What It Takes to Return to Dance After Recovering From an Eating Disorder

Re-enter dance slowly to keep yourself healthy. Photo via Thinkstock

After spending a year away from the studio to recover from anorexia at age 12, Jillian Verzwyvelt admits that she was extremely nervous to return to class. "I was terrified I would be far behind not only technically but socially," she says. Fortunately, she encountered strong support from both teachers and peers, who treated her the same as they always had, even though she was only strong enough to take part of class.

Returning to the studio after recovering from an eating disorder is not unlike coming back from injury, except that the challenge is deeply stigmatized. For most dancers who suffer from eating disorders, the impulse to control their physical appearance and their passion for dance are closely linked.

So fighting the urge to fall into bad habits can be extra-challenging as dancers confront the same environment where their disorder manifested. But with the right approach, it's possible to find a way back into a loving relationship with dance and your body.


Get the Support You Need

Do not try to navigate this alone. Experts recommend scheduling regular visits with a dietitian, a therapist, a physical therapist and a doctor for at least the first few months that you are coming back. Emily Harrison, founder of Nutrition for Great Performances, adds that finding a support group can be helpful—you can even take virtual classes sponsored by treatment centers like Renfrew or Alsana.

Define Your Weight Goals

Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet, warns that your health team may have different expectations than the leadership at your dance institution. While your doctor may want your weight to be more "normal" by traditional standards, your director may not agree because of the aesthetic of dance. "I usually think that there needs to be a negotiation for a weight range that is lower than the outpatient medical people think it should be, and higher than the dance people want," she says.

Develop a Meal Plan

Your dietitian should help you craft an evolving meal plan. "There can be significant changes in energy needs when dancers get back to a full schedule," says Harrison. That energy comes from calories. "You might have higher-than-average needs of certain key nutrients because your body was not getting enough," she adds. Dancers recovering from an eating disorder often need to have the importance of eating carbohydrates emphasized. Harrison cites oats, whole grains, sweet potatoes, fruits, vegetables and legumes as excellent sources of energy for dance.

A dietitian can help make sure you're getting the fuel you need to dance again. Photo via Thinkstock.

Take It Slowly to Avoid Injury

Know that your risk of injury is higher after an eating disorder because the lack of proper nutrition has depleted the vitamins and minerals needed to keep your bones and muscles strong. Michelle Rodriguez, director of Manhattan Physio Group, emphasizes the need to come back slowly. "You really need to reestablish your stamina and your strength," she says. She might suggest, for example, that a dancer start with barre only for one or two weeks and then add more of class gradually as their strength increases. Because of the impact eating disorders can have on bone density, she warns about the risk of stress fractures in particular.

Get Out of the Mirror

Old habits die hard, and an eating disorder is often rooted in a distorted body image. This means you may need to avoid the mirror for a while. Upon her return, Verzwyvelt intentionally changed her barre spot. "I had to move to a place where I couldn't see the mirror to be able to dance without constantly criticizing myself," she says.

Avoid Online Triggers

Tone down your social media use during this time. "Instagram and other social media platforms are full of photos that could be triggering to dancers in a vulnerable place," warns Harrison.

Talk About Your Experience

After returning to dance, Verzwyvelt publicly shared her story in a high school assembly. "Aside from feeling near-faint while delivering my talk, it was as though this huge weight was lifted from my shoulders," she says. Being open about what you have been through may alleviate the social awkwardness of your return, and may even help others by changing the culture of your studio.

Opening up could help your friends, too. Photo by Greg Raines/Unsplash

Make Sure You're Not Coming Back Too Soon

Returning to dance too quickly may increase the likelihood of relapse, according to Kaslow. While you may want to jump straight into the deep end, look out for these red flags:

You're glued to the mirror. If you find yourself repeatedly returning to the mirror not to check your line but to examine your thigh gap or how the band of your tights is cutting at your waist, you may need more time away.

You're obsessed with cross-training. Avoid trying to burn an excessive amount of calories by doing cardiovascular training outside of dance right away. Physical therapist Michelle Rodriguez says that while cardio is great for dancers, in the early months, she suggests focusing on more dance-specific strengthening exercises.

You refuse to take your time. Kaslow says that one of the clearest signs that a dancer is not fully recovered is resistance to returning gradually. She suggests that dancers approach this transition the same way they would returning from an injury. "You can maybe dance every day, but not all day every day at first," she says. "You shouldn't be in the back doing the combination with both groups."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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