Growing up in the world of dance is an inspirational and strange experience. Not unlike, I imagine, the experience of starring in a reality TV show — which, perhaps, is why Dance Moms is so popular among people with a dance past, and why it reminds us of the many beauty lessons dancers learn during their training.
To a non-dancer, that may sound a bit narcissistic. How in the world can I be comparing childhood dance lessons and recitals to the constant scrutiny of reality TV? Well, my friends, most dancers will agree, that even in more laid back studios, most styles of dance are fostered in atmospheres of competition and the pursuit of precision, if not perfection. But somewhere, in the midst of struggling to perfect your technique and bring some level of je ne sais quoi to your routines, you begin to pick up on how to develop your personal style, and what beauty is really derived from.
Up until recently, I had resisted watching the highly touted Dance Moms, but gave in shortly after discussing it in an article on the pieces of clothing pretty much every dancer has owned. My concern was that the show would be over-dramatized, and although it certainly is, the truth is, from the standpoint of what the kids experience, it's not terribly far off from what most young dancers who are beginning to explore the world of competitive or company focused dance experience. The pressure is real. The struggle can be real. And the joy of performing can be oh, so exhilarating. Or terrifying, depending on your personal level of stage fright, perfectionism, and preparation.
So much focus in dance goes beyond your skill set, so even at an early age, dancers begin to focus on their physical appearance. After all, dance and performance are visual mediums. And while some might argue that subjecting children to a lifestyle that places so much importance on visual appeal can be detrimental to their mental or emotional state, I'm going to disagree. From my experience, learning to appreciate visual beauty and cultivate grace at a young age tends to lead to respect for yourself, your surroundings, and the creative talents of others — as long as it comes from a place of genuine enjoyment, not forced subjugation.
And while most dancers learn a variety of tricks to master winged eyeliner and hair that stays in place for hours, even under the stress of fast movement and high impact, or how to keep leotards from moving into unsavory positions, those tricks of the trade are minimal compared to the greater lessons we learn about our self-esteem and the way we carry ourselves in the world.
Growing up in the dance world teaches you to discover who you are. It teaches you to move with poise, even if you're klutzy or have minimal hand-eye coordination (yes, that's me). And it teaches you to embrace your quirks, because even as you strive for perfection, your individuality and specific look will be what catapults you into a definitive role when everyone's technique is evenly matched.
So, for non-dancers and dancers alike, here are a few of the deeper beauty lessons us dance kids tend to pick up along the way. Because everyone deserves to know these truths, even if you weren't critiqued at the side of a bar for years in order to glean them.
1. Prime Your Posture
One thing every dancer knows is how to stand in first position. It's your home base, your safe zone, and to some degree, the foundation of your dance posture. But the strict adherence to technique that we learn to adapt to our positions and poses in dance are just the building blocks that enable us to be expressive and emotive while we move through a routine. We learn poised, we learn stoic, then we learn grace, joy, and the ability to draw from the physical pain we've do doubt felt along the way to embody sadness and longing. And when it comes to beauty, true beauty, the portrayal of those emotions holds much more weight than most people consciously recognize.
The happiest woman in the room is not always the most lovely. So the lesson of posture is two fold. Your posture can elevate you — it can help you create a beautiful air of confidence and grace. But if you allow it to move genuinely, it can tell a greater story: your story. And for all of your insecurities and struggles, you're likely to be found just as lovely as anyone with a carefree stance. Be aware of your posture — it frames your personal beauty, and tells your story each and every day. If you observe it, you may be surprised at what you learn.
2. Carry Yourself With Confidence
While we hear all the time that confidence is king, what I'm talking about is a little bit different. Most people consider confidence to be directly correlated with your ability to complete a task or to be best suited for something. And while that certainly has weight, the confidence that beauty is derived from is less about being the best and more about being saturated in yourself. It is about fully embracing your personality and your essence, since you are the only person on the planet who can move through life the way you do. Worry less about the ways in which you differ from the crowd, and have confidence in your individual strengths.
3. Strength Is Beautiful
Dancers are undeniably (and sometimes surprisingly) strong. They support their bodies, and their fellow dancer's bodies in odd contortions, balanced lifts, and graceful leaps. And outside of the highly competitive world of professional dance (and even within), the majority of a dancer's true concerns about his/her body stem more from ability than shape. And while it's true that the dance community has been critical of body type, many dancers, on a personal level, learn to appreciate the way their muscles move and the functional aspects of their body as being far more beautiful than the specifics of its shape.
4. Stage Beauty Vs. Natural Beauty
Generally speaking, when you perform, you wear a lot of makeup. Stage makeup goes on thick, and dramatically, over-enhancing the features on your face. It's a lot of fun, but can also be pretty alarming when seen up close, or when worn for the first time. But as fond of stage makeup as some dancers become, what's clear is that it's not a look for every day. Which is a lesson women who have become slaves to contouring may want to consider.
Wearing that much makeup daily can be tough on your skin, and while it isn't a bad thing, or something to judge a person for, it's more about looking like an enhanced or varied version of yourself. It is, at its core, a form of glamour, or a show. And while each of us has a different concept of what looks good, or what's beautiful, the act of removing stage makeup after a performance has for years been a lesson for dancers in appreciating both the beauty of glamour and the natural beauty that lies beneath. We are both our stage persona, and the hard working master that goes to work for our craft sweating, and without rouge.
5. Costumes Don't Make You Beautiful
But they're hella fun! Just like the old adage, "The clothing doesn't make the man," your costume or your fashion sense (or lack thereof) don't make you beautiful (or prevent you from being beautiful). Beauty comes from your personality, the way you hold yourself, and the way you move through life. Yes, beauty can be found in your features, but the way your eyes light up when you connect with another person far outshines a perfect nose, or a perfectly tailored jacket, for that matter.
That being said, a perfectly tailored jacket is a beautiful thing. And, a 16th century inspired gown designed with silk panels and gold detailing is beautiful. So, while they won't make you beautiful if you're a generally nasty person (yep, injecting some golden rule, life lessons here), costumes are undeniably lovely in their own right, and fashion, in the same vein, is a lot of fun to play with and explore. Just don't get so hung up on the clothing that you lose sight of who you are as a person, or a dancer. The dress won't get you the job, and the tights won't land you the lead.
6. Your Movement Speaks Volumes
Just as your posture tells a story that reflects your personal beauty, so does the way you move. Your grace, or complete lack thereof, is a signature of your personality, and your unique tendencies. And sure, being a polished dancer who seems to float across the floor is a beautiful way to live, but so is being comedically klutzy, or mindfully methodical. Do not shy from allowing your natural gait to shine through. The way you move is a dance within itself, whether it speaks to your voluminous sense of rhythm, or the fact that you may have none at all.
7. But Your Smile Can Make Or Break A Performance
What's more beautiful than a genuine smile? Perhaps nothing. Or, perhaps, a genuine tear, or a genuine look of fear. The key, here, is geniune expression, and as you progress as a dancer and a performer, you learn that finding the right moments to allow genuine expression to highlight your movement can entirely enhance your ability to captivate your audience. When it comes to beauty, that may be the most important lesson of all. You have to be genuine, whether you're made up, or natural, sporting the freshest fashions and trends, or dressed in simple hand-me-downs — it's your emotions that bring your beauty to life.
Images: Getty; Giphy