Crack’d: mirror, mirror on the wall

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In Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, the sakhi says to Radha — “O young woman, your pace is already slowed down by the weight of your broad hips; don’t delay your tryst with Krishna any longer, she goes on.” Ancient India prized the hourglass figure long before beauty pageants endowed ’36-24-36’ with iconic meaning. There are no lanky, androgynous women on the walls of Konark.

When Anne Hathaway, waddling in a feathery tutu, is inserted into footage featuring Natalie Portman from Black Swan as part of an Academy Awards’ trailer, the difference between the ‘everyday’ slender and the ‘classically’ slender is starkly rendered. Most dances, especially when they are more than recreational, look up to certain body types as ideal.
Professional dancers insist that fitness comes before expectations of a certain body, but many also admit that the latter lurks close to the surface — its undercurrents exposed every once in a while. The signs are often innocuous — mock-serious remarks about a dancer needing to lose weight, reiterating what foods lead to an ideal body (and thus body image) and peer pressure —if everyone else in the company has a washboard stomach, you ought to have one too.
Bangalore-based dancer-choreographer Veena Basavarajaiah feels that contemporary dance is most accepting of diverse body types. “Contemporary dance does not define how the body should be or look. It allows you to find your own place in it. While working with dance companies, I have seen dancers adopting unhealthy and injurious practices. Dance training then becomes a contest where the exhibitionistic approach towards strength and flexibility overpowers everything else,” she remarks.
Basavarajaiah cites the example of an acquaintance who was hell-bent on improving her turnout (in ballet, rotation of leg, originating from hips). On injuring key muscles in one leg, the dancer was ecstatic about what she saw as an opportunity to resculpt her turnout and make it better. Soon after, she also injured her other leg. “The saddest part,” rues Veena, “was that in reality she could barely walk, let alone bother about her turnout.”
In most Indian cities, one is hard-pressed to find shops dedicated to the sale of dance make-up and accessories. Dance medicine and counselling ranks much lower in the pecking order. Dancers are often playing with their bodies and diets based on their own observations and advice garnered from peers. Often, these diets seem warped and doomed from the beginning. Dancers who may have grown up on rice-intensive diets suddenly take to wheat, having been told that rice makes them put on weight. In many cases, sharp about-turns from the foods they have always consumed makes no difference to their weight.
An Odissi dancer in Mumbai, who wished to remain anonymous, feels that the notion of a single ideal body type is ridiculous and illogical. She says, “One can’t be overweight and dancing, because it is not aesthetically appealing. But a heavy-hipped woman on stage is alluring and it catches the eye. Dancers ought to be proud of their heavy hips, for it is a part of their identities. Personally, I’ve had to keep my weight in control since I feel uncomfortable dancing if I am flabby, but otherwise, being thin is not a priority.”
Even as dancers of all shapes and sizes disapprove of body stereotypes, there are others who have felt the heat as a result of not being endowed with ideal figures. Basavarajaiah, who is tall and of small build, has found herself in such situations. She says, “My Bharatanatyam teacher was very broad-minded compared to many others, but though she knew I worked really hard, I never really fit her vision of the ideal Bharatanatyam dancer. Meanwhile, my ballet teacher tells me I have the perfect body for ballet, and wishes I had trained in ballet from a young age.”
Dancer-choreographer Mehneer Sudan argues that problematic notions of beauty are not exclusive to dance companies. She remarks, “I know the idea of a ‘fit’ body is important — where ‘fit’ is aesthetically appealing. Maybe there is a belief that there is only one way of being fit — through being thin. Problematic notions of beauty are universal. A glossy magazine might shy away from carrying a heavy-boned, voluptuous model on its cover. They might have ‘fat models’, but those models will be relegated to the ‘fat models’ category.”
Dance being given short shrift by the mainstream media is a pet topic among Indian dancers. Ironically enough, it is to dance that advertisers turn when they seek to define their notions of ideal beauty. So a dance reality show winner tells us how ensuring her body and her face are equally fair makes, her more confident. In another ad, a spotty-faced dancer who is relegated to backstage work claims her spot in the limelight after a fairness cream turns her into a beauteous vision.
It is debatable whether ideal bodies function stringently in classical or contemporary dance any longer. In classical dance, hip-pads sewn onto the underside of costumes can make you feel sculpturesque in a matter of minutes. Once, a dancer unblushingly showed this correspondent her ‘breasts’ — two heavily padded bras worn together to create the illusion of bigger breasts under a blouse. And then she went on to perform a piece where much is made of those assets. It was a sweet, fulfilling irony.

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