I grew up in a naked household. Mom, Dad, my sister, and I would all climb into my parents’ big Jacuzzi for family bath time. When my sister and I were four and six years old, we thought that if you saw a pool, you were supposed to strip and dive in, leaving your patent-leather shoes and party dress in a pile in the grass.
As I grew up at Virginia Ballet Theatre on Olney Road in Norfolk, it felt like more of the same. When dancers would start out, they would hide in the corners of the dressing room or change in the bathroom stalls, but soon they would lose their shyness and strip and change into their leotards and tights along with everyone else. There’s a mindset of practicality about the body that comes with growing up in a dance studio. The body is a tool, like a wrench or a paintbrush, and as it gains physical power it loses associations of shamefulness or eroticism.
I’ve been thinking about nakedness as I gather myself for this coming weekend’s show with Virginia Ballet Theatre. We’re performing in the premiere of Artistic Director Ricardo Melendez’s Vivaldera, to the music of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and we have a different costume for every season. So basically, the backstage of the theater is going to contain as much choreography as the actual stage, with dancers stripping out of spring flower costumes and donning, successively, fiery summer colors, autumn hues, and then white leotards for winter. In our last show at the Roper Center, our backstage team used white tape on the floor to designate which backstage spots were hidden from the audience and so were fine for nakedness and which spots would turn an innocent quick change into a peep show for the crowd.
Even when we’re not actually naked, so much of dance is about the stripped line of the body, the naked baring of the self on stage. During company class last week, my teacher told us that ballet was all lines and curves, lines and curves. Later that day, while coaching my friend Caitlin on a ballet variation, my teacher finished the image. “Everything is lines and curves and sex,” she said.
And so perhaps as I think about the practicality of a dancer’s body, I’m ignoring part of the picture. In the introduction to her history of ballet, Apollo’s Angels, dance critic and former professional ballerina Jennifer Homans talks about how ballet links the worlds of the classical and the pagan-Christian. She examines how the art form is at times spiritual—striving toward the heavens—and at times earthly and joined to human physicality and desire. “If ballet is not inherently sexual, it is often highly sensual and erotic: the human body publicly revealed,” she writes. Homans struggles with the tension contained in ballet between “physicality and spirit, earth and heaven.” The hours spent sweating in the studio, honing the physical form, create a body that is both things—muscled work horse and idealized naked icon.
Of course, it’s not always easy to be naked. Growing up as a young dancer, I was not blessed with a body that looked like the images I saw in dance magazines and on stages in New York. I spent hours of every day dancing with my reflection in the mirror, and at times that was difficult. One teacher I admired told me at fourteen that I was so passionate on stage that she could almost ignore the fact that my legs weren’t long and thin enough. She meant it as a compliment.
I think, though, that in the end my relationship with the girl in the mirror has been a fairly positive one. I ran across a line from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” in which he writes, “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” There’s a power in embracing your own body and using it as an instrument to share your self on stage. That body is both a practical, physical instrument that can run and jump and turn and also an object of art. The curves and lines of the pure form that you have spent a lifetime sculpting become the vehicle for baring your soul. Naked.
Come see us dance! Virginia Ballet Theatre will present its 4th annual Sweetheart Concert on February 26 and 27 as part of Todd Rosenlieb Dance’s 10th anniversary season. The concert includes a world premiere of Ricardo Melendez’s Vivaldera to the music of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and a new classical work by guest choreographer David Keener. The performance is at 8:00 p.m. at TCC’s Roper Performing Arts Center at 340 Granby Street in Norfolk. For advance tickets to the show, go to www.tccropercenter.org.