleasing to the eye” (Warren, 1989, p. 64) is thus expected to also fill up the society’s image of how a beautiful body looks.

In the work of an educator, there are opportunities to create new narratives and to cope with norms by working norm critically and reflexively. Janne Bromseth writes:

“In the end, knowledge strategies always deal with what story takes place on which premises and bodies that may exist within these limits with what consequences / / / We can change how it is possible to think, feel and act in their own lives as well as in society at large. It is a collective and an individual process. “(Bromseth & Darj, 2010, p 49)

We can detect the potential of change through a norm-critical work. Everyone has a part in the creation and restoration of norms. Thus, everyone can be a part of a process of change, but in particular, different types of leaders are able to influence and start processes. (Bromseth & Darj, 2010) I take the discussion about norm criticism starting from the artistic discourses I see in society today. There is a lot about the dance body and its ideal. In the performing arts, I find that I see two camps where one wants to keep on traditions, where the shape and function of the body is of great importance, while the other camp seems to want to work with the material (body) they make available to create their work. In the second case, the work is created from one or more bodies instead of the work claiming which bodies are in it, as is the case for the first camp. A work that places demands on which bodies are located can be both normative and normative and questionable, depending on what the body presupposes. Likewise, a work that works on the basis of the dances of the dancers, if not worked very consciously, can reproduce the norms of the traditional dance body in a tragedy. This is because the choreographer in the selection of dancers seeks people who can work with their movement ideas and already have a diffuse picture of what the result will be. (here I assume that the choreographer does not work actively with different bodies, functions or the like). If the choreographer has not calculated what variation between bodies should do with his material, they will probably ultimately choose bodies that resemble each other and can represent motion based on their idea.

If we choose to look at the dance body from an intersectional point of view, we can read clear standards, which of course can vary slightly in different contexts. I choose to base on the basis of our seven grounds for discrimination when I express my own perceptions of what is normative in the dance world.
Sex. In the dance world, like in Swedish society as a whole, men’s standards are dominant even though most women are dancing.
Gender identity / expression. Expected in the jazz world to represent its biological gender.
Sexual orientation. Expected to be straight as a woman. Homosexual as a man.
Religion or other beliefs. Atheism or Christianity here in the West. Age. Young. Under 30.
Function Reduction. Fully functional.
Ethnicity. White. European or American.
Own addition: Class. Middle class.

Together with the expectation of a certain technical background, this forms the image of the normative dancer. As a teacher of vocational education, I think it is important to let the students take part in the discussion about the dance body, both reflectively and physically. That is why the dancers need to be able to work with other dancers who have conditions that do not belong to the normative. I’m wondering why there were no professional dance schools based on skilled dancers with different functionality, where another type of technique is practiced than the classic ballet or jazz. Companies like Candocoo already work based on the specific ones

By focusing much on comparing the dancer’s body with the ideal body, attention is given to a product rather than a process. Since dance is an ongoing process, I think this can steal instead of helping. What appears at the moment becomes what matters. A parallel can be drawn to the article “Considering motivations, goals, and master orientation in dance technique” and its expression performance-oriented goals and mastery-oriented goals. A dancer who is performance-oriented said in the article ask himself if this is better than the other dancers, thus comparing his performance to the moment with the others. The mastery-oriented dancer, on the other hand, focused on whether this was better than yesterday, and thus on the learning process rather than the product. This article sees mastery-oriented goals as the way that gives the dancer keys to lifelong learning, and thus also in most cases is also preferable to performance-oriented goals. (Andrzejewski & Wilson & Henry, 2013)

The image of the ideal dance body has begun to be narrower and narrower during this writing process. I am glad to know that discussions about inherited traditions and ideals are warm in the dance world and hope that in the future I will see the dance world flourish with new ways to take off and challenge what has been, besides the conservation of healthy parts of training, technology and tradition. Specifying those parts is another discussion.


Andrzejewski, Carey E.,Wilson, Adrienne M., Henry, Daniel J. (2013). “Considering motivation, goals, and mastery orientation in dance technique” i Research in Dance Education 2013, vol, 14 nr.2.

Bromseth Janne & Darj Frida (red.), (2010). “Kritiska perspektiv på strategier för förändring” i Normkritisk pedagogik, makt lärande och strategier för förändring”. Centrum för genusvetenskap, Uppsala Universitet.

Foster, Susan (1997). “Dancing Bodies” ur Jane C. Desmond (ed.) Meaning in Motion: New Cultural Studies of Dance. Durham & London: Duke University Press.

Foster, Susan (2011). “Tensing and Relaxing Naturally: Systematic Approaches to Training the Body” ur Alexandra Carter & Rachel Fensham (ed.), Dancing Naturally: Nature, Neo-Classicism and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century Dance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lakes, Robin (2005). “The Messages behinds the Methods: The Authoritarian Pedagogical Legacy in Western Concert Dance Technique Training and Rehearsals” ur Arts Education Policy Review, 106:5.

Warren, W Gretchen (1989). ”Classical ballet technique” Florida: The University press of Florida.