Health & Body

What to Do When a Student Stops Eating

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It can happen so quickly. One moment a promising student is strong and pushing their way forward to success, and then suddenly they begin to evaporate before your eyes. Research has consistently shown that dancers are at least three times as likely to experience an eating disorder compared to the general population. So even if you are doing everything "right," you may still find yourself advocating for the wellness of a student battling disordered eating. By setting a proactive groundwork of support and confronting the issue head-on in the studio, you may have the power to change the movement of disordered eating in dance.

Why it happens

"That is always the hardest part," says Pacific Northwest Ballet School managing director Denise Bolstad. "How did we get here?" At PNBS, teachers spend a lot of time talking internally about language they are using. "The teachers have a lot of power," says Bolstad. "It could just be a comment they made and didn't realize its impact." Comparing dancers to "a herd of elephants" when they aren't light enough on their feet may not be intended as a commentary on their physicality at all, but could be received that way.

The qualities that make a great dancer may also inherently predispose them to the high incidence of eating disorders, according to Sasha Gorrell, a former dancer and postdoctoral research scholar focusing on eating disorders at the University of California, San Francisco. She points out that most successful dancers are high achievers with a strong affinity for setting and achieving goals. "It's a means to an end," she says. "If your goal is to change your body shape, it is one of the possibilities."

Immediate action

If you suspect that a dancer is suffering from an eating disorder, it is imperative that you act quickly. This confrontation may be best made by an administrator at the school if such a person is available. "Because the teachers are so involved with the kids, we try to take it out of their wheelhouse," Bolstad says, adding that it is usually the teacher, a dorm counselor or other PNB leadership who notices and reports their concern.

If there is a concern with rapid weight loss, Bolstad will engage the parents right away. "It's hard because it is horrifying for the parents," she says. If things don't improve, PNBS will insist the student see a mental health professional and even take time away from the studio. Parents' anxieties can elevate if a student is asked to spend some time away, insisting that "taking dance away" will make it worse. "We have to redirect them to know that health is number one, and dance is number two," Bolstad says. "Once they can settle with that, it gets easier."

Addressing the class

It isn't enough to address the issue with only the student who is suffering, because their peers have witnessed it as well. "It's really traumatic for them," says Nadine Kaslow, a psychologist who works with the Atlanta Ballet. "They feel pressure to get thinner, and that can escalate their own eating issues," she says. "It scares them, and they don't know who to turn to." Kaslow encourages teachers to reach out to a mental health professional who can facilitate a conversation with the class. She adds that other dancers have likely been witnessing the behavior long before the teachers notice. "They don't want to tattle, but they wish someone would do something. You can't pretend that this isn't going on."

There is a lot of whispering that goes on in the studio, and it is normal for the student to be concerned with what their peers will think. While you should not share a student's private information without their consent, Gorrell encourages having a candid conversation with the student about addressing their situation openly with their peers.

"Make sure the individual has the voice to be able to say 'This would help me' and share how they would like it to be handled." One possible strategy is to "ask the student how they think their peers are feeling," Gorrell says. "How would the student feel if they were witnessing a friend go through the same thing?" Once the dancer understands that the gossiping is really coming from a place of concern, they may be more willing to address it. Adds Gorrell: "They may just say to them, 'I want you to know that I am OK. I am just taking some time off to take care of myself.' And that may be all that it takes."

Proactive prevention

Make candor about mental health issues part of your studio culture. "And not just around eating disorders," says Gorrell. "Normalize the need to take time off when things aren't balanced in your life. Whether that is depression or anxiety or grieving the loss of a relative, send the message that mental health is important, and it should be taken seriously." Kaslow suggests having a conversation with the students at the beginning of every year to outline how the studio would handle an eating disorder if it were to happen, and be clear that teachers are always concerned with the well-being of the students.

Gorrell also encourages teachers to think about what values they may be projecting in the classroom, even unintentionally. Remarking on a dancer's weight loss in the studio is never helpful to the dancer or their peers. "Make sure that comments made about bodies in front of the class not only implicitly but explicitly value strength," she says.

PNBS has a long-term relationship with a psychologist, and her visits with the students not only help the dancers, they also alert Bolstad to potential issues that need to be addressed. "Recently they felt that the teachers had indicated some girls need to lose a little bit of weight, but shared with Toby that we hadn't given the correct tools to do that," she says. "It is never OK for a teacher to tell a student to lose weight, and I have never seen it be successful when addressed this way."

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."

In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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