Body Image: Are Tattoos Taboo?
Wisner, Heather, Dance Magazine
Salvador Dali had his mustache, Andy Warhol had his wig, and Wendy O. Williams had her duct tape. Artists have always drawn outside the lines in their work and their lives, decorating themselves as an extended form of creative expression. Over the years, the age-old art of tattooing has gained new currency, growing increasingly popular as an individual--and indelible--declaration of self. If you're a painter, a writer, a comic, of a rock star, you can ink yourself as often as you like, but if you're a working dancer, your body is your instrument. Beyond movement, how much freedom do you have to express yourself with it?
Dance companies are more lenient about tattoos than you might expect, and certainly more so than they once were. Urban Ballet Theater artistic director Daniel Catanach, for example, has no objections to his dancers having tattoos, and didn't think tattoos would have been a problem when he danced with Karole Armitage. But when he danced at the School of American Ballet and Kansas City Ballet, he said the dancers would scarcely have dared. "We were too afraid," he said. "We didn't do anything--we didn't even speak."
Ballet companies aren't necessarily more strict about tattoos than modern companies, though. In fact, many major ballet companies--New York City Ballet, Miami City, Ballet, Boston Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet among them--have no written policy about dancers with tattoos, although company representatives say they do expect those dancers to exercise common sense with every role. (As one company administrator put it, "Obviously, Siegfried doesn't have a tattoo.")
San Francisco Ballet spokesperson Kyra Jablonsky said they have no official policy but, like tans or very short hair for women, "If someone changes their look in a way that is drastically different from the look of the company, they will be expected to cover it up or fix it. Women with really short hair wear falls for romantic roles; those with tans powder themselves, and tattoos are covered with makeup."
That's the case at Houston Ballet, says corps de ballet member Peter Gleeson. He agrees that a tattoo would look out of place in a classical ballet, although he has danced for contemporary choreographers who liked his tattoos and incorporated them into the costuming. "Everyone has their idea of what's beautiful of cool," he said. Gleeson got the Chinese symbol for dance imprinted on his lower back when he was a student in Houston's ballet academy. Before he began dancing, he had a large dragon's head tattooed on his shoulder. Recently he had his family's coat of arms tattoed on his other shoulder. He sees his tattoos as a natural extension of his dancing journey. "Tattoos mark a time and place in your life," he says. "They're a road map." He can think of at least a half-dozen other dancers in his company who have tattoos too. "It's really a large part of our culture," he said "A tattoo creates something more personal; it helps you stand out, and catch a person's eye."
Brian McCormick, a critic and the managing director of nicholasleichterdance (See "25 to Watch," January 2002, page 67) agrees, but it's the eye-catching aspect that he objects to. "For a viewer it can be distracting," he said. "It's their bodies, but it pricks you out of your viewing of what's happening. It's like 'Oh, what is that?' I saw a dancer recently with a really beautiful costume but she had a tattoo on her back, and it didn't look like the costume was designed with that in mind. It got in the way of what was happening movement-wise."
McCormick said Leichter's company has no rules about tattoos, and wouldn't rule out a dancer for having one. But because the work, non-narrative "pore" dance, "is very much about the group and the relationships in the group," nobody wears jewelry onstage, and dancers would be asked to cover tattoos. None of the company's dancers have visible tattoos, although some have piercings, which they remove before performances for partnering safety as well as for aesthetics. …