17 Jun Musings on language in dance
Let’s talk about the language we’re using in our dance classes and outside of them too.
The gendered nature of language in dance
It’s something that keeps popping up in my insta feed and it irks me. And there’s a couple of reasons why.
A photograph of female dancers with a caption that reads:
But then the same school posts a picture with a boy in it:
While it’s interesting to note that language becomes more neutralised when accounting for a boy, what’s more significant is that the language actually becomes more specific and nuanced. I’m sure those girls in that picture were just as committed, dedicated, disciplined and responsible.. but no. They’re just beautiful.
I’m sure there was no real ‘intention’ behind the caption for these posts… but that’s kind of part of the issue. It happens without us realising it.
Why is it that dance, and ballet in particular, is always using terms like lovely, beautiful and gorgeous as describers… when really, they provide very little description, detail or nuance. Is it just habit? The world we live in? Or something more insidious?
How language perpetuates ideals in the classroom
It happens in classes all the time too.
“Oh, those beautiful feet”
to the kid with an insane arch and instep. Or,
“Those lovely legs”
to the kid with hyperextended knees, and,
“Such beautiful long lines”
to the kid with legs for days.
The thing is, there’s an underlying message to that kind of communication.
What it communicates to anyone who doesn’t have those features is:
❌ “My feet aren’t beautiful”
❌ “I don’t have lovely legs”
❌ “My legs are short and undesirable”
As someone who was this kid… I can tell you that’s exactly what I heard. Language communicates explicitly, implicitly and tacitly (and tone and body language even more so.).
This sort of communication results in teachers devalorising their students without even realising it.
Finding new ways with language in dance
Well, the first steps is to let this marinate. Keep this idea front of mind.
Over the next few weeks, listen to yourself as you teach. What are the words you are using in class to describe movement and achievement. What language are you using to communicate. Then think about the messages that this communication is really sending. Do the words you used say what you really mean?
Anyone that’s done a training with me would’ve heard me say, “Say what you mean, and mean what you say”.
Are you using words like ‘beautiful’, ‘gorgeous’, ‘perfect’, ‘lengthen’? (Yes, even lengthen… so glad to know I’m not the only one that thinks this. Check out Chloe Angyal’s thoughts on this here.)
Then ask yourself, “What do I really mean?”
Instead of “Those were such gorgeous arms in your port de bras” find qualitative words that describe the energy and intention of the movement instead.
Make a little mental or written list of the words that you’re using without thinking, then write a list of more accurate alternatives. The words that really describe what you mean to say. Then it’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice.
Changing your language
You’ll slip up all the time at first. Old habits die hard after all. But when you catch yourself in the act, you’re reminding yourself there’s a better way.
Just as our littlest dancers are learning to speak and are learning new words for movements, so too can we find new words to use in our teaching and marketing.
My personal language goal for this year? Eliminating ‘perfect’ from my teaching talk. It slips out every now and then at the moment… but I’m slowly getting there.
Let me know what words you’d like to strike out from your teaching vocabulary in the comments!
Want more suggestions about how you can break habits like this and more in your dance teaching? Check out our free online mini-series, ‘Breaking the Habit’.