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By Katie Rolnick
Emily Cook Harrison, registered dietician at Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, talks about nutrition with pre-professional students. Photo by Kim Kenney, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
It’s a situation every dance teacher dreads—and one almost all will face. A young student starts to withdraw or becomes moody. Her body, once strong, begins to wither away and her muscle tone fades. When you touch her hands to adjust her port de bras, you feel that they’re cold and clammy. Or perhaps you notice her weight yo-yo, or see her making frequent and long trips to the bathroom. Eventually, you decide it’s time to say something.
As a dance teacher, approaching a student you suspect is struggling with an eating disorder can be vexing. “If you step in too soon, or too aggressively, the problem only gets worse,” says Mavis Staines, artistic director of Canada’s National Ballet School. The situation requires care and tact: You need to protect the student’s privacy and health, while expressing genuine concern. With a considered approach, you’ll be able to address this sensitive issue in a way that best helps a student to overcome her eating disorder and flourish as an artist.
Before talking to a young dancer, collect notes documenting any physical, psychological, or behavioral changes you’ve noticed. These objective observations will help you make a compassionate case when talking to her. “What you want to do is show your concerns without being critical or judgmental,” says Dance Magazine columnist Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., who serves on the New York State Department of Labor’s Child Performer Advisory Board to Prevent Eating Disorders. Tracking changes also helps to ensure that what you’re seeing is actually a problem, not just a result of natural fluctuations during adolescence. At Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education, dean Sharon Story addresses health concerns in tandem with faculty member and on-staff dietician Emily Cook Harrison, MS, RD, LD. “The first thing we do is talk about the signs the teacher has seen,” Harrison says. “Has there been dramatic weight loss or gain over the past year? It has to be over six months to a year—a month is too short.”
Once you’ve determined that you need to step in, be sure to have referrals lined up to present to the dancer. Eating disorders appear in many forms, and while you may observe symptoms in a student, only a medical professional can make a diagnosis. Many schools develop ongoing relationships with local doctors. NBS, for instance, has a group of eight consulting psychologists and psychiatrists. To find a reputable professional in your area who understands a dancer’s needs, Staines suggests contacting local dance companies for recommendations.
When the time comes to talk to the student, focus on the student’s health and development as a dancer. “You’re dealing with young people who are putting themselves on the line for their art form, and you want to be as supportive as possible,” says Cherylyn Lavagnino, chair of the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The approach is about making them understand that there are requirements for this career. They don’t need to be drastic: They’re about health, vitality, energy, and mental alertness. You don’t want a starved body or one that has more weight than it can fully articulate.”
At the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas, dance students take at least two dance classes every day in addition to a full academic course load and weekly rehearsals. When faculty talk to students about eating, they frame it in terms of the rigors of school and a professional dance career. “It’s about body care and how you get to the optimum level physically and mentally,” says Lily Weiss, the school’s dance coordinator. “What is too heavy and too thin is different for every body.”
It’s imperative that any conversation about health—and eating issues in particular—take place in private. Hamilton recommends talking with the student alone before contacting her parents. “You want to give the student a chance to try to deal with it,” she explains. “You’re trying to approach her in a respectful way to see if she’s on board.” With younger students, however, or those who live away from home on school premises, some teachers prefer to include parents in the discussion right away. “A parent wants to know that the school is on their side,” Harrison says.
Unfortunately, some parents won’t respond in a proactive manner. “Eating disorders tend to run in families,” Hamilton says, “so parents may be very defensive.” A parent may also react negatively because of other troubles at home—the very things, in fact, that may be contributing to a student’s disordered eating.
Hamilton recommends that schools have a policy that outlines the steps the teacher may take to address health concerns. This could include everything from contacting a dancer’s parents, to making treatment referrals or suggestions, to requiring a student to provide a physician’s note to verify that she’s healthy enough to dance. NBS asks all students and parents sign a contract that includes a section on nutrition and eating disorder prevention. It states, “If an eating disorder is identified, the student struggling with the disorder can only stay in the program if he/she, with family support, does focused work with the School’s eating disorder specialist and nutritional consultant.” While such language may seem exacting, Staines explains that it keeps everyone on the same page. “From the very first meeting, they’re aware that these are our protocols,” she says.
Hopefully, a student will be able to continue dancing while pursuing treatment. But if she does need to take a break, it’s vital that she be welcomed back to class with open arms. When one dancer at New York City Ballet sat out for part of a season to receive treatment for dietary issues, Hamilton says that ballet master in chief Peter Martins handled the situation discreetly and thoughtfully. Martins let the dancer and her specialist determine the right course of action. Because the dancer was underweight, the specialist set a healthy weight goal, and when the dancer met it she was allowed to dance again. “The dancer’s health was the most important thing,” Hamilton says. “His approach left a very positive impression on the company.”
Katie Rolnick is an associate editor at Dance Spirit and a contributing editor to Dance Teacher.