Dancing the body beautiful

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.

No chubbies

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.

Pavel believes that their meticulous attention to detail pays off. “In the beginning,” he notes, “when we didn’t know how to dance so good—because we always dress well, we always did good.” Some dancers, he adds, do not know this. “Sometimes you go to practice, and you see very good couples, and you’re like ‘Wow, damn, they’re very good.’ Then the competition starts, and they wear crap. The girl has such a gorgeous body, and, she puts so much stuff on her, she looks like a Christmas tree.” Pavel believes that it is important to impress the judges and the audience with the right appearance and look before the dancing begins. Clothing should show dancers’ best features and hide the flaws, he says.

One might contrast the story of these dancers, who are at the peak of their competitive careers, with a somewhat older dancer, Peter, who retired from professional competition at about the time that bodywork increased in importance. When asked about exercise, he pays lip service to the idea: “I should. I don’t,” he says. These days he notes, “couples coming up are doing exercise, they are going to the gym, they are getting bodies beautiful.” However, he believes that dance itself is sufficient exercise: “When you’re practicing every day, you’re dancing, you’re teaching people to do it the right way. You’re exaggerating the movements; you’re actually using a lot of resistance in your own body to show them.” Peter adds, “I could always do more exercise, and I could always be fitter, and that would help, but I don’t want to be so tired that I can’t do anything.” When asked about his diet, Peter smiles and says, “Before a competition I eat less ice cream.” When he prepares for competitions, he adds, “the weight just drops off you.” Though he might put a few pounds on afterwards, he is confident that it will come off.

Peter’s account is typical of older dancers who put their energy into practicing and worried less about their appearance. Peter credits being “mentally strong on the competition floor” for his success. He never gives in; he describes his attitude as “a lot of sheer bloody-mindedness really.” Every now and then, he turns over a new leaf by going to the gym for a few weeks. However he adds, “then I’m travelling or I’m teaching and suddenly I don’t have the time.” Peter believes that bodies can be improved through hard work, but it is not a priority for him as it is for younger dancers. His identity as a dancer is not as dependent on looks.

Still appearances matter. “When you’re out on the floor, first impressions count,” he says. This means having “the right costume, the right hair, the right makeup.” Furthermore, he says, “it helps if you’ve got a beautiful girl; it helps if you have a handsome guy.” Still, he believes “people who are not so good-looking, or bit of a funny shape” could overcome this if they dance well. He names past champions who did not have beautiful, matching bodies, suggesting that they overcame their body limitations through the force of their personalities, and through their dancing skill. Only a few years ago, the world champion, Bryan Watson, covered his belly with a long shirt that hung over his pants. His partner, Carmen Vicenji, was slender, but she was cavalier about her appearance, and wore her hair in a short, manageable bob. For younger dancers today, appearance is increasingly important.

The pursuit of perfection

The body project is not simply something that dancers do. Increasingly, it is who they are. Their identities are bound up not only in what they do on the floor, but also in how they look. Why this change has occurred is not entirely clear. Perhaps perfection appears to be more attainable today. As exercise and diet are pushed by the media and absorbed by the public, bodywork has become a generalized part of our culture. Every young dancer I interviewed believes that bodies are malleable, and that it is incumbent upon them to achieve their body’s fullest potential. One Latin dancer says, “Your body is the only thing you ever truly own,” so of course you should treat it carefully and work hard to improve it. The idea of “owning” something that is part of you is a perfect illustration of the ways the body has become a “project.”

Having largely ignored the body, sociologists have recently become interested in how social systems create the bodies we inhabit, and how bodies limit and enable social forms. While our ideas about what is possible and what is beautiful arise from our culture, the physical body places limits on these expectations. Latin dancers have moved from a world where it is possible to enhance one’s body, but only to a degree, to a world where the possibilities of perfection seem limitless and where, if these limits seem insurmountable, partners must change. Younger dancers like Pavel and Tsvetanka feel a moral imperative to perfect their bodies and their appearance, and to dance with a partner whose looks enhance their own. Savvy about creating a visual image of heterosexual romance, they offer an extreme example of the pervasive ways we are all encouraged to discipline our bodies.

Julia A. Ericksen is the author of Dance with Me: Ballroom Dancing and the Promise of Instant Intimacy.

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