When dance is proposed in conversation, it is likely that classical ballet is the discipline that is predominately assumed. And within that discipline, it is likely that the streamline, traditional performer that comes to mind does not have tattoos.
Until this point in dance history, it has generally been considered an incongruence to pursue a career in performing arts and to simultaneously be expressing one’s artistry by possessing tattoos. As modern and contemporary dance styles become more prominently influential within the world of dance, this mindset is slowly being displaced by that of artists who believe that self-expression should not stop at the creation and execution of physical movement but can be extended to the decoration of the body.
This increasingly holistic approach to the dancing body broadens the possibility for more artistic expression and makes room for the development of a more fitting “aesthetic” for the dancer- one that proudly encompasses artistry in all forms.
Annabel McElfresh, sophomore majoring in dance, is one of the countless modern-age dancers proudly embracing the contemporary “movement” to combat the previous prohibition of showcasing tattooed dancing bodies. Though some still believe that tattoos should be considered incompatible with a professional career in the performing arts, McElfresh notes that her mindset does not reflect this sentiment at all.
Possessing multiple tattoos herself, she remarks that someone with tattoos who is working in the dance field actually inspires, rather than surprises, her and that she respects their devotion to “complete, unashamed self-expression.”
“If my dancing is supposed to be an expression of me, why should I not be able to express myself by decorating my body as well?” McElfresh asked.
She explains that when she got her first tattoo, which was a tribute to her cousin, she wasn’t thinking about its reception in her intended field of study.
“I knew that I was getting my tattoo for reasons that were important and valid to me,” McElfresh said. “Dancing wasn’t even on my mind.”
This self-validation is the attitude fueling this movement. Dancers are finding their artistic worth in their dancing, not on appearances that an audience member or teacher may or may not find problematic.
“I know that the look I am creating may not be for some individual choreographers if they are going for one specific image, and that is fine,” McElfresh said. “But, when it comes to what I do with my body, I am the only one with a say.”
Though there have been significant strides towards complete acceptance of this recently welcomed practice of self-expression in the dancing world, there is still a mildly cavernous gap to bridge. Age holds an interesting place within this artistic transition and seems to be caught between two extremes. Those who founded their dancing careers within the era that deemed tattoos taboo have gone one of two directions- either embracing the change, sometimes even embodying it themselves, or holding fast to the previous notions.
McElfresh noted that her college dance experience with tattoos has been entirely different from her high school dancing days.
“I was really surprised to come to college and find so many dancers that not only loved my tattoos but had a few of their own as well,” McElfresh said. “My experience in high school would have been completely different- all I would have heard was to cover them.”
McElfresh plans on adding several more tattoos to her collection over the course of a life spent dancing, explaining that her “whole body has a specific plan.” She reiterates that dance is an art created specifically to allow the “physical body to function as a language,” which she believes grants her, and all other artists, the freedom to use their bodies to not only create movement, but to become a personalized visual message.
She hopes the future of self-expression holds a world in which an artist, or any individual who chooses to be tattooed, would be viewed as having made a choice that is an extension of their artistry, rather than a hindrance to their professionalism.