Body Type, in Gymnastics and in Belly Dance

Shawn Johnson, 2009.  Photo by Jason Christopher.

Retiring athlete Shawn Johnson talks about the ironic stigma of having an "athletic" body type in her sport of gymnastics:
At her heaviest, when she stopped full-time training and allowed herself to eat typical teenage fare like ice cream and pizza, she received brutal criticism from fans, especially on the sport's message boards, and from the tabloids. "That whole process kind of broke me down and taught me something," Johnson said. "People put too much emphasis on looks."

Most of the time, nowadays, that emphasis isn't so openly expressed. Instead, it's coded, by labeling certain gymnasts—the lithe ones, the ones who aren't built like Johnson—as artistic. In theory, artistry should describe a quality of movement, a connection between the performer's limbs, the music, and the audience. But somehow, the short, stocky gymnasts like Johnson rarely get credit for that je ne sais quoi.

"In America, we'll score the stocky, athletic builds normally," 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Dawes said, in response to Johnson's comments. "Internationally, there still remains a stigma to that type of body type."
Go read the rest of this article:, then come back. 

I have been told that “of course belly dance is easy for you, because you have the right body type,” the simplistic assumption that curvilinear body lines naturally create curvilinear movements. I usually try to explain that belly dance is (now) (sort of) “easy” for me not because I have the right body type but because I have the right body ability, created through years of training: drawing arcs has less to do with dumbly propelling one’s curves through space and more to do with fine-tuned articulation, made possible by building specialized strength, range of motion, control, and coordination.

But, I can’t entirely discount that body curves amplify curvilinear movements, just as the padding of body fat amplifies shimmies. Likewise, a lean frame and wide shoulders give a distinctive sinuosity to a lot of the currently popular tribal fusion vocabulary. (The weight distribution of this build also lends itself to unmodified yoga poses, a synergistic boon for those dancing tribal fusion). I don’t at all suggest that there’s an “incorrect” body type for any particular style of belly dance, but I do think it’s helpful for dancers to consider the way the way their shapes affect the way their dancing will be perceived. Knowing one’s “type” helps a dancer to take advantage of vocabulary and styling that is “easy” for him or her, and more clearly strategize to overcome the challenges of working against that type. Just as a melody has a distinctive sound when played on different musical instruments, choreography takes on a different cast on different bodies.

But, while the violin may the most straightforward instrument for plaintive melodies, I’d rather hear a plaintive melody played by a kazoo virtuoso than by a lousy violinist; likewise I’d rather see a highly skilled dancer dancing against type than see a novice fumbling through the vocabulary that is “easy” for her shape. In fact, I’d probably rather see a highly skilled dancer dancing against type rather than with it – the belly dance equivalent of JFK's
“we go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”  But that’s just me. If you’re NOT dancing for someone who has already seen a zillion belly dance performances, understanding and maximizing the conventional perception of your type may be a welcome shortcut to creating successful and likeable dance performances.