Eating Disorders in the Dance World

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Eating disorders in the dance world are the opposite of a secret: they’re considered a cliche. Eating disorders in the field are also still a very real and serious issue. Public awareness of this problem came in 1987 when Gelsey Kirkland published her autobiography Dancing On My Grave.

Kirkland was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet from 1972 until her retirement in 1984, and she suffered many maladies in that time, including a severe eating disorder. Even today, as the “Balanchine Ballerina” image slowly fades into a more muscular, toned dancer, eating disorders are less and less talked about but are still a real problem. A colleague of mine agreed to talk with me about her time as a dancer and her struggles with her eating disorder. Due to the personal and sensitive nature of this subject — and her current career — she will remain anonymous.

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What was the perfect image of a ballerina in your mind?
Aurélie Dupont was the first ballerina I ever admired. I watched her in a DVD of La Sylphide with the Paris Opera Ballet and was so inspired. She’s truly the image and essence of a sylph — willowy, long, full of grace.

Where do you think this image came from?
Growing up, I saw professionals at the ballet (I took my first summer intensive at age 10) and images in Pointe magazine. These women were thin, lean, and I thought the aesthetic of a muscular dancer with very little body fat was so beautiful. I thought that to have muscles and bone showing was to be strong and successful. My body type builds muscle well, but I don’t necessarily have a naturally low-body-fat percentage. I somehow figured that I needed to get thin, then the next step was to get strong. I made being thin a prerequisite for being a worthy and valuable dancer.

What was your first sign that your attempts to get thin were having a negative effect?
We were having a story ballet set on us, there came a point when about four to six dancers would have to move a large bridge prop around the stage. My best friend was chosen over me to push the bridge, because the guest artist said he needed “someone with some muscle.” Since we were 13, she had always been the willowy one and I had been the stronger one, so I knew the change wasn’t in my imagination. I was starting to be viewed as thin instead of strong. There was also a time that I made a comment about needing to lose some weight to the friend I mentioned, and she said, “No, you do not. Look in the mirror right now!” I looked and saw all my ribs and back bones, and realized for the first time what everyone else saw. But instead of letting that bring me back to reality, I decided it was a good thing and to keep maintaining, and edging down further.

The body is possibly the most personal thing for a dancer
The body is possibly the most personal thing for a dancer.

You mentioned that neither your fellow dancers nor your management never pressed you about this issue — that many people turned a blind eye. Why do you think this was?
I think the reason people approached it in a circuitous way was because there’s sort of an unspoken thing in the dance world: everyone is trying to look their best. It’s a personal decision what that means and how they go about it. It’s also disrespectful to assume that every thin person is anorexic or that everyone who watches their diet has an unhealthy relationship with food. I think it’s also common for non-dancers to worry about dancers and their weight because they don’t quite grasp the life of a dancer and what it does to your body. It’s hard to be in bad shape when you’re dancing full time. So dancers tend to go a little easier on each other, I think, because they “understand.” The body is also a very personal thing, and telling someone what they should do with it is a huge invasion of privacy and personal rights. I know people cared about me, but I also know that no one wanted to step on my toes and tell me how to live.

But is silence its own form of enabling?
Absolutely. The “don’t ask, don’t tell” thing can become a real whirlpool and downward spiral. There’s the unspoken respect that you know what’s best for you body, like I mentioned before. But if you aren’t taking care of yourself with love and respect, that becomes self-tyranny instead of self-discipline.

When could you tell you were losing your strength, thus affecting your ability to dance, and why was that not motivation enough to stop?
I remember the last Nutcracker season I danced and not knowing how on earth I would make it to “Waltz of the Flowers” and the coda. I really thought I would lose it. But after the matinee when everyone went to lunch, I still ate next to nothing. I looked at what I’d become, which was truly a shadow of the dancer I used to be, and thought it was too late to turn back. I had fulfilled the imagined prerequisite of being thin, but the next step — getting strong — wasn’t happening and could not happen. I felt I had created a hell I couldn’t escape, and I had denied help so much that no one was really inquiring anymore. I think a lot of people knew that I had made my choice, and it’s hard to change the mind of someone so hard-headed and strong-willed as a ballet dancer.

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So you chose your disease over your passion?
I definitely did. When I quit ballet, I pushed it away like I would an ex-lover in a bad breakup. I denied that I missed dancing, I said life had never been better, but I had really traded my love and creative self for what I thought would bring me worth and value as an artist and person: a small body. My former coach reached out to me and welcomed me to her studio just to sit and watch rehearsals, just to be in the energy of the space. In my pride I declined, determined that somehow my grand plan of “thin equals worthy” would work. All I did was burn a bridge to what felt like was my artistic home.

Do you think the world of ballet creates these problems or simply enables it to the right person?
I certainly don’t think ballet creates these problems. Ballet is art, and it has had a very specific aesthetic for years. It’s really cool to see that shifting and evolving, as stars like Misty Copeland make the news by breaking aesthetic barriers. I do think the ballet world can enable the right person, to be sure. However, this is not a ballet problem. Disordered eating is a person problem, one of self-worth. Dancers are the most disciplined people I’ve ever met. They are servants of the art and masters of the tool, and yet they are the art and the tool. It truly takes a kind of genius, and genius isn’t always balanced. Creating balances in the genius world of art requires great honesty, both with directors, colleagues, and most of all, yourself. I was not honest with myself. I told myself I was doing all this for ballet, when really I was trying to find a way to be worthy of art and worthy of life.

If I could give any advice to a young person in the position I was in, I would tell them to search themselves and find worth within, not without. I would tell them to support their peers and be there while they found the artist they were, instead of following who went before and trying to fit into something they thought would qualify them as an artist or person.None of the great dancers, choreographers, or professionals followed a checklist to fit the mold of “genius”, they paved their own way. They served the art and let it flow through them, but they understood that doing so meant that had to treat their tool, themselves, with the utmost respect. Without the artist, the art wouldn’t exist. I wish I hadn’t tried to put the art before myself… because dancers are the artist, and the art.

Do you have any final thoughts on all this?
Just one. I think mental and emotional support is just as essential as having a physical therapist and massage therapist on staff at a company. The emotional health of dancers is as important as physical health because they’re linked so tightly. I hope dialogue about emotional and mental matters becomes more open in the dance industry so we can cultivate the genius that’s already there.

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Shane Jewell

Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.