Using accounts from several professional Latin dancers augmented by the author’s own experience, Julia A. Ericksen traces the ways bodily perfection has become an important part of dancers’ identities. In addition, Ericksen argues that this is a more extreme form of general cultural pressure to engage in bodywork.
[Note: This article originally appeared in Contexts. Read the full version here.]
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In the professional Latin event at a ballroom dance competition, men wear dance pants with tight shirts open to the waist, showing bulging chest muscles. Their hair, which must stay motionless and shiny for the entire event, is glued back with gel and blow-dried with hair spray. Faces are tanned, and matte makeup makes the skin appear translucent and blemishfree. Men’s high-heeled shoes are immaculate and usually black, as is the costume. Bodies are perfectly proportioned with no fat in sight.
©2007 Jonathan S. Marion.
Each handsome man frames an equally gorgeous woman, wearing a brightly colored skimpy dress that flares out with every move, embellished with hundreds of Swarovski crystals, glued by hand, as well as earrings, bracelets, and necklaces in matching stones. High-heeled, open-toed shoes are typically flesh-colored, to make legs look longer. Women’s backs are bare and tanned, and faces are elaborately made up. Hair is long, swept up or in a ponytail. Not only are the bodies taut and muscular, but the heights and looks of each member of the couple are purposely matched.
While looks have always been important on the dance floor, they have become increasingly important in recent years, especially in Latin dance. Clothing has become more revealing and unforgiving of imperfections, and dancers’ concern with appearance has intensified. Dancers’ identities have become intertwined with the bodywork they do, and the bodies they produce.
In the past, men were taught to make their partner the focal point of the performance, using expressions like “the man is the frame and the woman is the picture.” Today, this traditional obligation is weaker. Many men display themselves almost as much as they display their partners. For example, Pavel, a male dancer, is as involved in appearance work as his wife [Tsvetanka]. Partners, he says, “have to match well, and they have to look beautiful, and they have to match the bodies.” To accomplish this, Pavel works on every aspect of his body and its presentation. Because he does not want to be too “chubby” or too skinny, in addition to careful diet and practice and the many hours he spends coaching and teaching students, he takes gyrotonics classes, uses a Pilates machine at home, and has a personal trainer at the gym. He needs the personal trainer, he says, “because my legs are long compared with my torso.” In order to be, “connected with the center [of your body], you get tired.” He works on his upper body, and on general physical toning.
Pavel has a complicated routine before each competition. He eats, drinks coffee, and does pushups to engage his core, and then focuses on his appearance. He shaves and does his hair, as well as his partner’s. As Tsvetanka puts on her makeup, he offers her constant advice, “Do more of this. Don’t do that.” Sometimes they fix their costumes, or experiment with something new. Finally, two hours before the competition, when they are happy with their looks, they warm up together, and get into the competitive mood by listening to music and talking quietly.