Ballet

In Response to: Teaching With An Eating Disorder

The other day I read this great article about a dance teacher Hannah Maria Hayes and her experience teaching while being under the influence of her eating disorder. It really touched me and made me think about how eating disorders can influence teaching. I wrote an entry on a similar topic a few years back when I was co-directing The Nutcracker. It was about how I viewed myself as a hypocrite because I tell my dancers one thing and think/do another. I recently came back to this when I noticed one of the girls check out her stomach in the mirror before ballet class.

Bam! It hit me, like how one hits the floor when they slip out of a pirouette. All the words my director said to me, “you know these girls look up to you”, made sense. I have never been a role model or in a position where young girls want to dance like me.  Sometimes these young dancers copy my dance style (clothes or movement quality) but it is so much  more than that! They can copy my attitude, mannerisms, and drive. Some specific dance mannerisms are, checking out their profile in the  mirror or standing in front of the skinny mirror. Ask any dancer and they know all about that one mirror that makes you look good, how to pick out the slimming leotards. Better yet, ask any dancer about how often they check themselves out in the mirror and criticize what they look like. I don’t want that for these girls. I don’t want them to fight each other for the skinny mirror. I don’t want them them to give into the pressure of “the dancer body”, to feel as if they must make themselves smaller to “make up for their lack of ability” or to “make themselves stand out”. I starved myself because I felt inferior to other dancers. I felt as if the skinnier I was, the more fit, the stronger I was, the more people would want to work with me/hire me.

I loved how in the article she wrote, “Thinking about stepping into a dance studio to teach ballet makes me panic, even though I have a dozen years of experience. Being trapped in a mirrored room and seeing how out of shape I am, compared to when I was a dancer myself, makes me feel claustrophobic. I assume my students will judge my figure”. I can relate. There is a panic, especially when you are in a relapse or feeling down about yourself. Lately, my self esteem/ED talk has been on the loose. My body has begun a dreaded change and my GI issues are rearing their ugly head and all I want is to cover up. But I am wearing a leotard (still as covered as I can get without being in modern dance attire) because these girls look up to me. I am trying not to profile check myself. I feel as if the more I do things that are positive for aspiring ballerinas/dancers it will help me separate from my ED.

Maybe dance teachers with eating disorders do need more attention, and more mental work. Hayes quotes a NYCB consultant,

” ‘Though most of us associate eating disorders with students and professionals, unresolved body issues and controlled eating patterns from pre-professional training can follow you into adulthood. “You are still the same person,’ says Hamilton. ‘And under extremely stressful situations, old habits come back…’Dance teachers need more attention than they get,’ says Hamilton. ‘You’re a role model, and if you are not able to approach eating in a healthy way or if you think you’re never thin enough, it’s going to come across to your students. We don’t need to pass this on from one generation to the next.'”

Which is so true! How can we as teachers, be a true role model if we cannot approach body image in a positive way? How can we demonstrate the love one needs for their own body when we hate ours? I try so hard to not pass on my disorder, my disgust, and everything that I did wrong in my heyday to these girls. I don’t want them to go through what I went through or what I am currently going through. How can I effectively do this? Maybe it is to get more help. To continue this things called recovery. Maybe it is to show these girls what an ED fueled life can do.

For my educators out there, dancer or other forms of athletics, how do you handle this? What has worked for you? How do you struggle? Is it even a trigger?

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Am I A Hypocrite? Little Girls: Love yourselves, though I don’t always love myself…

I am a dance teacher. I love sharing my love and passion for dance with younger girls. It fulfills me to see young girls and young women gain self confidence or fall in love with dance/physical activity. It helps keep them from a sedentary lifestyle. Physiologically speaking, dance increases endorphin’s which helps elevate happiness/decrease depression, dance helps with muscle mass and fat mass.  Also one learns how to stay physically active throughout their life.  Dance  also keeps at risk kids off the street. Dance is a productive, proactive activity. Most importantly, dance gives dancers an outlet for self expression. When they have a rough day at school they can fuel their barre exercises. Tough time with a boyfriend/girlfriend?  Pour it out on the floor during choreography. Need a moment to get away from it all? All day rehearsals are the safe place.

As a dancer who has struggled with disordered eating and exercise addiction, these actions/mind sets can cause interesting emotions in my own dance life. There are moments I am triggered by smaller dancers (who are my size but a teenager), or more athletic looking ones. There are times I get frustrated with my abilities because I cannot pick up the choreography on the first go around.  There are also times I am gentle with myself and over ride my negative thoughts. I may not have killer extension, but I have stage presence. I even use dance as therapy. I made a solo about my eating disorder. I love dance. I can’t imagine not dancing. But, sometimes I have to step back. While in college I got to a point where I had to take a hiatus from dance because it was damaging to myself. When it was time, I came back to what fueled me. This time, I use my recovery tools and have a new message to the girls I instruct. My message is: there is no such thing as a perfect dancer body. Love yourself. Love your body, and it will love your dance. This isn’t an easy message due to the nature of dance. As one goes on with dance, especially onto the college or professional level, the “look” or pressure to be a certain way greatly increases.  Certain companies like a specific body type. Or if you audition for a show, you might not get a part because you have red hair, not brown. Or blonde hair not red. As a dancer who is 5″1, I always put 5″2 because that extra inch makes me more desirable. Ask any performer, there is something on their resume they lie about; whether it be weight, height, they may even color their hair, or where colored contacts. Hopefully as the increase awareness of eating disorders and body image issues get more attention in the dance community, the pressure of a certain look can decrease. The up and coming dance educators, choreographers,  and directors need to focus on technique, passion, and ability. Highlight more about the dancer than just what is on the surface.

Already this Nutcracker season, I have been confronted more with supporting these young girls and developing my mission statement than in previous settings. One of the girls I have the honor of directing mentioned her body is too muscular. She said she was “bigger than a normal dancer”.  I told her she is beautiful. She dances great, and it is because of her muscle she can dance beautifully. I expressed that she doesn’t need to change a thing about her body. It is the only one she has. Another time I saw a girl checking out her stomach in the mirror while comparing herself to another girl. How sad. She does what I do in my bedroom. I wanted to go up and say, “Stop it! Don’t even begin to go down this road! Don’t end up like me.” But I didn’t. What would have happened if I did? I hope she doesn’t start down the road of self deprivation.

At a previous school where I was taking class, I heard a teacher out right compared two girls’ bodies during barre. I was outraged. These two girls were apples and oranges. You can’t compare apples and oranges. The only thing they have in common is that they are fruit. The only thing these two dancers had in common was that they were dancers. Both were strong movers. One was very much an ectomorph (tall, narrow, lanky, slim). The other dancer was mesomorphic (medium built, athletic, ability to gain muscle easily). When comparing the girls, the instructor made it sound as if the mesomorphic girl was less of a dancer during that exercise compared to her counterpart. Automatically all sorts of things popped into my head as I am doing fondue’s and ron de jambe’s at the barre.  For one, the mesomorphic girl could go home and start down the road of eating disordered behavior. She could begin to hate her body and resent the fact that she is seen as “less than” for dance. Resentment against that other dancer could occur. The list goes on and on. As dance educators, we are suppose to instruct young girls in technique.Teach technique sound in kinesiology and physiology. Get past the whole body ideal. Every body is different. God made each of us one way. There is nothing we can change about ourselves anatomically (to the instructor who tried to get my feet to stop pronating, I AM A PRONATOR. LOOK AT MY X RAYS!). All we can do as dancers is strengthen our muscles to help aid our muscular imbalances, work on correct technique, listen, and keep on dancing.

One a similar but different note, I have encountered the evil downfall of most dancers/artists in general: Perfection. As a perfectionist who is trying to give up perfectionist tendencies, I spot these kids who are perfectionists in the making. In choreography class, they keep revising their phrase. They sport frustration on their faces. They will tell me they won’t perform their piece because they don’t want to be made fun of or it isn’t quite right. In rehearsal it is the kids that go above and beyond like Buzz Lightyear and  their technique begins to diminish because nothing is going right.  Perfection and dance go together like peanut butter and jelly. It is a hard wall to break in the dance community. I know in the height of my college dance career nothing was ever good enough. I could have had the best performance but something was always off. It ruined everything! I never got to revel in the full joy of performing. Now I see kids demonstrating those same behaviors, I cautiously say, “This is a positive environment. Your creations are wonderful because they are you. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfect. Perfection isn’t real. Honesty and truth are real.”

I try to be an example of what uber perfectionism can do to you. I am very open about my overtly controlled college life. How everything was planned. Everything I did had to be perfect. Nothing was out of line. It is no way to live. It is easier for me to be honest and real about my turn from perfectionism.  But ask me about who I feel about my body image and my answer won’t be as honest.

I say all this to these kids and yet I feel as if I am a hypocrite. I tell these young ladies to love who they are. To embrace their body and all that comes with it. Yet, I struggle EVERYDAY with my own body image. I hardly feel fit enough, or muscular enough. Or even dancer-y enough.  Even though my wise self knows the difference; Melvin (my ED from my previous post), jumps on my negative thought train.  I make sure I eat in front of them, so I practice what I preach even though sometimes the last thing I want to do is eat. Everyone tells me how beautiful I am, but yet, a part of me still doesn’t believe it.I just say “Thank You” and go one. Some days I feel more beautiful or fit than others and that is a big improvement. I even am proud of my accomplishments in dance most days.  All of this and it has been two years of recovery! I just always hope that these young women don’t think I am a hypocrite. I hope they see me as a story of inspiration. A story of triumph, and a story of love. That if I, and countless others can overcome this disease, that they can too. Or better yet, they can take mine and others words of wisdom and live an ED free life.

dance