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Black-a-Rina: body of mind.

Theresa Ruth Howard started training at a young age. Prompted by Marion Cuyjet of Philadanco, her father sent her to Pennsylvania Ballet, where she studied with Lupe Serrano and Marion Tonner. At 12, she joined the Philadelphia Civic Ballet Company and later danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Donald Byrd/The Group, and Complexions. Currently she dances with Armitage Gone! Dance and teaches at The Ailey School.

Recently while flipping through a magazine I came across an ad that read, "I have thunder thighs." That anonymous declaration catapulted me into a sea of mixed emotions. You see, I have spent my life trying to negotiate my butt and thighs, camouflaging with cover-ups. I have rolled, stretched, dieted endlessly, and dreaded costume fittings. I have never been jiggly fat; quite the contrary, I am solid muscle. Frequently I'm asked if I compete (as in bodybuilding) or run track. I am a big legged woman. I have thunder thighs. I cut the ad out and pasted it in my journal with pride and tender lamentation. Encompassed in those four words was the winding road from self-loathing to acceptance, a journey I am still on.

I have never fit the archetype of a ballerina, forget the fact that I'm black, rock a nappy afro, and at 5' 10"--on pointe easily 6'1"--I am a "Big Girl." The term is supposed to refer to my height, but it has always made me feel like a cow. One could say I have been blessed with an "easy" body: well-proportioned, long-limbed, flexible, ample turnout, decent feet, and strong as an ox. Critics always comment on my musculature, uniformly describing me as "powerful" and "strong." One labeled me "Amazon," which would be empowering if I were trying to be a female wrestler, not a sylph or a swan. My blessing of strength becomes a thorn in my thigh--I mean side.

In some ways the idealistic standard of dance (specifically ballet) supercedes that of the modeling industry. It's not simply about looks but functionality: Beautiful legs must also turn out, go up on pointe, and have an arched foot at their end. In this elusive pursuit of physical and technical perfection, the studio transforms into a carnival of funhouse mirrors, where the eye and mind insidiously fall prey to daily warping of the self-image. We dancers know we're twisted; there is a perverse pride we take in it. In our world obsession and neurosis are barometers of dedication, dieting unto starvation, dancing on injuries, complaining and debasing ourselves whether in truth or for show. It seems noble to suffer for art, however absent of a justifiable context.

Following my exodus from tutus and tights, I was ill prepared to face what the years in the funhouse had wrought. The baggage I toted from a world where women were fabulistic creatures was cumbersome and senseless in the world of real women, where body fat is a part of life and often celebrated when it settles in the right places. It took years and distance from a dance studio for me to develop a healthy image of my body separate from the ballet aesthetic, to appreciate its form and function. The conclusion? Regardless of how it looks, my body works; it never lets me down even when I neglect it. It is well formed and does what a body should. It walks, digests, eliminates, and still complies with my requests to turn, jump, and kick. Most importantly it houses my soul.

Now semi-retired, I am still highly self-conscious in tights or jeans, albeit with time comes healing and change. Contemporary ballet is the Women's Liberation Movement for ballerinas. It has redefined her: She is many hued, her body full and womanly, athletic, tall, short, chunky, tattooed, and pierced. She is sensuous, haughty, and independent; her body is gloriously fecund with possibilities both in movement and aesthetics.

As a teacher I feel it incumbent on me to protect as well as educate. I make it a point to encourage my students to enjoy their bodies today, enjoy their mobility, for youth is fleeting. The truth is, while it may not be what you want, your body is what you've got. It works in a more profound way than any dance technique could conjure, and that should not be taken for granted, belittled, or bemoaned, but celebrated every day that you get to live in it.
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Title Annotation:Theresa Ruth Howard
Author:Howard, Theresa Ruth
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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