I’ve seen my share of eccentric modern dance works. My experience as an audience member has included everything from watching a soloist discussing her fictional love affair with Ann Coulter while dancing in combat boots to a group of students running underneath a tarp screaming at the top of their lungs.

A few weeks ago, I went to see a performance at Dance New Amsterdam in New York City, a venue that’s known for presenting edgy and controversial works. And until that night, I didn’t think many things could make me blush with uneasiness.

In the performance, two women dressed in multiple layers of clothing began by facing each other on stage and repeating the other’s words. One of these women was my former teacher. As the dialogue progressed, the women’s speech took on a rhythmic pattern and they began to remove a layer of clothing after each pause as if they were losing rounds of strip poker. Off went their T-shirts, shorts and bras until they were left only in their underwear.

My teacher’s breasts were out for the world — including me, her student — to see. Both women stared at each other’s naked bodies sheepishly as they realized what had just transpired. They giggled, turned to the audience and then proceeded to re-clothe themselves in the garments that were strewn across the floor. As I watched, I wanted to scream, “But you just showed your breasts to everyone and now you’re going to act like it never happened!”

After the performance, I began to think about nudity in modern dance and I came to the conclusion that I was making a bigger deal about the performance than necessary. After all, nudity is in film all the time. I barely bat an eyelash when I see an actress in the buff. What’s the difference if it’s live on stage or pre-recorded?

Nudity in dance can be startling. Last month, Batsheva Dance Company performed at the Power Center and some of the dancers exposed themselves — a few of the female dancers mooned the audience while three male dancers went full frontal in a piece titled “Three.”

The woman next to me clucked her tongue in disgust so loudly I though she was choking on a cough drop. She wasn’t the only one who was appalled. And in the next day’s matinee performance, the dancers refrained from showing any flesh.

Perhaps the University Musical Society felt nudity was inappropriate for a matinee show, which usually draws a large family-oriented audience. If this was the case, why was nudity considered inappropriate when the company was able to use a recording of a poem that contained the word “fuck” in the same performance? Is nudity more objectionable than spoken profanity?

Maybe what makes people so squeamish about nudity in dance is that dance is an art form typically performed live in a formal theater setting. It’s hard to avert your eyes from a naked person if that person is only five rows in front of you. And parents can’t fast-forward through the performance’s racy content or immediately blindfold their children.

The argument that nudity is irrelevant in a dance work is not something new. After seeing Jiri Kylian’s “Bella Figura,” where ballerinas waltzed around the stage topless, my mother announced, “I saw no point for the dancers to be naked. What purpose did it serve?”

I could only answer that it gives audience members the space to imagine what the work means to them. It’s up to the audience member to identify what nudity’s purpose is, really.

If a film contains nudity, the dialogue or story gives the action context. But in modern dance, texts and clear storylines aren’t frequently used and audience members have to rely on their own intuition to interpret what they see. Classical ballets, on the other hand — “Swan Lake,” for instance — have clear storylines that allow audiences to passively engage in the dance they are witnessing.

Instead, modern dance performances allow their audience members to be active participants — to ask questions and form their own opinions. Even if a person doesn’t agree with a choreographer’s choice to use nudity, at least the work is eliciting some sort of response. Inspiring audience members to think for themselves and sometimes to disagree with a work are major goals of modern dance.

Works of art like Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, which displays an urinal as art, and John Cage’s “4’33”,” a musical piece consisting only of silence, wouldn’t be nearly as acclaimed if the artists avoided controversial ideas and took no risks. Sometimes artists need to attract people’s attention to things often overlooked in order to produce something interesting and evocative, even if the topic is uncomfortable or unpopular.

Nudity in dance should no longer be taboo. As long as choreographers use it to enhance or further support their vision — instead of using it as a gimmick — it can be an effective and tasteful way to display the body in its most natural form.

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