The Gray Area That's Not Quite an Eating Disorder, But Is Common Among Dancers

It doesn't have to be diagnosable by the DSM-5 to be dangerous to your health. Photo by Dominik Martin/Unsplash

When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.

I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.

My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.


It Started as An Act of Teenage Rebellion That Had Nothing to Do With Weight

For the author (above), being vegetarian turned into an excuse to get out of eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto

I had decided to become a vegetarian at 17. It started in earnest as a way to protest my dad hunting birds and bringing them home for my family to eat. First, I wrote off the meat he hunted. Then (enjoying the rebellion of it), I wrote off all meat.

It was circa 2001 and at that time books like "Fast Food Nation" were on the rise. I read up on the inhumane practices of the meat industry. I morally got behind my choice to be a vegetarian.

As a bit of time passed, I began to use my vegetarianism as a way to write off eating a healthy amount of food. "Oh, I can't eat that" or "I'll meet up after dinner" were frequent responses that came out of my mouth in my early 20s. Vegetarianism had become my excuse. It was a socially acceptable way to get out of eating.

Don't get me wrong—to this day I love animals and have met some vegetarians who are informed and balanced about their nutrition. That was not my case.

Having rice and vegetables for every meal, I thought I was eating like an enlightened monk. I did no research on what I needed to eat as a substitute for meat. But I had a well-rehearsed (and well-researched) speech ready about the meat industry's treatment of animals to defend my choices. I was often light-headed, and not from being enlightened. It was because I was malnourished.

Also, I was a professional dancer. Somehow, I didn't connect the dots. I knew about how many dancers had eating disorders. But I've honestly never met one dancer who doesn't obsess over their body. Seeing my behavior as fairly normal, I thought it'd be weird to ask for help.

Just Because It's Not Classified as An Eating Disorder Doesn't Mean It's Safe

Thinking about food all the time is an early sign of disordered eating. Photo by Eszter Biro.

New York City-based dietician Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, recently explained to me that there is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. An eating disorder has a set of diagnostic criteria and is diagnosable by a doctor. Disordered eating encompasses various behaviors such as restricting food intake, restricting food groups, having rigid rules, bingeing, purging and over-exercising. Disordered eating can be really complicated, but it's technically not diagnosable by the mental health standards manual, the DSM-5.

"Disordered eating may be more likely to happen in those with certain personality traits, like perfectionism," Hogan said. "It's also more likely if you already have other emotional turmoil going on. Recent review studies and surveys on disordered eating have found that most women exhibit disordered eating behaviors at some point in their lives."

"Most women?" I asked. She confirmed: About 75 percent. "This is a newer finding that is currently being looked into in a deeper way now." Hogan told me that women in aesthetic-based sports such as dance, gymnastics, running, ice skating and diving are at the most risk.

"Early signals for disordered eating include thinking about food all the time, finding ways to cut out foods or food groups from your diet, if your relationship with food affects your social life, or if you have low energy, aches and pains," she said.

Hogan acknowledges that, for dancers, it can be to discern if low energy, aches and pains are from their activity or a lack of nourishment. "Losing your period is a clear sign that you may not be eating enough to fuel your activity and that your body is under a significant amount of stress because of this energy deficiency," she says. This can put you at risk of injury, especially bone injuries.

Dancers Are Three Times as Likely to Have Disordered Eating Patterns

Since she got healthier, the author has noticed how many other dancers struggle in the gray area of disordered eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto

I rationalized my own disordered eating as, "I am still eating. I eat healthy food. I eat three meals per day." I didn't know how much more I needed to eat because I was dancing six to eight hours a day. I also didn't try to learn. Instead, I was restricting an entire food group from my diet for a non-health-based reason.

I also became really into looking as thin and as long as I could—the idealized version of a dancer body. Hogan says that research shows dancers are as much as three times more likely than other people to exhibit disordered eating patterns.

That afternoon when I fed my cat wet food, I actually started to drool. I was about seven years into being a vegetarian. In that moment, I knew I had to eat meat again. I called my family and coordinated a barbecue with some "organic, grass fed-only" hamburgers. I plowed through my first hamburger and felt a surge of energy. My body was like "Finally! Thank you."

That first barbecue was more than 8 years ago. Since then, I've noticed a ton of other dancers whose relationships to food aren't extreme disorders, but they live in the gray area. Maybe it's over exercising. Maybe it's no food after 7 pm. Coffee after every meal to stimulate digestion. Hopping on the most recent fad diets. Or eliminating gluten when it's not a health concern.

Whatever it is, know that there are so many people with you.

If you're ready to seek help, Hogan warns that not all physicians understand disordered eating or know how to treat patients exhibiting symptoms. She suggests seeing a registered dietitian and/or a therapist. "A specialized professional can help you get to the root of why these behaviors are happening," she says, "and eventually, understand how to better nourish your body."

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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