by Nancy Van Ness
I know what I look like, more than most people. I study photographs and film footage of myself dancing in a unitard assiduously, in order to hone my work. Not many people scrutinize themselves in such clothes, for professional or any other reasons.
Some people have said I don’t have the “perfect” body for a dancer. But others like the way I look. Either way, I don’t worry what people think of my body. In fact, I take issue with directors of dance companies and dance critics who discuss dancers’ bodies instead of their art. Even the highly respected Arlene Croce wrote unkindly about Gelsey Kirkland’s body. To me, that is not only a travesty, but it is what contributes to the eating disorders and self loathing so many dancers live with.
My body is my instrument; I use it to make art. Sometimes those who’ve watched a performance I’ve done tell me it has changed their lives. Now that matters to me. So I ask not “How do I look,” but “How am I moving? Am I strong? Can my body do what I want it to do? Can I breathe?”
Mostly when I concentrate on my body, my focus is on maintaining good muscles, especially in the most pivotal part of the body, the abdomen. I work out. I train. I am 61 years old and still performing. I like the way I look now, better than at any time in the past.
Even so, I was shocked to view an image of myself in a film that was not a dance film. This romantic comedy, this love story was something entirely different from the yards of dance footage I usually study. Very different.
I should have been prepared. From the first day of filming, I knew the makeup artists were designing makeup to help create my character. I can appreciate that. I like being made up: one sits on a high stool and is fussed over by makeup artists. They are members of my tribe, doing their work.
When the makeup crew asked me about the character I was to play, I knew it was to get information about the sort of person they were to create. I knew they were using my face as a canvas.
My character was supposed to be a remarkably beautiful woman out on the town for the evening, so she had to be glamorous. Still, I was not prepared for what I saw in the mirror when I first looked. “It’s a sort of young Elizabeth Taylor!” I exclaimed. I had already been transformed. I was no longer me. It felt a little schizophrenic. I was stunned at the image I was projecting as “Claudia.”
On the set, they had given me a special cream to apply to every inch of exposed skin. In the lights, it made my skin luminous. I could not help overhearing as one does on film sets that the directors of photography felt they had succeeding in making Claudia the beautiful woman they envisioned.
So if I knew all that, why was I surprised to see such an unrealistic, unlike-me Claudia on the screen? The makeup, the lighting and the skill of the directors of photography had transformed me, Nancy. I now appeared as a gorgeous woman, “Claudia,” someone who was altogether different from me.
But something else bothered me after I attended an actual screening of the film. Some of the audience members who saw Tango Passion spoke to me as though I were the character, Claudia! All of them were adults, all were sophisticated enough to be attending a film festival. Yet these spectators could not separate me, Nancy, from Claudia. I was shocked: intelligent adults were completely taken in by the illusions of this film.
Now I have been performing on stage since I was five years old. For several decades, here and in Europe, I have performed a new dance technique that I created. And every night, I make a point of meeting with audience members right after the performance, still in my dance wear. No one has ever confused me with the performance in that context. My work is abstract, but sometimes I am recognizably a person, not just a dancing body.
Instead, to my delight, most of the audience comments about themselves and how the work has affected them. I like to believe that an original, compelling dance benefits audiences by opening new trains of thought and new ideas, setting them off on new paths of their own.
For the past six years, I have also been performing tangos. People comment on the degree of connection between my partner and me; the intensity of our dance evokes their memories of dancing with partners of their own. However, everyone I have ever spoken with who has seen me do a tango still knows they are talking with me, Nancy.
A few weeks before the film festival, I had attended the opening of an exhibit at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York called Dangerous Beauty. My friend, the sculptor Gae Savannah, had a piece in the exhibit; I wanted to be there to support her on opening night.
The exhibit struck me dumb, like a blow to the stomach. At the entrance, one’s entire field of vision was filled by a huge screen displaying a digitally created “perfect” woman stalking down a model’s cat walk. Inside, along one wall was a series of photographs revealing the horrific pain of one woman’s plastic facial surgery. It was hard to look at. One could see she was attractive to begin with, then attractive in another way at the end of that process -- but at a cost of so much money and agony! Across the room, digitally enhanced images of fashion models merged and reformed. Images of models covered in scars from self mutilation and of young women painfully, dangerously thin from self starvation depicted tragedy on a large scale. And the appalling images went on and on.
Manon Slome, the curator of the exhibit, says in her introduction to the catalogue that Dangerous Beauty had great personal significance for her. Slome tells poignantly of finding herself at a personal crossroad when her adolescent children developed "an obsessive concern with appearance," while at the same time, she felt she was "at the other end of the spectrum." She was a woman beyond a certain age, one of those made to feel "redundant and excluded." Slome told how painful it was to watch her children, even her daughter who was dangerously thin, bewail being ugly and fat. She was a witness, first hand, to "the self loathing that is bred" when people "compare themselves to the improved and airbrushed beauties of magazines and billboards." She notes that unreal beauty images cause many people to feel that "everything about themselves is wrong."
Slome puts it eloquently: "This image and the mechanisms by which it is disseminated are to my mind akin to the propaganda machinery of a totalitarian state."
I agree: media-conveyed, corporation-created beauty is dangerous. It is intended to induce dissatisfaction in people about the way they look; promoting "ideal" looks is just a device to sell goods and services purporting to help real people “improve” themselves. Enhanced images of a fake "ideal" make real people and even those whose glamorous images are splashed all over the world, feel that they don’t quite measure up.
What I had seen and the visceral reaction I had had at the exhibit was stored somewhere in my mind, but at the time I had thought it didn’t relate to someone like me. But when I saw the stunning, deliberately enticing and provocative Claudia of Tango Passion on the screen at the festival, who was nonetheless somehow in some way me, I realized I had become just another image of unreal, impossible beauty. This beauty was of a certain age, but she was presented as being as fresh and alluring as any twenty-something.
Yet the film I was in was not digitally enhanced. It was a low budget independent film with no resources for that kind of thing, but the medium itself is enhancing. The flattering lighting and the makeup did not make me look my best, but rather, created something else entirely: an imaginary creature both more and also less than a real woman.
The Claudia of Tango Passion is a woman in her late fifties, an attractive, lively grandmother, a bit like myself. I took the role in part because I thought I would see a character who would challenge stereotypes about who is attractive and lovable, about what life at my age is and can be. Unfortunately, the film delivers images that are completely stereotypical. Claudia is every bit as unrealistically beautiful as any young woman film star.
When I saw “Claudia” on screen, I realized I could be made to look like that. But in reality, I have an entire range of appearances; this “Claudia” was only one possibility.
In fact, in real life, when I had spent a week camping in August, in Crawford, Texas, at Camp Casey protesting the war in Iraq, the temperature was over a hundred degrees every day. On the day I danced at the memorial for fallen US service personnel, it got to one hundred fifteen degrees. The whole time I was there, I wore baggy clothes to protect me from the sun and insects; I wore no makeup for the duration. No one who saw me there would have dreamed I could look like “Claudia.”
The Camp Casey version of me is valid: I love to go out without makeup in old clothes when I am just in my neighborhood in New York. It feels good not to have to fix up and “present” a professional face all the time. On the other hand, there are times I like to put on good makeup, good street makeup, that is -- such as when I go dancing with my partner at a tango salon. The reality is, I like all the ways I can look.
Over the years, I have evolved a spiritual relationship to beauty that satisfies me. I did not create my bones, hair, skin, muscles, so I cannot take any responsibility for them. I have created lots of things, but not my body. I do take care of my body and I nurture my spirit. I enjoy beauty; I enjoy the many beautiful people I see in the world. Since other people may in turn enjoy my beauty, I have a job: to take care of the beauty I have.
My relationship to my appearance is not ego driven because it is not about me, but about the forces that created me and the entire world. This attitude has allowed me to accept the way I look. It also means I never harm my mind or spirit by comparing my looks to those of others. I look the way I do; others look the way they do, and that is also good.
To succeed as a performer, learning to accept my appearance was essential. I used to focus on the thought, “I am filled with light and radiantly beautiful. I dance beautifully, easily, and joyously, for my good and the good of all.” I would be thinking this to myself as I walked about the city.
Sometimes, complete strangers on the street remark to me, “You are so beautiful!”
Indeed, I am beautiful, in my unique, real way. The beautiful “Claudia,” however, is not real. I am real and I am beautiful. I hope to be able to hold on to this truth.
About the Author
Nancy Van Ness, Founder and Director of the American Creative Dance group, is a 61 year old modern dancer. When she became interested in tango several years ago, she went to Buenos Aires to study with one of the great tango maestros. After decades making "high art" in small theaters, she is now sometimes seen in slinky dresses dancing con alma y passion in tango salons.
Tango dancing unexpectedly led to her being cast as the female lead in an independent film, Tango Passion. It is about a couple whose relationship has definitely not lost the spice of life. Van Ness says, "It's a romantic comedy about people my age instead of young lovers. I took on the role partly to confront stereotypes about who is lovable, who is attractive, who is even visible in our culture." Tango Passion was most recently shown at the 2007 Boston International Film Festival.
Van Ness created American Creative Dance's innovative, avant garde system of dance and music. The troupe's performers are creators; they do not dance the classics. For further information, visit American Creative Dance.