Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Disordered Eating in Dance

When it comes to discussing eating disorders in dancers, I seem to spend all my time either trying to convince my non-dancing friends that the majority of dancers do not have an eating disorder, or trying to convince my colleagues who do work in dance that it is a serious problem that needs addressing. While to non-dancers the image of the anorexic ballet dancer is at least familiar if not cliched, to many dancers there is a denial regarding the degree to which disordered eating is a serious and wide-spread problem and there is a sense of many people and companies being in denial about the severity of the issue. In reality the scope of the problem sits somewhere between the two outlooks - disordered eating is a serious problem for a significant minority of dancers.
Let me first differentiate between eating disorders and disordered eating. The term 'eating disorder' covers anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, the two most widely known and diagnosed problems. 'Disordered eating' covers damaging eating habits and attitudes to eating that do not fall under the two aforementioned conditions. Nonetheless, disordered eating can be every bit as damaging often resulting,  as with anorexia and bulimia, in malnourishment, amenorrhea, weakness, extreme weight-loss and osteoporosis, not to mention a host of psychological issues. Anorexia and bulimia are horrendous conditions, however we need to think of disordered eating as on a par with them, and then realise the extent of the problem in dancers.

This is a problem that goes wider than ballet - it is existent in contemporary dance, musical theatre, jazz, commercial and I do not doubt many other genres of dance. It affects both male and female dancers. The demands placed on dancers can be huge, not only to perform at their best, but to adhere to predefined ideals of how they should look. These ideals may be real or imagined; while there are certainly some teachers, choreographers and artistic directors that want a specific look, often it is the dancer themselves that heap on the pressure to achieve a specific body type. The body is constantly on show, costumes leave little to hide behind and the physical figure is central to the performance.

Attitudes are slowly starting to change again - promoting strength over  skinniness.
Misty Copeland 2012 (c) Liza Voll 

Professional dance is competitive, of course it is. Right from dance classes as a child, whether you were interested in pursuing it as a vocation or not, you would have had an awareness of competition within the class. It is natural and it exists in just about every walk of life. However as the body is constantly on show and central to the aesthetic performance, it is openly critiqued in a way it would not be in other athletic pursuits.

The added pressure of the physical image of the body, alongside initial aspects of competition, may well contribute to the high instances of disordered eating in dance. Additionally, it is necessary to consider that for many dancers, the years they work to prove themselves during training are their teenage years. While trying to take their first steps into professional work or to gain a place on a training course, they are faced with changes to their body that are out with their control, and equally are exposed to the same insecurities and social pressures that non-dancing teenagers are. While none of these reasons alone account for the high instances of disordered eating in dancers, they go some way to demonstrate underlying pressures that many dancers will experience.

Dance UK's Healthier Dancer Conference last year focussed on this issue. It was refreshing to see dancers, artistic directors and choreographers including Dame Monica Mason, Richard Alston, Gemma Nixon, Lauren Cuthbertson and Tamara Rojo openly discuss the problem, among many others. What was equally encouraging was that it appeared the over-riding opinion of artistic directors was that the key qualities they looked for in dancers were articulation, line, speed, strength, health and energy, and not a uniform physical aesthetic.

Margot Fonteyn in Swan Lake
This suggests however that the causes of disordered eating in dancers are more complex than simply dancers being told they must be thin. Tradition, and the cultural expectation of the sylph-like dancer may play a role. However in considering this, we must also realise that ballet dancers have only been seen to be of diminutive stature since the 1960's, the same time when Twiggy changed the fashion world and western culture became fixated with the ultra-thin female figure.

In the 1890s Anna Pavlova faced criticism for being too thin, with Russian dancers at the time tending to be more curvaceous than the image we are familiar with today. More recently, Margot Fonteyn - dancing from the late 1930s-1960s, and widely regarded as one of the most iconic dancers of all time - never fitted into the modern prescription of the ultra-skinny dancer.

Looking further back, Edgar Degas' famous ballerina paintings from the 1870s depicted dancers that would be considered positively heavy by today's standards, and yet the physique of the dancers would have been the norm for the time period, so there is no long lasting tradition within the art of ballet of the expectation of extreme thinness. It is a thoroughly modern phenomenon.
Edgar Degas, Le Classe de Danse 1873-76
Popular culture and cultural trends cannot be discounted as a probable factor in instances of disordered eating. Yet another consideration is the issue of perfectionism. In any discipline, whether artistic, academic, athletic or otherwise, those who are at the very top of their game, or those who strive to be, often display tendencies toward perfectionism. The dedication that excelling within dance requires may turn to obsession at times, and if directed toward an area such as body image,  it can have disasterous effects.

Eating disorders are a serious mental illness. A host of underlying problems may contribute to them, and the causes will not necessarily be common to all sufferers. Unfortunately the stigma that comes with this may contribute to the reluctance of many within the dance profession to openly discuss the issue. I guarantee you there is next to no one working in professional dance that has not encountered someone who they knew or suspected may have an eating disorder. It is not uncommon, but it is largely brushed under the carpet. Skinniness in dance is often seen as a sign of dedication. Protruding clavicles are seen to be a thing of beauty. A dancer should be strong; yet you can't be strong when you are barely eating enough to fuel your body's basic functions, far less to undertake the demands of dance. Strength and health should be promoted as a virtue in dance, not protruding bones and sickly ballerinas.

ENB's Artistic Director Tamara Rojo has publicly spoken out against the
promotion of unhealthy eating practices in dance.

Too few dance schools and courses provide adequate nutritional education to their students. Even out with disordered eating, limited food intake and fad dieting is commonplace among dancers looking to control their body-weight. There is a lack of knowledge of how to adequately fuel the body while controlling body composition. There's no mystery to it - education will allow dancers to have more control over their bodies. This will not stop there being problems with disordered eating, but it will do something to curb the culture of confusion and ignorance as to the importance of adequate nutrition. Further education is needed to raise awareness and encourage open discussion regarding disordered eating in dancers. Removing the stigma makes it easier for at risk students to be identified and supported, and makes it more likely that they will be able to recognise their condition.

There's no black and white answer to the problem. Open discussion is key, as is education. Teachers, choreographers, dancers, dance students, anyone working within a dance organisation must be aware of the issues, the warning signs, and ways to confront the issue and support must be offered to dancers who are suffering or at risk. While this is a problem that is not dance-specific, it is a common enough problem in dance that it cannot be ignored or dismissed by those working within the arts just because it raises some uncomfortable questions.

Click here for link to Beat organisation offering support for those suffering from or concerned about eating disorders. 

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