As we enter into the thick of dance recital season, this topic popped into my mind. Little kids are cute onstage, but it doesn’t take long for them to grow up into a world where they are objectified for their looks.
I grew up dancing. I started dance lessons at the age of three, and from then on, you couldn’t keep me off the stage if you tried.
I was a darn cute little thing in my little tutus. But it only took a few years for the conditioning to start.
When you first see a little dancer in a half top, it’s cute. I was seven years old the first time I bared my tummy in a dance costume. Then again at nine. That’s when all the crunches in ballet class started.
They had a dual purpose- to make our cores strong to improve our dancing…but also to make us look good in scanty costumes. As I began puberty, I remember sitting in class in fifth grade deliberately tightening my abs as I sat at my desk to condition my body to always “suck it in,” if you will. And to this day, that’s what my body does.
I never really minded the skin-bearing costumes much. I had a strong core and nice abs and didn’t feel embarrassed about showing them off. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that that changed.
It was announced at the end of summer that the musical, my final musical, was going to be A Chorus Line. Yikes. The characters in that show have some serious baggage. But I knew what role I wanted (Maggie, one of the girls who sings “At the Ballet”) and knew I would probably get it. I was virtually typecast for the role. Our director wasn’t stupid; she picked the shows based on the talent she had available, and this year she happened to have a strong enough group to do a show that had 17 leads.
On the second day of school, auditions began. I flew through to callbacks the next day. When our director’s assistant was handing out bits of the script the director wanted each of us to read, she said to me, “She wants you to read for Val and Sheila.”
Wait, what? Val is the character made famous for her song “Dance: Ten, Looks: Three,” otherwise known as “Tits and Ass.” Although it was a nice nod to my dance abilities, no way did I want that role. My dad would have a stroke.
But I read for Val with two sophomore girls who were good, but not quite there. I ended up giving our director exactly what she wanted. And she didn’t have me read for Sheila after all. I knew exactly what was going to happen. When I got home, I said, “Umm, Dad…how would you feel if I were cast as Val?” His response was enough: “Oh God…no, no, no, no, no…”
Needless to say, I was cast as Val, a casting shocker that no one had seen coming before auditions. I was sweet and quiet, like Maggie. Val was…not. She’s foul-mouthed and sings about the plastic surgery she had to make herself more desirable to casting directors. She’s the show’s sex object, hands down.
As rehearsals went on, I got used to it. I wasn’t able to really settle into the role until pretty much the last minute, when I had my blocking for my solo number. But when we started costume fittings, my experience entered a whole new level of hell. In the Broadway version, Val typically wears a purple leotard with a short-sleeved purple sweater over it and white sneakers. But because of my rather nice abs, our director wanted to model my costume after the 1985 movie version’s Val (played by Audrey Landers): a coral two-piece that was basically a bathing suit. Her only stipulation was that my belly button be covered because we were doing the show set in the 1980s, when high-waisted bottoms were in. After some hair dye and cutting a leotard in half, this was the result. (Hopefully you can tell the difference between me and Audrey Landers.)
Ok, whatever, I didn’t look too bad in it. I think we got as close to
as we could. But then the objectification began.
One day, during a break in rehearsal, I was laying on my stomach on the house floor, near the first row of seats, working on my calculus homework. I was in costume, but with a zip-up fleece on. I heard whispering, and something about “boobs.” Fearing the worst, I looked up. Sitting not too far from me were some of the boys in the cast, who were sneaking looks at me and whispering about my boobs. I looked down and realized that the effect of the push-up bra sewn into my top, plus gravity and my position kind of squeezing things together made for a nice sight for the boys. To say I was mortified was an understatement. I quickly zipped up my fleece all the way to my neck.
Then there were the stunned looks and low whistles from my fellow band mates when I walked out onstage the first time we were rehearsing with the orchestra during tech week. (My friend in the pit: “What are you wearing?”)
Then there was the cast mom who mentioned to her husband that she was jealous of my abs, so he jokingly bought her an Ab Roller.
Then there was the time, during final rehearsals, our director took me aside, because she knew I would be embarrassed to receive this note in front of the cast, and suggested a few ways to make myself sexier during my solo number.
Then there was a theater friend from another school who saw me after a performance, gave me a hug, and whispered in my ear, “I wanted to do you so bad!” Well, I guess I got the character across…
So what am I trying to get across here? To choose the life of a dancer, or musical theater performer, is to choose a life of objectification. You have to look like that, move like this, weigh this much. I’m thankful that during all my years of performing, I never received a negative word about my body, such as being “too fat” or “not toned enough,” as so many of my fellow performers did.
But I chose another life, to the dismay of our director. I put dance and theater behind me 12 years ago and I never looked back. And I’m happy with who I am.