Tracking counts and calories: The harsh reality of the dance world on young bodies and minds
BY EMMA HUERTA
Dancers: the “perfect” beings who can move their bodies in seemingly effortless ways, all while conveying meaning and a story.
However, behind the stage curtain is an even deeper story— one that goes beyond the beauty found in the art of dance and encapsulates the darkest secrets these dancers are forced to keep inside, despite the deterioration of their minds in the process: body image.
Since the early beginnings of the dance world, especially that of competitive dance, body image has been a hot, often taboo topic, regardless of the fact that it requires immediate attention.
“There’s an ideal image of ballerinas: the girls who have [a] skinny waist [and] long legs,” junior Lea Lanker, who danced for about 10 years, said. “If you want to make it big in the dance world, that is something people look for, maybe not always, but that’s just the way it [usually] is.”
As dancers work hard in their classes and rehearsals, they are constantly forced to look at their reflection. After all, the premise of their art form is reaching physical perfection for performances while also maintaining musical coordination and grace. Such a combination is what makes it so difficult.
“It’s hard to not compare yourself to others.”
“I think in the dance world, lots of girls are constantly comparing themselves to others because of the environment we’re in,” sophomore Breckyn Mayer, who has been dancing styles from hip hop to ballet for 13 years, said. “At competitions and showcases, the outfits we wear expose ourselves a lot, and it’s hard to not compare yourself to others [because of this].
Another reason why there is this harsh reality for young dancers is that this type of pressure has been in the dance world for a long time. For centuries, the stereotypical ballerina figurine has been pressured on young, aspiring students. Some dancers even claim that this issue has been passed down, generation to generation.
“I know many teachers emphasize how in real-world auditions you get cut or kept based purely on your body type,” junior and current dancer Donna Nesselroth said. “The favoritism [of] longer, leaner looking girls is not a new thing; it comes from generations of old-school dance teachers embedding the bias into the minds of their students.”
This pressure massively contributes to the high levels of intense competitiveness in the field of dance. Although dancers form friendships and close bonds with each other during the long hours of rehearsal, there exists a very tense atmosphere when it comes down to auditions for important roles or even company employment. This often leads to unhealthy comparisons and rivalries between peers.
Research shows that dancers ages 11-15 have the highest risk of developing an eating disorder.
“Judgment and comparison [are] everywhere within the world of dance, and I think that’s a huge part of body image,” Lanker said. “I used to look at other girls and think, ‘If I looked like that, then maybe I’d be better.’ It really damages your self-esteem, especially when you’re [in] class to enjoy yourself and grow. You can’t do that when you’re constantly worrying about what you look like and trying to be like someone else.”
Outside of the studio walls, the problem of body image runs even deeper, seeping into the professional world and even deciding the fate of hopeful company dancers. Not only is one’s body type a deciding factor in auditions for prestigious dance jobs and roles, but it also can determine whether a dancer keeps their job.
Take the case of Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther. In 1997, Guenther died suddenly on a family vacation at the young age of 22. The cause of her death? Guenther weighed a mere 93 pounds at her height of 5’6”, which the harshness of the ballet world is to blame for.
However, the issue is not only impacting dancers with professional dance careers. In fact, research shows that dancers ages 11-15 have the highest risk of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating.
“[Dancers] deserve the right to know they can do whatever they want regardless of what they look like.”
Dancers often encounter a lack of helpful resources when it comes to body image issues. For example, some dance teachers may make negative comments on dancers’ bodies during rehearsals and social media posts can emphasize the seemingly “perfect” dancer body. This can perpetuate and even promote dancers’ unhealthy habits.
“I think it has definitely evolved with social media and the age of the Internet because pictures are constantly being taken and you can always look back on how you look,” Mayer said. “It’s stemmed from mental health also because people go through a lot of things and us dancers express that through our craft. It’s hard to want to share your art when you don’t feel good enough to show anyone; it’s a constant battle.”
So, how can this issue be solved? Primarily, the solution requires the promotion of healthy habits. In modern times, this may entail wide-reaching educational programs or organizations. For example, Munchies, the food network by Vice, made a video with American Contemporary Ballet dancer Theresa Farrell, in which she explains how she eats both healthy and delicious things, all while maintaining a healthy figure.
Videos like these, as well as pamphlets, other organizations and more education overall, could be the key to making sure dancers are making the right nutritional decisions, therefore building themselves to be healthier both physically and mentally in the long run.
“I know there are resources out there, but there aren’t enough,” Nesselroth said. “[Dancers] deserve the right to know they can do whatever they want regardless of what they look like, and it’s so important to spread that message so everybody who needs to hear it can hear it.”
Photo by Emma Huerta