I am a 5′-5″ female who hovers around the 115 lbs mark. As a typical pedestrian, I am underweight. If I had this stature while a professional ballet dancer, I would have been considered the opposite. So imagine the psychological distress when I was waltzing around the studio at 108 lbs when my artistic director informed me that I would look better if I could just lose a pound or two.
There were several emotions that I experienced within a minute span of time; I was simultaneously shocked, angry, hurt, defensive, confused…but unfortunately, the overwhelming sentiment was insecurity. Insecure that I would lose my job if I didn’t comply and insecure about what I really looked like.
The former was a fleeting struggle resolved by simply doing what he asked for. The latter has been a lifetime one: I have been retired from the stage for over fifteen years and am still fighting ghosts from that experience.
My parents may disagree with me, but I consider the defiant part of my nature to be a blessing at times. In this case, it saved me from spiraling down the abyss that many dancers sadly enter. I don’t think it would be completely honest to say that I’ve never had an eating disorder because I am cognizant that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies (especially prominent during my performing career) led to momentary battles where food was the enemy and my mind the strategic commander.
But I can say that I have never been anorexic or bulimic, and for that I am grateful. Yet there are too many dancers – young, old, student, professional – who react to the exacting aesthetic demands of being a ballet dancer by falling into this darkness.
I share all this not to suggest that ballet dancers ignore the fact that their bodies are their tools and that they must be fine-tuned in order to execute at their best. What I am broaching is that the corporal regimen be on equal playing grounds with artistic development and technical proficiency.
And this needs to start with the way leadership communicates with our youth; teachers and directors need to educate themselves on how to be sensitive to this issue of students wanting to have what they perceive as the ideal ballet body – and yes, this is a big issue – and learn how to have effective conversations rather than demeaning requests when the need arises to speak to a student. It is also important to be aware that both male and females struggle with this – it’s not just a “girl thing”.
As we all know, some words can leave an everlasting trace that clouds our perception forever.