The sound went out at my ballet recital when I was five years old. As the other little girls fidgeted with their tutus, I took the initiative to remind my fellow ballerinas to hold their places. The music would start again soon, and we needed to be ready to dazzle. I was a little Black girl who felt at home on the stage and comfortable stepping into her leadership.
Eight years later I’d stare at myself in the mirror while doing ronde de jambes, feeling much less assured of my place in the world of dance.
Ballet was my entrée into the world of fitness. For so long, I trained my short and curvy body to do movements designed for the lithe among us. I was told to tuck my tail, even as I was tucking with all I had. What my teachers were really looking for was a silhouette that didn’t include my full bottom.
I quit ballet after my freshman year of high school, preferring the kick lines and camaraderie of my high school’s dance team to the strictness of classical ballet. It was time for something different. Poms brought out the leader in me and my spunky five-year-old self, once again, came out to play.
As one of the captains for two years in a row, I got to choreograph dances that didn’t require my body to be anything other than what it was. There was always room to kick higher or hit a move with more sharpness, but I could no longer hear the internal whispers telling me that, no matter how hard I practiced, my body would never be quite right.
I accepted, even learned to love, my body, but ballet had left its physical mark on me. My hips and knees rebelled against the years of dance training in a way that made certain movements painful.
In a yoga class, I modified lotus pose to accommodate my knees, and the yoga teacher noted, “Tradition will call for lotus.” As someone nearing the end of her yoga teacher training, I was already aware of that fact. I also knew that the physical practice of yoga was designed for male farmers who spent their days doing hard labor. Tradition couldn’t have imagined a Black woman with curves wanting to enjoy the benefits of the practice.
Those internal voices that reminded me I didn’t have a classical ballet body tried to make a reappearance, but I wasn’t that same teenager standing at the barre. I continued my modification, enjoyed the rest of the practice, and now as an instructor myself, I renew my commitment to teach differently.
From classical ballet to traditional yoga, there are so many practices that weren’t built with my body and my lived experiences in mind. That’s part of why I developed a practice of my own through Inner Workout. Here are a few principles I keep in mind to build an inclusive wellness class…
Know the why —
Do you believe a movement should be executed in a specific way? Ask why? If the answer is anything other than safety, you may be bringing your own biases into the class. Begin the process of deconstructing what should be, so that everyone is free to show up as they are. Instructors should lead by example, and students should feel empowered to ask questions or offer constructive feedback.
Mind the cues —
Begin to observe the spoken and unspoken cues in the class setting. Is the subtext implying that everyone should aspire to look a certain way? I like to encourage people to notice the strength they’re building or the length they’re creating, instead of focusing on altering the appearance of a body part. “Feel the heat you’re building in your core” rather than “Do it for the swimsuit body.”
Normalize modifications —
We all play a role in normalizing modifications — whether you’re an instructor or a participant. I offer modifications wherever I can. I also remind students that they are the experts on their own bodies; they should stop if something doesn’t feel right. As a student, I’ve learned to view modifications as a way to honor what my body needs in a given moment instead of a sign that my body is less than. The more we take the modifications we need, the more we give permission for others to do the same.
Taylor Elyse Morrison is the founder of Inner Workout, a mat-based self-care practice for your whole being.