Talking to a student about losing weight

Kristina Windom teaching at The Washington School of Ballet

Kristina Windom, who teaches upper division students at The Washington School of Ballet, remembers the trauma of being told to lose weight as a young dancer. “Some teachers had no qualms about coming over and touching you and saying ‘Squish, squish,’” she says. “I would never do that as a teacher now.”

Weight is an evergreen topic in the world of dance. If you take your students’ potential seriously, you will likely have to address the issue at some point. Approaching this conversation with sensitivity is vital so that students develop healthy, not detrimental, relationships with food.

There are right and wrong ways to talk to a student who needs to lose weight. The most important step is finding an appropriate time and place for the conversation—never point it out in front of the class or compare a dancer to her peers. “While shame may be motivational in the short term, it is counterproductive in the long term,” says Dr. Brian Goonan, a psychologist who works with students at Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy (BSA). Instead, choose a quiet spot after class and make time for a thorough dialogue. The student needs an opportunity to be heard and ask questions.

To put a student’s situation into context, Windom begins every conversation with the same question. “I always ask what’s been going on in their lives in the last month,” she says. Eating habits can change with new stress at home or school.

Once you’ve heard a student’s thoughts, talk about how proper nutrition will benefit her performance. For example, you might say that in your experience, eating smaller, lighter meals more frequently keeps you from getting hungry and gives you more energy in class. “I’m always honest and say that I want to help them maximize their performance and career as a dancer,” says Roberta Anding, sports dietitian for BSA. Empower them by stressing that you are expressing your concern because she has the potential for a dance career.

You may not be able to avoid saying the words, “You need to lose weight,” and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just remember that the goal is to empower the student, not break them down. Always avoid buzzwords like fat, heavy and soft. Instead, be an advocate for their success. “It’s always a ‘we’ statement,” says Windom. “Let’s do this together.” By connecting directly, you can earn trust and encourage a student to be open with her progress.

Of course, some of the responsibility falls to the parents. Young dancers living at home rarely prepare their own meals. “It becomes hard for a dancer to do what the instructor is asking if the family meal structure is not conducive,” says Anding. In busy families, the drive-through may be the habitual dinner table, or a picky sibling could result in chicken fingers for meals. Involve the parents when speaking with dancers about nutrition, and contact them again if you’ve talked to the student once or twice and haven’t seen results.

Don’t forget to give your student feedback when she’s doing well and when it’s time to stop losing weight. Ultimately, your responsibility is to make her the best dancer she can be. Encouraging her to achieve her personal best will help her realize her full potential. DT 

Kathleen McGuire also writes for Pointe and Dance Magazine.

When Weight Loss Goes Too Far

Eating disorders are a troubling reality of the dance world. Sitting a student down to tell her she needs to gain weight is a huge responsibility, since she may have an eating disorder.

Look for the signs: There are many physical and behavioral signs typical of someone with an eating disorder. If you notice her layering clothing for warmth, rapid weight loss, depression and irritability, among other things, intervention is needed.

Focus on food behaviors: Sports psychologist Dr. Brian Goonan suggests pointing out tendencies you perceive to be typical of someone with an eating disorder. Good examples include: “I notice you haven’t been eating your lunch with the other students,” or “You seem to be really picky about what you eat lately.” Never accuse someone outright of having an eating disorder. 

Involve their parents: “When it’s an issue of gaining weight, it should really be directed at the family,” says The Washington School of Ballet’s Kristina Windom. If the student is under 18 and you are concerned for their safety, you must inform the parents by law. If the situation is serious, suggest contacting a psychologist.

It’s never too early to discuss nutrition and its connection to weight. Fostering an understanding of how students’ bodies work will only help them succeed. “The family and the student entrust you with delivering more than good dance technique discipline,” says The Washington School of Ballet’s Kristina Windom. “You’re teaching these kids a lifestyle.”

Many dance teachers have years of nutrition and cross-training experience from their own professional work. Though your advice is valid, it’s important to recognize when you aren’t adequately educated to give it. Sports dietitian Roberta Anding suggests bringing in a dietitian to work with students a few hours each month, which can be covered with a tuition hike as little as $5 per student. She suggests contacting a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Visit www.scandpg.org to find someone qualified in your area.

Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Dance Magazine and Pointe.

Photo by Brianne Bland, courtesy of The Washington School of Ballet

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