Body Modification

Hadn’t really thought to write a post on the topic of body modifications in ballroom until I recently got the upper part of my left ear cartilage (more specifically, the helix) pierced with a ring.  (P.S. If you’re thinking of piercing anything, go to a reputable shop and get pierced under sterile conditions with a needle, NOT with a piercing gun at Claire’s and the like!) This is not extreme body modification by any means, since nowadays many women (and some men) are piercing parts of their ears other than their ear lobes, but it made me a little more conscious of such things.  So, I’ll be talking about tattoos and more unusual piercings and how they fit in (or don’t) with the ballroom culture.  First of all, ballroom is a very aesthetically-focused sport/endeavor, in which even having the wrong hair, makeup, or clothing can lead to disapproval.  Thus it makes sense that there are some strong opinions and norms regarding body modification as well.

Let’s start with standard/smooth.  Very classic, elegant, proper sorts of dances, since they have a more old school and traditional influence.  I think competitors in these dances in particular are less likely to have visible tattoos and unconventional piercings.  Perhaps in part because of personality (people who like the traditional dances more might also be more traditional themselves), but more often because it is generally frowned upon by judges and even other members of the ballroom community.  It’s hard to really say for men, since they are covered up from neck to wrist to feet, but you never see visible neck/hand tattoos on gentlemen doing these dances.  Who knows what they’re sporting underneath their tailsuits/smooth suits, though? (Ow ow!) I don’t think I’ve ever seen a male standard or smooth dancer with ear jewelry, either.  Of course, that may mean that they wear such subtle jewelry that it’s hardly noticeable.  Women, on the other hand, often wear dresses that reveal at least some part of their body – hands, arms, back, chest, legs for smooth dresses with high slits.  Torso if they’re wearing a two-piece dress in smooth.  Rarely do you see competitive dancers with visible tattoos in these revealed areas, right?  Those who do have visible tattoos are often advised to cover them up with makeup.  In fact, on a rather informal poll on Dance Forums, an overwhelming 81.7% of forum members who answered said that piercings and tattoos should not be seen on the competition floor.  Some thought they were trashy, which is very counter to the desired image in ballroom.  Many people mentioned that even if they don’t think of tattoos and such as a bad thing, they can be distracting, and make the audience pay more attention to that rather than someone’s dancing.  Others were concerned that judges might mark them worse for having such body modifications.

For Latin/rhythm, I think tattoos and piercings are a little more acceptable, but still uncommon, even when they might be revealed with skimpier shirts and dresses.  I know that Slavik Kryklyvyy has a visible chest tattoo that shows with low-cut Latin shirts, but it’s hard to think of many examples of professional dancers who have really noticeable tattoos.  Victor da Silva has a pretty large back tattoo, but does theatre arts/exhibition stuff, so a tattoo kind of fits with that I’m-so-manly-let-me-throw-a-woman-around-with-my-pinky vibe.  Multiple piercings and belly button rings are also not surprising to see on female Latin/rhythm dancers, I think.  Still, large visible tattoos on women aren’t really commonplace.  I’ve seen a couple of tattoos on collegiate competitors, and they can be distracting if they are larger/more noticeable.  I can also think of an example from Dancing with the Stars, in which makeup artists blinged up Melissa Rycroft’s lower back tattoo to match her costume and to make it a little more ballroom-appropriate.  But you never see full sleeve tattoos and the like.

I’ve entertained the idea of a tattoo casually, but have kept in mind this limitation.  I have to think, “Where could I even have one that wouldn’t show with ballroom dresses?”  It’s interesting that tattoos and piercings have become more accepted in mainstream culture, but the ballroom culture lags behind.  Then again, the ballroom culture does tend to trend older and more traditional, so maybe this isn’t a surprise at all.  Men are leaders and women are followers, and there is the traditional etiquette aspect of the whole endeavor, so perhaps old-fashioned notions of what is acceptable on bodies also tracks these ideals.

I haven’t seen any relatively more unusual or extreme body modifications at ballroom events in recent memory, such as ear stretching (or gauging), sleeve tattoos (though of course those can be covered up by long sleeves), scarification, or many prominent facial piercings.  Again, this could be due to the people ballroom attracts (probably not the most fringe-y, alternative types) or because they hesitate to do such things in fear that it will impact their dancing results in a negative way.  One of my coaches has a labret piercing (meaning, right below the center of her lower lip), which is a bit more unusual, but it’s very subtle and tasteful.

Naturally, this is all subjective and dependent on the perceiver (as we often talk about in social psychology).  Some coaches and judges might frown upon piercings and tattoos while others have no problem with it.  Until the overall culture changes, however, it seems prudent to take these norms into consideration when thinking about body modifications.  Do you value fitting in with ballroom culture more, or care more about self-expression using jewelry and adornment on your body?  Ultimately it’s a personal decision.