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Shapesville as Performance Art: Exploring Body Image through Dance

Shapesville as Performance Art: Exploring Body Image through Dance

By Sandra Perez, BA, MA, CMASandra Perez

I first discovered the book Shapesville from a student research paper through a course I teach entitled Body Image Through History. This course is an exploration of what body image is and how it affects us personally and globally through the lens of the arts. This section of the course was comprised of dance majors and this student was also pursuing a dance teaching certification in preK-12. Her thesis was to discover the factors that contribute to the development of body image in children, at what age this begins to develop and how we can promote a more positive body image. Through this research she discovered a study by Dohnt and Tiggemann, entitled Promoting Positive Body Image in Young Girls: an Evaluation of ‘Shapesville’. Shapesville was successfully used to change negative body image perception in young girls. As a dancer and dance educator I have seen the effect of a negative body image on the dreams of the dancer, eating disorders among them. The idea that a book could target body image at an early age intrigued me; educators know that the early years of life are some of the most formative. In addition, I had used the art of dance to communicate and express since I was five and took my first tap class, virtually my whole life. As an arts integration specialist, reading and writing stories are of equal importance to me. The ability to communicate through the arts translates easily to the written and spoken word, as they are both languages, forms of literacy. I also know that as a shy child, reading was the place where I began to find the magic in words. Reading and dancing took me to other places where I could be anything or go anywhere. In performing classical ballets, I began to find stories of my own through the roles I danced, swans that could fall in love, birds with magical powers and sprites that had womanly guiles. I also found an identity as an interpretive artist, a dancer. So it is not surprising that as an artist educator my research would become intertwined with storytelling, dance, performing, teaching and learning; performance art. Sally O’Reilly in her book, The Body In Contemporary Art, sees performance art as  “any form of work that combines the artist’s body and a live action event”. (as Pembleton 40 ) It has also been viewed from the perspective that the processes surrounding the creation of the art become equally as important as the product and oftentimes becomes a part of the performance. In this project the process was more important to me than the product, although the goal was always high quality art. The processes did not become a part of the performance but informed its creation throughout. Having already choreographed several educational dances when I discovered Shapesville, I saw its enormous potential to become a dance that could entertain, teach, and heal, my definition of educational choreography. The message of Shapesville about loving yourself and accepting others is important and the delightful illustrations of characters lend themselves toward movement, drama, dance, and imagination, the perfect combination for creating educational dance/art. These ideas led me to seek permission from the publisher, Leigh Cohen, to adapt the book into a dance. This generous permission led to development of a project entitled Shapesville Where You Can Be U: A Community Project. This article will discuss the adaptation of Shapesville into performance art and outline the collaborative, creative processes used in developing the piece that simultaneously explored the students’ own definitions of body image and subsequent view of themselves.

My choreographic research explores the creation of art through a collaborative creative process which I define as a process in which both the choreographer or director and the interpretive artist (the dancer) become equally valuable and significant in forming the final art product; in this case the dance of Shapesville. For this project, I worked with five college age students of varying dance abilities. None were currently pursuing dance as a career. All but one had danced for some time in high school and one was just beginning to dance at the non-major college level. Each came with individual goals ranging from expressing for relaxation, increased body conditioning, and having more confidence by increasing what they can do and improving how they dance. They comprised a course entitled Modern Repertory. While at first I was disappointed that I would not be working with more trained dancers, I quickly realized how fortunate I was to work with dancers who had no preconceived ideas about this collaborative process of learning dance repertory. The lack of expectations allowed them to remain open to my experimental ideas of choreographing the piece collaboratively and improvisationally, using journal writing, discussion, and somatic practices. I also saw that the message of Shapesville, “ It’s not the size of your ShapE or the shApe of your size, but what’s in your heart that deserves first prize” might be extremely effective in improving the body image of these young artists who were not highly trained or muscularly developed dancers, but young people struggling with their own identities, abilities, and body structures. Through writing, structured dance improvisations, discussions, and exchanging ideas we began to develop the five characters of Shapesville; Robbie the Rectangle who is an artistic star with many friends; Cindy the Circle, a movie star with beaucoup self confidence; Tracy the Triangle who’s “a little bit shy” but a basketball star who holds her head up high; Sam the Blue Square who’s a musical star and happy inside; and finally, Daisy the Diamond an academic star with beauty in her heart. (Shapesville) Although improvisation is often characterized as having little or no preparation before acting, structured improvisation can offer a pathway into discovering expressive movement that might otherwise not be uncovered. My job as the facilitator of learning and creativity was to develop structured activities that would lead the dancer toward discovering the depth of each character while finding personal meaning and voice through this process.

We began with a reading of the book and careful observation of the bodies of the characters and of ourselves through the illustrations. Through this body level exploration we quickly discovered the characters’ whimsical figures, while not realistic in adult terms, offered numerous possibilities of “doing.” Seeing the possibilities in these characters led us to discover the possibilities of “doing” with our own bodies when we don’t limit our notions of what a body can do. A rectangle with many arms could embrace numerous friends; springs as legs could help us jump, be free, be strong and accomplished; reading and being smart can bring beauty to our hearts; and music and the arts can make us happy and self confident, all ideas the illustrations revealed to us. I challenged my students to find their own character within themselves as developing young adults and to try to meet their fears that they or their creations would not be good enough. Through journal writing I heard their fears, but more importantly I confronted them on the dance studio floor. I watched the dancers struggle with my requests to try different, difficult, unfamiliar movement and partnering as seen in this quote from a student journal entry, “I need to recognize positive things are learned from making mistakes, confront fears, focus on process and not the end results, and avoid all or-none thinking. I need to stop watching others in the dance mirror and look inward.” Another commented, “After practice for a time I became better at it. Personally that is an important part of my body image because I am challenging myself and pushing my body to do things that I want to be able to do.” I also asked them to write about what they loved about their bodies. This served as a moment of turning inward for self-awareness, but in a positive way. These body level explorations and improvisations of the characters then forced me to see the need for deeper somatic connections to their self in order for the dancers to embody their characters more deeply and authentically.

At this point in the project, while the students were still grappling with physical insecurities, I saw building self-awareness to promote self-confidence as important in order to facilitate the openness necessary to continue to create and perform. I also realized that I had to build a community for this project not only for developing the community of Shapesville but also a community within the class. Without the trust of one another that solid, nurturing, reciprocal communities offer, the students would not be able to make themselves open to criticism and ultimately growth and accomplishment that presumably would lead to an increase in self-esteem. The artist must constantly take feedback in order to perfect the art for sharing in the performing arena. The dancer or any performing artist who must make their body and creative ideas visible and open to scrutiny, by themselves as well as by others, on a daily basis will experience vulnerability and will need to cope with its effects on self-esteem and body image. In order to accomplish both inner awareness and build a sense of community at the same time, I began with breathing techniques and an exploration of breath patterns as they contribute to our emotions. Without breath we have no life; breath supports our movement and our emotions. “It is possible to influence breath through conscious intention. Thus, breath can be an ally in any approach to change.“ (Hackney 52) It has been my experience that through conscious breathing we can influence our reactions to stressful situations thus opening our being to change and ultimately creativity. Brodie and Lobel state in their book, Dance and Somatics: Mind Body Principles of Teaching and Performance, “Developing awareness of breathing patterns can provide insight into the emotional and physical states of the body, and changing these patterns can help us begin to change habitual ways of using the entire being” (57). Peggy Hackney explains further, “Conscious cultivation of breath is recognized in many cultures to be an important part of attuning to a spiritual connection between the individual and the universe” (52). This supports my belief that conscious breathing can build connection to self and to the community. Hackney adds, “Attuning to another’s breath pattern is one of the best ways to connect” (54). The following quote from one student’s journal further supports this, “The breathing experiences connect us as a class but they help me to connect with myself and my own surroundings too. It’s always interesting when we begin breaths together and everyone starts off differently and then tries to connect.” Another mentioned breathing techniques as a way to “convey inspirations.” Through becoming aware of their own breath patterns we began to connect to what the breath patterns of their characters might be as translated into movement. This did help them to create movement motifs that were stylized but still seemed incomplete to me as the director. The next step became an exploration of the Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) Effort Factors and Elements. I am a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) through the Laban Institute of Movement Studies (LIMS). ( Laban Movement Analysis (LMA) is a framework of analyzing how we move. Through careful analysis of the movement qualities of each character, we explored expression and quality of movement.

Effort as understood in LMA is compromised of four factors as they relate to energy use. These factors are Weight, how we use our weight in movement for expression, the relative freedom or inhibition of Flow within our movement and its relationship to expression, the Spatial Intent or where the movement is directed in space, and finally, the speed of the movement or Time. These factors combine together to create expression in movement.

(Raphael) Laban

Through analyzing the factors and their combinations, dancers and choreographers can create clear, expressive, dynamic movement and also create combinations of Effort Factors that elicit new choreographic ideas. We explored the emotions and strengths of the characters and each student’s own movement preferences. For example, a Light Weight and Free Flow movement Indirectly expanded in space and at a Quick tempo illustrates the character of Sam in this piece as she wrote, “I still cannot decide if Sam’s character is strong (weight) or light. I think he does not have to be that strong because he is already happy and carefree.” I also asked the dancers to create a character that symbolized the book’s intent, but also embodied the personality of the performer and interpretive artist, themselves. In this project, the student was both a performing artist and creator, thus combining the need to be true to the book’s character as the creator but also to bring their own movement preferences and emotions to the role as the interpretive artist. Daisy wrote, “The movement phrases we come up with have been constructed into choreography, which we firmly believe these entities make us think and feel. When we present our dance as a form of dance education we will serve as a universal communication for diverse learners”. This Effort exploration helped to solidify the characters’ movement traits, allowing for further development as they continually performed and grew the piece. This analytic use of the Effort Factors also allowed the dancers to reveal themselves in a scientific way that seemed to make them less vulnerable. “I love the fact the Daisy sees beauty as an internal factor. This has caused me to think deeply about portraying a character from a book and my own exploration of body image.” “If we were to deconstruct the misconceptions of beauty in the eye of the beholder, this could be a valuable tool for body image and self-esteem.” (Daisy) These reactions and newfound understandings illustrate the power of this work. I also saw unique movements created through this exploration that contributed greatly to the development of the characters as larger than life. The students became less afraid to be animated and exaggerated, as the piece called for, and to reveal themselves to the audience.

Finally, the piece was combined the following semester with eleven young girls, ages 6-11, from a community arts center who work-shopped with me for 10 sessions. They explored the book and ultimately developed characters of their own that were added to the book’s adaptation. The five college students had grown in their body image, self-esteem, and physical conditioning and through this interaction with the children built community and shared their triumphs with the younger students by being confident dancers. The young ladies, in turn, were able to embrace the characters and become their friends while also growing in their own positive body images, a subsequent article.

I would like to close with the words of the dancers themselves. These quotes sum up what was experienced and learned through this collaborative project. Tracy the triangle expressed this thought, “It is awesome we are all able to be interpretive artists and choreographers in this piece. So when we encourage each other I think we are being consistent. We are observing our different qualities which when combined makes us a stronger team”. Daisy said, “I continue to gain strength and improve in areas where I never before imagined. I cannot wait to look back on this journey of this collaborative project”. “I really appreciate the time I’ve spent with everyone in the class. I’ve learned a lot about myself and everyone else through this project. I plan to take what I have learned and continue to use it for the project and my other classes.” (Tracy)

“Instead of feeling defeated or giving up, my “think I can” attitude makes me feel like I can rise up and accomplish any goal. When facing challenges now I am less likely to doubt my own abilities.” (Daisy) Sam wrote, “I have learned that it is ok to be the way I am or anybody else is.” “Letting everything go by expressing whatever I feel makes me free and easy.”

Finally, Tracy replied post project, “Being part of the process from start to finish provided me with a new experience. Professor Perez’s compassionate and eloquent guidance comforted us and strengthened our goals. Through creating the dance and rehearsals I gained more confidence when I challenged myself to master new movements. The journal assignments and class discussions allowed me to focus more on things I like about myself and what makes me unique.” I was touched and continue to be by this book called ShApeSvillE. I am still carrying on the project and recently had a successful performance with high-school students. The children who watch are intrigued and each time I travel to Shapesville with my dancers their growth in self-esteem and belief in their own bodies’ abilities astounds me. Performance art does have the power to teach, entertain, and heal. Please take a moment to watch a short tease from the first performance, Shapesville Where You Can Be U: A Community Project with the Chesapeake Arts Center.

About the author – 

Sandra Perez BA, MA, CMA is currently an Associate Professor of Dance at Towson University where she co-directs the Dance Education Concentration, teaches pedagogy, Towson seminar, somatics, ballet, and composition. Upon receiving her Masters from the University of Colorado at Boulder, Sandra joined the faculty of the University of Maryland at College Park and became a soloist with Maryland Dance Theater, a modern dance repertory company. Ms. Perez danced lead roles working with such chorographers as Anna Sokolow, Murray Louis, and Lar Lubovitch. Ms. Perez has been on the dance faculty of numerous institutions of education including George Mason University, Montgomery College, The Academy of the Maryland Youth Ballet, James Hubert Blake High School, and the Cecchetti Council of America. Sandra’s teaching expertise ranges from dance theory, pedagogy, classical ballet, and modern dance technique to creative dance for children, while her scholarship lies in the integration of performance art and education.  Ms. Perez is a Certified Movement Analyst (CMA) through the Laban/Bartenieff Institute of Movement Studies www.limsonline and is an arts integration specialist. In addition, Ms. Perez teaches in the Arts Integration Institute at Towson University and Towson University Community Dance. She can be reached at

The Characters


Works Cited –

Brodie, Julie A., and Elin E. Lobel. Dance And Somatics: Mind-Body Principles Of Teaching And Performance. Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2012.Print

Dohnt, Hayley K.Tiggemann, Marika. “Promoting Positive Body Image In Young Girls: An Evaluation Of ‘Shapesville’.” European Eating Disorders Review 16.3 (2008): 222-233. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Hackney, Peggy. Making Connections: Total Body Integration Through Bartenieff Fundamentals. Australia: Gordon and Breach Publishers, 1998. Print

Mills, Andy and Becky Osborn, illustrated by Erica Neitz.  Shapesville. Carlsbad: Gurze Books, 2003. Print

Pembleton, Matthew, and Lisa Lajevic. “Living Sculptures: Performance Art In The Classroom.” Art Education 67.4 (2014): 40-46. Education Research Complete. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Raphaël Cottin (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Seals, Denaise, “Shapesville Photos Sandra and Characters”. 2015. Jpg.



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