Words by Maddie Belle | Photography by Mia Maraschino
The beautiful Miss Maddie has been a dancer her whole life (no wonder she’s so incredible). This week, we asked Maddie to share her dance story and talk about the notion of and her experience with “Exclusive” and “Inclusive” Dance environments.
Content Warning: Eating Disorders.
I have been involved in the dance industry in varying degrees since I was five years old.
Ballet, the popular choice for little girls was my first discipline. At first I enjoyed the classes and the physical, creative aspects of the art. I was a quiet and shy child and the rigidity and ‘rules’ of ballet appealed to my compliant nature.
My first ballet teacher, Miss Francis Skinner, was the archetypal slim, French, strict, long hair-always-in-a-tight-bun older woman. For one reason or another I was one of her “favourites” and I even landed a solo in one of her large scale productions (The Nutcracker) at the age of 6.
However the push to enter competitions, take exams and attend more classes began to play on my anxiety. It took the fun away for me. The tipping point was once, during class I needed to use the bathroom. Knowing that Miss Francis did not allow us to leave class to go to the bathroom, I tried my best to hold it, as to avoid the shame of having to ask and being denied. I ended up peeing myself in front of her and everyone in my class. She was shocked and horrified. I was traumatised. I quit that studio not long after.
Over the next few years and in to my teens I went back to dance at various studios. I tried many styles including Irish, Tap, Jazz, Hip Hop, Contemporary, musical theatre, and back to classical. My love of the art and creativity was still there but unconsciously I began to feel something was not quite right. There was always an underlying pressure. Pressure to work harder, enter competitions and shows, do exams, and worst of all, make my body smaller. The pressure would certainly come from teachers and other students, but mostly from myself. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The anxiety that arose from this internal and external pressure resulted in a rather damaging disordered eating pattern.
My instructors ALWAYS had favourite students. The ones who were asthetically pleasing, had confident and outgoing personalities, ‘the best dancers’, who just made themselves stand out. They would always be in the front for routines, have ‘in’ jokes with the instructors, get chosen and trained to be instructors themselves or offered performance opportunities. I had brief experiences being a ‘favourite’ but as a quite painfully shy teenager I was overlooked more often than not. It just felt unfair and discouraging.
Studying Dance at uni thankfully was a different experience and I did get many opportunities to perform and regrow my love of it. That background voice of not being good enough was quietened, but not entirely gone.
When I decided to join Sky Sirens as a student I did not know what to expect.
I’d done some pole dancing in a different town but I was captivated by the idea of lyra when I saw it advertised! Over the years I’d managed to heal myself of the disordered eating and mentally draining pressure, but I was definitely bracing myself for another onslaught of cliquey dynamics and the choosing of favourites from the instructors.
What I did not expect was the instant feeling of acceptance and community. I was surprised by the absence of that competitive insecurity. I looked at everyone in my lyra class and of course we all had different backgrounds, bodies and levels of training but it just did not matter. To anyone. The instructor looked at us and spoke to us all the same way. There was no inside joking, no favouritism, no judgement. I fell in love with aerials and (finally) back in love with dancing.
I felt like I had found the space to be myself.
Three years on and I am more myself than I have ever been. Growing up in bitchy dance environments somewhat squashed my confidence as a teenager and young adult. But after a few years in an accepting space, my true personality was allowed to expand in to that space, I can now be silly, be unashamed, be loud, and allow my body do whatever it wants and needs to do.
As an instructor I am grateful to have experienced both ends of the dance industry spectrum. I know how it feels to be in a dance class and not be ‘in’ with the instructor. My experience has taught me what I’d never want to be and do as a teacher, and I really hope to uphold that for my wonderful students. Everyone is owed the space and opportunity to show themselves in a class.