An open adult ballet class at The Sydney Dance Company.

An open adult ballet class at The Sydney Dance Company.

Standing outside the ballet studio, we all do the size-up. As we stretch our feet and slide last-minute pins into our buns, we look around us at the other dancers who are waiting for class to start.

That woman in front of me, with her sleek French twist and sinewy arms, is surely a brilliant dancer. The one to my right – I sneak a look at her as I stretch out over my legs – is arching her back, and between her shoulder blades I can see the tiny bumpy ballet muscles sitting just under the skin. I feel instantly intimidated, and make a mental note not to stand next to her at the barre. Comparison is the thief of joy, and if I dance next to these women, I’m going to get mugged.

We live in a culture where body size and shape are considered indications not just of what a person can do. 

When we get to the barre and start to move, something funny happens. They’re not that good. One of them is fine, but not nearly as expert as her triceps would suggest, and the other is straight up awkward.

After more than ten years of taking open adult dance classes, on three different continents, I still haven’t properly learned this lesson: you can never know how well someone can dance until you see them dancing.

In the classes I take in New York, there are women who are shaped like dancers, all lean and long and willowy. When they walk into the studio, my instinct is to feel instantly intimidated. But then they start moving, and they’re totally outclassed by the chubby woman next to them. She doesn’t look like a dancer, but she has ten times the grace and strength they do.

I spent this summer in Paris, where I took ballet classes as often as I could. As it was Paris, the women in my classes were all dressed the part – pricey leotards from Repetto, those crinkly plastic warm up shorts that look like black garbage bags and cannot possibly be comfortable, pink tights that were perfectly run-less, and gently worn ballet slippers. They looked like dancers, and before class started I would sit on the floor stretching, ready to be upstaged once the music started. But once it did, I realised that most of them were, well, middling at best. It was just that this was Paris, and in Paris, all the women are perfectly dressed all the time, with workout gear being no exception. Obviously, wearing the right clothes didn't mean they knew the difference between a pirouette and a port de bras, and it certainly didn't guarantee that they could do either of them.

It’s not just ballet, either; after years of lyrical jazz and theatre jazz classes, I’m yet to fully commit the truth to memory. I walk into class and see a woman who looks like a good dancer, and automatically assume that she’s a good dancer. That’s not always the case. I’m still slightly surprised, every time, to discover that you can’t tell what a body can do just by looking at it.

This is a lesson that applies outside of the dance world. To a look at a woman like Rebel Wilson, you’d never know she’s a rising Hollywood star. We have a very fixed idea of what “rising Hollywood star” looks like, and it’s not a fat bleached blonde Aussie. Or what about Sarah Robles, the American Olympic weightlifter who made headlines when she revealed that, due to lack of support and sponsorships, she sometimes couldn’t afford the petrol she needed to drive to training? She doesn’t look like an Olympian, and if you passed her on the street, you’d probably think that she hasn’t exercised in years. You wouldn’t suspect that she’s an elite athlete capable of hoisting 145 kilos above her head and holding it there. We think of these jobs – starlet, athletic powerhouse – as requiring certain body types, but we’re wrong.

Of course, Robles would have a hard time doing gymnastics, and Gabby Douglas would struggle to clean and jerk a hundred kilos. Certain body types are better suited to certain pursuits. But the fact remains, you can’t know just by looking at a woman what she’s capable of doing.

We live in a culture where body size and shape are considered indications not just of what a person can do, but what he or she is worth. We see a slender woman and see discipline and fitness. We see a fat woman and see greed and illness. It’s a snap judgment we make, one we rarely stop to evaluate. It’s also often wrong.

It’s true that a person’s body is a canvas on which their life story can be written: scars, freckles, stretch marks, tattoos. You can look at a man with a buzz cut and an amputated leg and presume that he is a returned serviceman. You can look at a woman, see that one shoulder is bulkier than the other, and conclude that she is a rower. And you might be right. You can look at a person and assume that they have no disability, and be wrong.

The truth is, you can’t know much about a person just by looking at them. You can't know much until you let them dance.