The Eating Disorder Trap: How Dancers' Perfectionism Can Make Things Dangerously Worse

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Dawn Smith-Theodore, a former professional dancer, is a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. She is also an anorexia-nervosa survivor. Here she explains how under the right circumstances, a dancer's perfectionism and ballet's culture of thinness can create a risky recipe for an eating disorder.


I grew up in front of a mirror and as a dancer it was my best friend and my worst enemy. I loved to watch myself to make sure that I had the right style, lines and technique. It was when I began comparing myself to others, and listening to the drill sergeant in my head that never stopped proclaiming that I wasn't good enough and needed to lose weight, that the mirror became my enemy.

My mom owned a dance studio, and as a result I felt a lot of pressure to set an example and perform to my potential. But I actually didn't need the additional pressure—I always pushed myself to work harder and to be "perfect."

When I was 15 and my body started developing, I thought losing a few pounds would help me jump higher and look better in my leotard. Yet the less I ate, the louder my inner drill sergeant barked negative criticism. ("Did you see how you fell out of that turn? What's wrong with you? The girl next to you has a much better body.") Soon, the drive to be perfect took over my thoughts.

I continued to lose weight. Five pounds turned into five more, just to make sure I would be thin enough to offset any future weight gain. I spent hours planning my caloric intake for the next day. Eventually, I developed the eating disorder anorexia nervosa, where I did not see myself as thin no matter how much weight I lost. My health suffered; I had a low heart rate, no menstrual cycle and problematic stomach issues. I was chasing the rainbow of perfection, an illusion.

I feel very lucky that I recovered from anorexia, but it was a long journey. Now I am a psychotherapist who specializes in the treatment of eating disorders, and I frequently work with dancers. And I have found that many of them are, like me, perfectionists.

Common Triggers

Photo by Anthony Tran for Unsplash

An eating disorder is like living in a prison in your mind. They can be viewed on a continuum from anorexia nervosa (restrictive eating resulting in rapid, detrimental weight loss), bulimia nervosa (binge eating, followed by self-induced vomiting, abusing laxatives or fasting) and binge eating disorder (episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food in a rapid amount of time). People develop one disorder but might slide up and down the continuum from one to another. Ultimately, if you're sick with an eating disorder, your body cannot handle ballet's physical demands.

People develop these conditions for a variety of reasons: a genetic predisposition, family dynamics, a traumatic life event, media and societal pressures, mood disorders, the onset of puberty, a diet gone awry. Other triggers include being involved in an activity that emphasizes the body (like ballet) and perfectionism.

When Perfectionism Becomes Obsession

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While perfectionism is part of the temperament some people are born with, dance further cultivates it. The perfectionist is highly motivated, self-disciplined and conscientious, with high performance standards—all the qualities needed to be a good dancer. Yet there is a dangerous line where perfectionism becomes problematic and the dancer begins to lose perspective. They become hypercritical of themselves, and feel shame and guilt because they are not living up to their own expectations and those of others. The love they had for dance eventually starts to fade away. Thoughts become very black-and-white: If they aren't perfect, they're a failure.

Grasping for Control

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For those with an eating disorder, the preoccupation with weight is a mechanism for control. It becomes a distraction, a way to escape the fear that they won't succeed. For instance, Nadia*, a young ballerina who I was counseling, was told that she would look better in her tutu if she lost a few pounds. Since she wanted to get an apprenticeship at a ballet company the following year, she took this feedback seriously and began watching her diet. She was soon preoccupied with controlling her weight, since she couldn't control what others thought of her. Her teacher was critical of her, and she believed that everyone was disappointed in her dance ability and her inability to achieve the perfect body.

While Nadia accomplished her dream of an apprenticeship at a nationally recognized ballet company, her anorexia spun out of control. She lost 20 pounds, began losing her hair, and her menstrual cycle stopped. Her recovery was a long process, as she began binge eating because of her body's deprivation. Nadia's eating disorder became so consuming that she had to quit dancing. Eventually her weight stabilized, but only after healing her relationship with food and allowing her body to be nourished.

Warning Signs

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Nadia's eating disorder grew out of several critical comments about her body. Other dancers may be obsessive over how they measure up to their classmates. And now with social media, you no longer need to compare yourself to someone next to you at the barre because you can compare yourself to others on Instagram or YouTube.

Dancers are always critiquing themselves, but if the majority of your thoughts are persistently negative, you're constantly thinking about how to perfect your body or going to drastic measures to lose weight, you may need help. Consider seeking out professionals, such as a psychotherapist, dietitian and a doctor who specializes in eating disorders. Do not let the allure of being perfect steal your love of dance.

Resources

Photo by Christin Hume via Unsplash

The following organizations offer more information on eating disorders, as well as referral lists for doctors, dietitians and therapists in your area.

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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