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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Milner

Choose Your Words

You know that phrase you hear when you’re a child? “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

It’s funny; I have dozens of little scars all over my body - forgotten falls and scrapes from childhood, road maps to unremembered incidents and hurts. I can’t recall where I got most of them. But I remember the origin of every verbal cut and slice on my young heart, and still bear the emotional souvenirs of hundreds of so-called “innocent” words.

Our words? Matter.

“You’d be such a lovely dancer if you just lost a few pounds.”

“Suck in your lunch - I can see it hanging out on your port de bras back.”

“I know you’re not just big-boned - your ankles are skinny.”

These are all things I’ve heard before. By people who both felt the freedom to say something, and who thought they were being helpful in saying it.

When you’re a dancer, you accept that criticism is going to be your main verbal sustenance, sprinkled with a few rare desserts of compliments or encouragements. You try to separate You, the Instrument from You, the Human. I learned to swallow and smile when I finished an audition, asked for honest feedback, and was told “Perhaps spend a bit more time at the gym.” By that time I was a professional dancer, literally inviting people to criticize me by asking for feedback.

But when I was a blossoming 13-year-old, went to a summer intensive audition, and was told, “The one with the boobs? Thank you very much,” when they couldn’t quite read my number from across the room?

I didn’t ask for that.

Eating disorders aren’t about food - at least, not really. They are about control, or trying to disappear, or other emotional issues. They’re incredibly complicated and I won’t pretend to be an authority on unpacking them. But I will say that people don’t turn down that self-destructive path on purpose. Perhaps life feels out of control, and organizing what you eat feels like a way to assert some control. Maybe your home life is difficult, and bingeing seems comforting. Maybe you’re fleeing something.

Or maybe you’re hearing those voices.

When I danced on a cruise ship, I made sure to take a contract that didn’t require regular weigh-ins (many ships did at the time) because I knew I couldn’t handle that emotionally. But wear a white sequined bikini onstage and people feel entitled to say something. I cannot tell you the number of times a guest on the ship would see me at breakfast - before a long, exhaustive day of running up and down stairs, rehearsing, and dancing - and look over my breakfast and say, “Are you sure you should be eating that bacon? You want to make sure you can fit into those costumes!”

And for the record, my fiancé was right next to me the whole time, both dining and performing, and never had anything said to him.

The dance world - especially ballet - has a long history of asserting the right to demand a certain aesthetic or look. And it’s true - you don’t have to pursue it if you’re not willing to acknowledge that and either acquiesce or develop an incredibly thick skin.

But don’t dancers deserve the right to be spoken to with thoughtfulness? With mindfulness? With dignity at least a part of the framework of the conversation?

As I transitioned to the other side of the table in the dance studio, I promised my past self that I would make my future self choose my words with care, with kindness, with integrity. I do not have the right to tell a dancer she looks like a “pregnant cat” (true story from one of my 15-year-olds) or to ask a 12-year-old what her parents fed her over the holiday and “ask them next time to hold back a little!” And I especially absolutely don’t ever have the right as a teacher, as a mentor, as someone entrusted with young, still-forming psyches, to ever, ever, EVER comment on a dancer’s weight in a “helpful” way. The word “diet” should never come up in a dance studio. Dance teachers should never shame-talk about themselves - “Girls, lay off the chocolate or you’ll look like me! I used to be skinny!” We should keep our neuroses to ourselves and vow to do better with the next generation.

You would be surprised at how much my pre-professional dancers talk to me while working out. As we train, they float test balloons on all sorts of sensitive subjects, with side-long glances to judge my reaction. They repeat what’s said to them by teachers, directors, coaches, and then look to me for some sort of context. They honestly, truly don’t know if these words, and the feelings they cause, or ok. If they even have a right to be hurt by the people in authority over them.

I am not talking about the overtly abusive authority figures here - the ones who “surprise” company members with weigh-ins and announce the weight change to the company (this may or may not have happened to me). Or the ones who used to terrorize dancers with tape measures, or point-blank call them fat cows, or wonder out loud in rehearsal how a partner could possibly lift such a “big girl” and kudos to THAT poor man.

That’s a whole other discussion.

No, today I’m looking at all those well-meaning people who went through their own “stuff” and either haven’t dealt with it, or think that if they had to suffer, so should the next generation.

Eating disorders aren’t a frat house initiation rite. We don’t want to haze the next generation.

We want to raise them.

Let’s raise a generation who doesn’t step on a scale whispering, “Please don’t hurt me” every day. Or better yet, doesn’t even step on the scale. Let’s raise strong, beautiful, empowered dancers who feel emotionally free enough - and physically confident enough - to be completely vulnerable onstage, which is the best way to produce moving, masterful, authentic art. Let’s start measuring every single word that flies towards young artists, arrows that will either pierce and scar or perhaps, Cupid-like, cause the first stirrings of a love affair with dance. Let’s utter phrases that inspire, encourage, redeem.

Let’s change the conversation.

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