My Eyes, Your Body

Titian Diana and Actaeon 1556-1559 Oil on canvas Bought jointly by the National Galleries of Scotland and the National Gallery, London, with contributions from The Scottish Government, The National Heritage Memorial Fund, The Monument Trust, The Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and through public appeal, 2009

The great recent debacle in the ballet world, known as “Sugarplumgate” and other less friendly terms, came and went in my consciousness until I found myself at a recent performance, fixated on the circumference of a dancer’s thighs.

“Watch the dance, not the legs,” I silently yelled at my brain. What’s wrong with me? And me, of all people, a thick-thighed somatic educator, who spent two decades teaching people to accept their bodies. This can’t be true. At war with my own attention, I missed the performance entirely by trying not to be bothered by a pair of less-than-perfect legs. Too distracted by so-called imperfection, I became a victim of my own learned blindness. The perceptive illusion of the stage, making bodies appear larger, doesn’t help either. How many times have you run into a dancer in public who you thought taller or larger than you imagined?

The very next week, a whole host of emotions, from ecstasy to embarrassment, emerged while watching a large ballroom dancer wearing a fragment of a dress. I was always taught that if you gain weight, it’s time to get the tent dresses out. She moved with the message, “I am large, get over it. I am amazing. I love my body and, if you don’t get past your groundless prejudices, you are going miss this kick-ass performance of mine.” As the evening when on, I could not take my eyes off her; the rest of the show seemed to recede into the background. I left awestruck, confused, and completely exhilarated. Something about her dancing taught me to see again. Where were those skills a week earlier? Maybe my vision – or my brain – needed a shock treatment.

A casual comment by a ballet master after a local modern dance show said it all, “I am not used to watching normal size bodies dance, you know, it’s really interesting.” He nailed it. We have habituated our gaze toward a narrow set of proportions based on the kind of dance we watch and the expectations we bring to our viewing. Our eyes have grown lazy. We simply don’t see enough professional dance with a variety of bodies on stage. And I have interviewed numerous artistic directors in the ballet and contemporary genres over the years who claim they love all kinds of bodies. Sure, they hire a few shorter and taller dancers, but it’s rare that we see even average weight dancers in professional modern or ballet companies.

Certainly there couldn’t be anything wrong with me. It’s my brain, and something even larger, the human brain. (When in doubt, blame your species.) Ideas of beauty converge across multiple fields, from psychology to philosophy to evolutionary biology. Scientists have been trying to unravel the beauty problem for decades. We have biological reasons for preferring certain proportions that are more ideal to continue the species. Numerous studies propose that we like symmetry, things that match, and small bodies, because they remind us of youth. According to the late philosopher Denis Dutton’s findings, we know from early tools, that humans have appreciated high levels of skill before they had language, which explains a preference for ballet, but certainly not types of bodies doing ballet. I take no comfort from any of these findings. Why be imprisoned by one’s biology? Why shouldn’t it be possible to grab the wheel of our perception and drive the vision ship? Aren’t brain scientists telling us that neuroplasticity – the ability to rewire our brains in response to experience – is all the rage, too?

Perception’s faultiness is not only well documented by David Eagleman, of Baylor College’s medical school, and other neuroscientists, but somewhat necessary. According to Eagleman, if we actually processed all that our eyeballs take in we would never get past the front door. We are need-to-know perceivers. So taking all that inherent wobbliness to task, do we really need to add social and cultural filters to the mix? When normal folk heard about Jenifer Ringer’s supposed extra pounds, the insular world of ballet bubbled to the surface. Regular people thought the whole situation ludicrous. There’s yet another great waking up right there, in that the general American public became privy to ballet’s harsh standards.

If I’m too easily distracted by what I perceive as imperfections, then my attentive skills need some rigorous buffing up. Why not become conscious of the forces acting upon my brain or seeing? It seems the responsible choice. The aesthetics of ballet may remain a rarefied world, where the long, lean, and small-headed occasionally rise to the top. The cloud of perfection, recently stirred by the spell of Darren Aronofsky’s film Black Swan, Jennifer Homans’s masterful book Apollo’s Angels, and Alastair Macaulay’s now-famous remark, may forever haunt the dance world. But why let it? Can’t we take more control of the perceptive process and truly let go of norms we have agreed to?

A curious thing happened to me while watching the gaggle of all-sized students in Mrs. Wilkinson’s ballet class in the national tour of Billy Elliot. It seemed no big deal. Could I have broken in my vision already?

Attention is a muscle that responds to discipline and persistence. I want to live in a larger dance watching world, where the entire domain of all moving bodies has something of beauty of offer. I plan to embrace imperfection; it’s what makes the world juicy. So with that mission, I dedicate this year to turning my vision filters off and my eyes on.

Reprinted from Dance/USA’s Green Room.

Post script:  Since viewing the Titian and the Golden Age of  Venetian Painting: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland at  the MFAH show, my eyes have had some further practice looking at a variety of bodies. True, none were ballet or modern dancers, still eyes need all the help they can get when it comes to physical diversity. I had forgotten how much visual art contributes to our ideas on the human form. Silly me.

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