The body is your instrument

Updated: Mar 30, 2020


As many of you know, the dance world can be a totally unforgiving world. I've been a dancer since I was four years old. It has been the only thing that has ever made any sense to me. I have always been an athletic person. I played soccer, lacrosse, I was a swimmer and a diver, and a track kid and played plenty of other sports. No matter which sport or activity I was involved with, I could see how dance directly enhanced my skills and ability to play, not to mention 98% of the time - I found a way to dance throughout practice and games, even meets.

First Spartan Sprint

My first ever 1st place in a SUP race

I've always been athletically inclined with many physical activities coming quite naturally to me. I was always very lucky in that regard. I often look back on my own life and wonder if I had dedicated 1/2 the time I did to dancing to any of those other activities, how far I could have gone in most sports especially diving. I have always been drawn to the water. When I began stand up paddling, though using my upper body (and well, my whole body) in this manner was new, though the coordination came to me, I knew how much improvement I could make. I was never the fastest out of the group but I was eager to learn and be out there. I was also not last (well, not after a little experience and practice anyway). I can run a 10 miler or do a Spartan Sprint with very little preparation, however unwise it may be. In the last two years, SUP was what I was doing when I wasn't teaching and dancing. Honestly, I think it helped my dancing a lot. I built up my stabilizer muscles and overall a newer, none negative body awareness.

So here I am, diving back into dance more singularly. Until this summer, it had been almost two years since I was really dancing, full out, regularly - getting back. Why? I had an experience with a director who had no problem teaching poor technique and shaming dancers. In fact, when I was released of my contract, it was because I didn't recover from a concussion in a week. (It was my 4th concussion and brain injuries are NOT something you take lightly and certainly not something I'm willing to dance through. I have more to offer than my body.) In all honesty, being released was the best thing that happened to me. I was totally over it. Burned out. Angry even. I was slaving 20+ hours a week with no pay, to only get paid $50 a show. To be clear, I did sign this contract... I was just happy to be dancing. We were told we would have 7 shows that season, we only had 3 before I was let go (in 8 months time). Thank God I didn't rely on this for income.

Before my last show with them, we were being told a story of this "fat" girl our director had danced with and kept going on and on about how big she was. Not speaking about how her technique and dancing got her there, merely focused on the dancers body, one person in the company finally asked, "how big was she?" And with a casual wave, "like Mackenzie" were the words that came out of the man's mouth. Everyone looked at me with this sad, shocked, "wtf" face. I kept a straight face, kept my cool until I left. Because - its totally "unprofessional" to react to comments like that. So I didn't give him the satisfaction of ruffling my feathers, not publicly anyway. But you can be sure, I was fuming.

Now, if you know me and aren't a dancer, my insecurities with body seem fake, unjustified and just for attention. But let me be very clear with you, I'm not writing this for your reassurance. I'm trying to get you to understand how cruel and stupid this world can be and when you tell me or assume I'm looking for attention, how infuriating it is. Now as a normal, non-dancer, I understand why so many people look at me like I have five heads. Not be cocky in my delivery, but I know my body is a good one in the normal everyday world and that so many people work so hard to get near where I am. My level headed human has finally truly learned and known this, in my deepest heart, somewhere all along I've known that. But let's look at it from a dancer's perspective...

 

As dancers, we stand in front of mirrors hour after hour critiquing, judging and constantly working on ourselves, our bodies, and what we see to be better. We spend much of our career looking for what is wrong with us, what needs improvement, what needs to be altered or shifted. Honestly, its a bit pathetic when I put it like that. But yes, I will completely admit - I have a warped understanding of myself and what I look like. No I have never suffered with eating disorders (and I'm beyond thankful for that). I don't want to and yet when I get feedback that my body is what keeps me from getting the job, I can't help but wonder if I did if it'd make a difference. Yes I'm BEYOND stubborn (I don't need anyone to tell me that) and if I decided to I could probably make this unrealistic and unhealthy choice but the reality is, as I get older, after teaching young dancers for over a decade, I would never encourage a student to make those choices... so why in God's name would I tell myself to.

The year I got to be lead Arabian...

I've battled with my perception of my body for a very long time. The first time my weight was addressed, I was a freshman in high school, I hit puberty, and I hit it hard. My body went from a pre-pubescent awkward deer with control of my body and a natural ability to move in every style to become a woman, and what felt like over night. I jumped from no bra to a large cup for a 14/15 year old. I had back pain that I ignored and danced through for years... literally for four years. My whole center of gravity shifted, my turns and technique altered to compensate and react to my body changing and while it was kind of miserable, it made me so much stronger. After months of extra hours of post class, post rehearsal, practice and dancing in my own room, I got my turns and much of my technique back. But the first time I heard my body would be part of what held me back from getting a part, it was the beginning of new thought process in my head. A constant one. I've always been blessed to have my mom, she would be give me reassurance but also try South Beach diet with me... which lasted one day at school... that was the end of that. I am a HANGRY lady, so I knew that dieting wasn't going to ever be a route I'd handle gracefully. In fact, I've pretty much avoided it since then. It was all to be Arabian, which in the end, a new bra top was made to fit me because in the end, my dancing capabilities matter more. Costumes were always being altered for me to add a bra section, extra liner, or widen the bodice of the tutu so my chest would fit. Find a looser fit of pant so as not to rip the costume. But that's when my super f*ed up body image began and it has been a rollercoaster of highs and extreme lows since. This was all compounded in college by dating a man who only made that image of myself worse... but this tale is not about him. In fact, in college, my body was never a factor in what piece I was put in. I was never given overwhelmingly negative feedback on my body. Pure dance. ALL DAY. (To be fair, my high school experience wasn't always about my body... so don't get the idea I didn't grow and love my time at my second home/studio... I basically lived there and the girls and teachers there were my family. That studio built me and I'm so blessed for that. The foundation of technique came directly from my incredible teachers.) It was the beginning dose of reality of what my career would be like for a curvy young woman. In reflection, I'm grateful in many ways to have experienced it there first. So here I am, out of college, four years out to be clear, just getting back to dancing after time off... it has been so emotionally difficult to get past the little devil I have sitting on my shoulder being a bully to my mind warping my sense of identity with crude and unfair comments about my body. Taking those two years off after getting that feedback was beyond necessary and I grew so much through my YTT, but there are somethings in life that are like a scratch in the record. Now I don't get this feedback in Bowen McCauley Dance, but I'm not blind. The women I have the pleasure of sharing the stage with also happen to be very petite... beautifully toned, thin and strong, I often feel out of place - the one woman who clearly doesn't look like the others. But they never do anything but love on me, support me and I can imagine at times, I'm difficult to be around, but they never tell me I'm a pain in the ass about it... even maybe when they should. (So quick shout out to my girls Eve and Alicia, thank you for your patience and kindness).

^^^ This picture when I first saw it nearly had me in tears, to play this diva and sexy woman in Cafe Carambole, all I could see was things I didn't like. I literally was repulsed by myself... how unfair is that to be doing to this incredible body that I expect to do so much. I didn't like that my skin wasn't flat, that you could see how tight the costume was. Not to mention, the top, had zero support so not only did I look off and knew just how uncomfortable I was, lacking all confidence. Looks can be deceiving - while the character I got to play was a fun one - I really struggled.

All this said, my scratched record has been waxed and healing slowly - at least little by little having spent the last year really working on my views, perspective, approach to thoughts, my mindfulness and meditation that I've introduced into my life and tried to incorporate via my YTT and those beautiful souls who shared that experience. I learned so much about myself and am constantly learning and growing. After years of journaling, working out, shifting food thoughts and ideas, experimenting with nutrition and yoga's spirituality.... my sense of reality - had just started to come back... I certainly had moments in rehearsals this year, having been the obviously larger girl in the skimpy costume. It certainly tested me and the test won a LOT. But not always. I began new food habits this year when I was frustrated that my body wasn't shifting. I started reading nutrition blogs, training sites, and books and when comparing the numbers, I decided I needed to start calculating my caloric intake vs what I was burning... boy was I off. I was under-eating so much so that my body couldn't properly recover or build muscle. After I began that shift, my body did change (not a ton like I wanted, but enough to know I was on the right track).

Months later of hard work, new nutrition and a supportive top that made feel more confident.

I was very good about it for a while, and throughout that I realized how much I missed my cross training - running, paddling, lifting and other strengthening exercises etc. The problem was trying to get the "right" build for dance, I was so afraid that would be a detriment and knew many of those wouldn't be ideal, so for the most part, I've stuck to yoga and dance... I lost weight, I was so excited, I was training hard and feeling good going into auditions. I still miss all my favorite workouts, especially as someone who has always turned to exercise in times of crisis, that endorphin release, running meditation and time with my racing thoughts made things really challenging but I was going to get that dream job this year, I could feel it. I did sign up for the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler, I wasn't as trained as I would've liked as I was dealing with some knee pain but man did it feel good to be running. Classes and rehearsals I was getting good feedback after I started running, it was like something clicked. I didn't overdo it, but it just felt like my body went back into place - in some ways anyway.

My first few auditions this season were good. Though I didn't make the final cuts, for the first time leaving them, I had the healthiest mindset I had ever had. I don't know what it was, I just knew that what I had brought to the table was my best. I was in the moment, producing movement, musicality, and strong technique that they were looking for, so how could I be upset with myself? And of course when you dance, 95% of your career is auditioning and being told no. I had a strong healthy mindset going in and walking out. In the dance world, there is this funny thing... you could be perfect and not get a job based on anything from you height, race, hair color, age, to who you have or haven't worked with. So at the end of the day, it may have nothing to do with your ability and talent and everything to do with filling the 5'0" role for costuming to the company taking a new direction. I vividly remember being proud of my work, happy with each audition knowing what I brought, for having taken 2 years off, for the progress I had made and the way I left feeling about my own performance. It wasn't common for me. Usually I'd jump to all my mistakes... but not this time.

 

Well... that all shifted when I headed to THE audition. The one I had been working towards. Anxious after buying new pointe shoes, new style and size and that might have been the scariest thing. The shoes weren't breaking how I had hoped, I wasn't as proficient as I could've been and I have three fresh blood blisters going into the most important audition of the season.... but I was by no means unprepared. I got to NYC, was hugged by the director (after all I have been building this relationship for years...) Moana was played during ronde jambs... I could feel it. Barre felt good, center was tough on pointe - feet throbbing but I was still the most alive I had felt in a long time. First cut, happy to make it through and to take of the bricks, slipped into flat shoes and into repertory we went. Let me just tell you how alive I was. I was almost in tears. I was moving like a beast. We played with our entire bodies, we played with texture, musicality, I mean legitimately it was my dream and I was absolutely crushing it. Now if you know me at all, THAT STATEMENT.... is not easy for me to say. Syd was there and he came up to me and was like I've never seen you look so good, seriously you are made to move like this. I asked meticulous questions about space and time and angle and the dancer's leading were impressed by the precision... I legit was where I was supposed to be, Writing this - right here and now, I am feel that same surge I felt in the space with everyone that day - alive, heart and mind racing but totally calm and ready. Next cut, into the next set of repertory we went, this time working with the choreographer who had us shift quality fast to circular, fluid movement contrasted with loud staccato stomps and back to that sinuous groove... and again my body, felt like it was no longer forced to speak any language but its own. My heart was worn on my sleeve. I felt like I was being seen again for the first time in a long time. It felt incredible.

Next thing we know, we have 30 more minutes that they thought and I was cut. Genuinely confused, I thanked the director and rehearsal director and dancers running the audition and exited the room. I had no idea what happened. I didn't understand. I was utterly devastated. I had two male friends go to final callbacks so Syd and I stuck around to grab drinks with them and celebrate. I watched the few girls they kept, some of whom couldn't do a roll without their bones banging. It felt surreal, like a nightmare. To be fair, two of the women in there had every right to be there and would've likely gotten the spot over me anyway... but the others, I was trying to figure out what it was, why I was cut. I was greeted by the choreographer in the hall who went out of his way to congratulate me and comment on my dancing and how much he enjoyed watching me through the audition. I don't know if it was my brain fooling me, but he seemed a little surprised I was cut too - but maybe that was just in my head because I was so bummed and was desperate to find some solace or reassurance (both very possible). After talking with Syd and Tanner, I decided I really did want to know. So I wrote an email asking for feedback, and it is rare that a company will do that in the first place but with the relationship we built, I was hopeful I'd get some insight.

A few days later, I heard back, I was with Jake and my roommates and started reading aloud... and my voice dropped off from excited to barely whispering words out, or at least that's what it felt like, like the wind left my body. Jake got really upset for me, God love him, and immediately started defending me and calling it bullsh*t. He legitimately couldn't wrap his head around the feedback I was getting. But I could, just wished it weren't true.

"Focusing on getting used to your pointe shoes, wear them everyday, they should be an extension of your foot" ------ that I already knew, so no problem, I'll put those bricks on in my sleep to get them there. Once I adjust to this new style, get my ankle strength back to where it was, it'll be no problem. One sentence on my feet, they've always been a tough spot and could've used more prepping time but I'm cool with that. "Continue to find your own flame in your dancing..." UMMM if you saw me regularly, you would like that what I just brought was a wild fire of passion and I was showing you EXACTLY who I was... so I'll admit I got a bit defensive there... like how do I dance more like myself when I've never felt more clear in who I am and what I want?? But again, just a quick drop note there - one that upset me, but at the end, realized for myself I gave myself and maybe they are looking for a different color flame...

but the part the took the wind out of my sails and completely shut me down was:

" continue to focus on getting your body to be as fit as possible, especially your waist/upper leg area... I encourage you to cross train... Getting your heart rate up, and using light weights to sculpt...then finding consistency with that fit body, believe me I know who hard that can be."

 

At first, I just went numb. Got quiet. Headed to bed. Jake had never seen me to crumble and deflate like that, claiming I'm one of the most positive and upbeat people he knows. But I suddenly didn't have it, and the worst part, I immediately resorted to, "well guess I should've known" I went to class the following Monday, I legitimately cried, in class. ( I don't cry in public... ever) but there I was, struggling to just take class knowing I'd have 3 hours after class to look at myself in that mirror. I avoided looking in a mirror for weeks after that - which in reflection might have been my healthiest automatic response. Since then, I've been battling myself - what options I have. Was I going to make those sacrifices... how would I approach changing my body to fit their picture... I know that in their position, they were trying to be gentle in phrasing, and realistically they were. It isn't unfair... it isn't uncommon. It isn't a first to get feedback on my body and yet this time it is like the world stopped. I know it was a delicate approach to a very tender issue but I couldn't see that. I was angry but also totally lost. How the f*ck was I going to get my body to do that... I also was laughing... HA.... two weeks previous I had run a 10 miler, I cross train with yoga and had been avoiding weights because it was building the muscles instead of slimming them but was doing extra to prep for that day. Try getting your heart rate up... it was comical. I was pissed and yet laughing. I was torn up inside though. Genuinely appreciative of honest feedback but at the end of the day, My BODY was the biggest concern. Not solely on my ability to do the steps but on the bigger parts of my body. Like how ridiculously f*ed up is that. But hey, that's the reality of the dance world right?! UMMMM WHAT?! I mean yeah it is and everyone keeps thinking the dance world is making such progress on "body image" after seeing someone like Misty Copeland kick ass. Don't get me wrong she IS kickass, but she isn't big. She builds muscle differently absolutely and for ABT... she looked different in more ways than one ... but that woman isn't big. To be fair... neither am I. But not in the narrow eyes of the career we decided to embark on. This part of the dance world has given me the worst complex about myself, one day I feel great, proud and the next I feel like I should be working out 90 times a day and eating less... luckily I've been blessed with an appetite for days, intelligence and a lack of the mental illness and sickness that destroys so many lives in and out of this line of work. My family and friends also help keep me in check. After shutting down for a while, I then decided it was time to do something, to weigh my options, look at possibilities. I talked to my Mom who didn't know how to help, I was getting thinking of you notes from my siblings and Dad after Mom shared and I had my friends who didn't know how to help or respond other than frustration for me. (PS thank you all for all you are... I'm blessed to have you). In chatting with my roommates, they commented on my skill in the stubborn department and talked about how they believe I could make those changes, but didn't think I'd be happy. They expressed how much sacrifice they believed it would take, how it would likely wear me down and instead of imposing their opinions on what I should do... they asked.... we know you'd do anything for this job, but would you be happy? And It was a valid question. Would I be happy if I gave up social outings, drinking, lots of food choices, sacrificing people and events and sanity to fit an image that would be near impossible... or well should I rephrase... very very hard to maintain. Would I be happy? I didn't know. I still don't. Then they reminded me of the success I had in NYC at the invitation to the Final EPA for Dirty Dancing National tour, the excitement I had in LA working in more commercial work, the exploding passion I had for the stunt workshop I took and the success and satisfaction I had teaching and choreographing at Howard University. These were all elements I completely eliminated in my narrow minded way, my eyes set in one place, Philly. (Rule number one in the arts, don't make plans... until the contract is signed. Don't close any doors or walk away from any possibilities - you never know if you'll get a yes or a no, but always be ready for the no) I did not do that. I went tunnel vision.

After some time, I contacted dearest friend Sierra for advise. She is a dancer and personal trainer and I asked about what I could be doing. I know there are muscles you can target and work on but I wanted to know if you can target zap to rid yourself which I guess deep down I knew better but I

was hopeful. Before she even went into saying that, she said, "Mackenzie. If you were just any potential new client coming in for an evaluation and you told me you wanted to lose weight... I'd have you get a psych evaluation before I would work with you. I'm not just saying that as your friend, in order for you to do what you want, it'd require you to stop working out - break down your muscle and basically start from scratch. It would require unhealthy habits... to be honest, I probably wouldn't train you... its totally unrealistic. Also you happen to be one of the most athletically charged people I know... mostly because you love doing literally everything. " And lots more but as a dancer she could also sympathize. She jumped back to similar moments and we both just bitched about this totally warped way the dance world (and us dancers) create. We talked about other avenues, styles, companies etc. She tried to reassure me but also knew, it would have to happen on my terms. She too is an yoga instructor so she understands the emotional and spiritual journey I have been on specifically this past year combined with the dancer crazies and for whatever reason is always someone who just got me. I was really relieved to talk to her. I certainly cried a lot that night. Not knowing what I wanted, how to approach this new information, where I was going to go with it. I also recognized and had a moment of clear headedness in saying, "Not all bodies genetically shape, shift, and build the same... there is a reason for that. And I can't be mad about it." I only half meant it in my head, because I immediately shifted to : 1. wow giving up easy much? 2. you don't deserve it if you won't put in the work and effort, lazy. 3. so what can I eliminate food wise and add exercise wise? to the other extreme of 4. your path isn't necessarily in one direct route. 5. are you ever going to get to the challenged level you want? ---- it was like ping pong in my head. Still is. I have NO idea what I'm going to do or how I'm going to do it.

Then I got upset with myself for being upset. For not just sucking it up and making the changes. I got mad at myself that I wasn't stronger emotionally. I was disappointed that I let myself believe I was enough... then this vicious insidious and ridiculous spiral began. And admittedly this reality of the dance world and my body which then called into question my purpose, my skill and drive... found its way into more parts of my life than I ever want to admit. It comes into any potential relationship and my insecurities about myself are pathetic and often times crippling. I hate it because I know the strain it puts on any potential for progress of any relationship... again it is a work in progress but it certainly seeps back in without warning without reason all the time and when it does, I then beat myself to a pulp for being that girl in a relationship. Judging myself for my insecurities. Destroying myself from the inside and most of the time, I have NO idea why. I've been a martyr since I was a child... no one knows where I learned it and as I get older I recognize it and am embarrassed. Add it to the list of "WORKS IN PROGRESS" but step one - recognition right? It seeps into my understanding of who I am, what I want, what I need, what I believe. Dramatic right? Not intentional I swear but it makes you question why you love this art form (luckily even in my frustration, I end up dancing and moving to clear my head so I don't actually hate it). Then I ask why I can't let it go? Why it matters so much? Can you see the trend? I'm riddled with insecurity while also strangely and so clearly knowing who I am. I am an emotional mess and yet at times so clear headed and strong. And it shifts constantly. And when I try to explain to people who are naturally without effort so gorgeous and they say it back or someone tries to compliment me, the saddest part is I think back to how the way I look keeps me from my dreams. Now I will say, I'm working on fixing this immediate mind reaction, but when I'm blown away by your kindness, it is completely sincere. I often wish I could see what others do because somehow so quickly I see an athletic goblin.

Here is what I've concluded in my frustration with not just the dance world but the world our youth is struggling to be a part of:

The Unrealistic Expectations of the Dance World :

- My dream should sacrifice my health.

- I must sacrifice everything to succeed.

- I must look a certain way.

- I must like the way famous artists move and dance.

- I am anyone's canvas... a piece of clay and I'm yours to mold and fix.

- I'm your slave and my art isn't worth your money... I'll work for free.

I'm currently in the phase of "well, now what?" Do I stick it out? Do I shift into another genre? Do I give it one more chance? How can this be a learning/teaching moment? Should be teaching again? Shifting to choreography? Who am I? What is your voice saying? Your heart? Which path are you going to take from here?

NO FRICKIN CLUE but I guess it is time to start figuring it out piece by piece, attempt by attempt.

I have so much more to say on this topic, but I'm losing linear thoughts... so for tonight, I will end with one last shared moment from someone I admire and look up to before closing with some affirmations for myself.

No I'm not, I'm the canvas, the artwork, and the paintbrush. I am all the parts and pieces going into the final product. You may guide my instrument to play and paint your picture but it is my mind, body, and passion bringing it to life. My body is my instrument and I will treat it with respect. I may not be the most sane person but I'm actively choosing myself, a healthy self. An artist who is trying to do as she teaches. I know I will have good and bad days and my worth is not defined on by my job or my success. I didn't get into this field to be famous, I got into it because I really fucking love it, because it means more than bodies doing cool things. It speaks the language of the soul next to the music. It is a language that my mind speaks and only I have the power to take that away from me and I refuse to do that.

 

Audra reached out and shared her journey and some words of encouragement. She too had her eyes set on certain companies, with a timeline etc. God had different plans and she says looking back, she worked with the people who were meant to teach her about herself as a person and an artist - whether to expose her to what she wanted or what she wouldn't go back to. I read her note, as someone I look up to in every class, her unprompted message still brings me to tears.

"... but looking back I wouldn’t trade what I have for what I wanted. I believe there is a plan and purpose for your life! You are beautiful and talented and I know you are going to find “your path” Keep your head up, keep going forward and don’t give up. Not sure if you are praying sort of girl, but I am praying for you and believe there is beautiful purposeful plan for you!"

 

I'm trying to just acknowledge the unhealthier aspects of my career and not let them define me this summer and all my days going forward. I also know I want to start a discussion, how do we are people, dancers, women and men begin to change this reality in dance (and in life). How can we guide the next generation to be both humble, kind, receptive while also knowing limits? What can we teach and shift now to make the arts healthier and safer for everyone?

#dance #bodyimage #athlete #career #shiftingperspective #freshperspective #supportsystem #path #careerpath

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