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By Khara Hanlon
Six dancers on their body-image struggles
I’m too fat. My thighs aren’t muscular enough. My thighs are too muscular. I hate myself. I’ll never be a dancer. Why can’t I have her body?
If you have negative thoughts about yourself racing through your head, you’re not alone. But you aren’t accomplishing anything except beating yourself down. There isn’t a professional dancer who thinks they have a perfect body. You’re dealt certain cards in life. Genetics is one of them. How you play your hand is your choice. You can wallow, wishing you were different, or you can make the most of your special gifts.
We spoke with six professional dancers who have struggled with body issues. They faced their difficulties and came through with a greater sense of self-appreciation. They did it; so can you.
Ashley Roland, artistic director, BodyVox
“In high school I went to Ailey to train and I did a lot of sports, like track and diving. I spent a year at a dance college before I joined MOMIX and co-founded ISO Dance. I was always really thankful for the athlete’s body I was given. I don’t have the best point; I don’t have cashew feet. I have a long, extended, straight point. It’s strong but it isn’t a beautiful ballet foot.
I’m also very curvy for a dancer. I have big breasts and ample buttocks. There was a period in my life when I wanted to dance with Pilobolus. They did a lot of stuff where a woman would be topless and it was so beautiful. I always thought I couldn’t go out onstage topless because my breasts would be a distraction from the beauty of the piece.
The nice thing for me is that I’ve always made my own choreography and costuming. I’m very comfortable with my body now. I love my curves. I don’t regret having them; I just choose to do other stuff with my choreography and my costuming.
While I was in college I encountered a lot of classmates with eating disorders. When you are young you can get caught up in thinking it’s the thing to do. I tried bulimia for a month and it was ridiculous. I wasn’t even very good at it. It was a horrible thing. I wasn’t smart enough to know about the side effects. I was caught up in the frenzy of what a lot of my contemporaries were doing.”
Ashley Roland of BodyVox in a costume of her own devising. Photo by Lois Greenfield.
Sarah Hay, coryphée, Semperoper Ballett
“In the past I was quite negative about my body because I am on the curvier side. I still struggle with insecurity. Some days I get so frustrated I can’t even look at myself too long. But I try to stay strong and remember that I made it this far.
When I was a student, teachers were constantly getting on me about turnout. It made me defensive. I was trying really hard and ended up forcing it. That led to some knee pain and a lot of stress and frustration. Just saying ‘Sarah turn out!’ wasn’t really a good way to tell me how. Forcing it was actually making it tighter. One teacher told me that I didn’t have a sufficient turnout to be a ballerina and suggested I try modern. That was a hard blow to my confidence.
It wasn’t until I was 16 and met Susan Jaffe that I started to understand what it actually meant to turn out. I stopped forcing and began from square one. I had to realign my body and learn how to use the right muscles. When we see each other now we always joke about how she would stare at me from behind for hours telling me to engage. She saved my career.”
Sarah Hay in Balanchine’s Coppélia, at Semperoper Ballett. Photo by Ian Whalen, Courtesy Hay.
Melissa Anduiza, North Carolina Dance Theatre
“I’m a big woman, just genetically. I’m 5'7". My dad is Cuban and 6'5"; my mom is Filipino and 5'. I got Dad’s genes. I come from a household of really good home-cooked meals. We were taught to eat everything on our plate.
My big problem is always my tummy area. I’ve never had a tiny waist or the thin, fragile look. I’ve always been broad on top. I have a wide rib cage and broad shoulders and a square waist. My body is like a “V” going up. I had insecurity about not looking like the smaller girls I danced with.
I know what it’s like to be in a dark place with your weight. It affects your dancing and how you are around other people. You get unhappy with yourself. I would be in shape, then we’d go on break and I’d eat a lot and gain weight. I could eat a whole baguette by myself. When I’d come back I’d weigh eight pounds more than I did, and it would take three to four weeks to get in shape again. My weight was a roller coaster. Even when I was heavier, my legs were still skinny. It all goes to my face and stomach.
It’s only been the past two years that I’ve found a program of clean eating. Protein shakes helped me sculpt my body and put on muscle. I put spinach and kale into smoothies and they still taste like strawberries. I also do a lot of conditioning in rehearsals on the side. Pilates core work definitely helps.”
Melissa Anduiza as the Lilac Fairy in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Peter Zay, Courtesy NCDT.
Xiao Nan Yu, principal, National Ballet of Canada
“When I joined the company I didn’t have much strength. I could lift my leg to 180 degrees but couldn’t hold it there for a long period. I’m very flexible and that’s wonderful when you are on your own, but it’s harder when it comes to working with a partner. I didn’t have the strength to work with a guy, so strengthening became part of my daily routine. I did Pilates, yoga, and any kind of exercise to help with strengthening so I wouldn’t overuse my flexibility.
Another weakness for me is fast footwork. I can do lyrical things really easily—I can do adagio forever. But I have long legs, and small, quick jumps are something I have to always work on. I don’t have a quick muscle in my calves.”
Xiao Nan Yu as Giselle. Photo by David Cooper, Courtesy NBC.
Rachel Sherak, Trey McIntyre Project
“I was diagnosed with scoliosis in sixth grade and it worsened pretty rapidly that year. I wore a back brace for five years through high school and only took it off to dance. At the School of American Ballet I felt so different than everyone else. I was never very flexible. I have really tight hips, and I thought it meant I couldn’t be beautiful. But it wasn’t something I could fix. It felt like there was something wrong with me.
I overcame a crazy obstacle. It took me a while to embrace the fact that my differences are what make me unique. They shape the way I express myself. That’s where the beauty lies. I wasn’t flexible, but I was powerful. It doesn’t make me the best White Swan, but it helped me transition to contemporary ballet. I can jump high. I can stay strong throughout a really long ballet.”
Rachel Sherak in Trey McIntyre’s Arrantza. Photo by Trey McIntyre, Courtesy TMP.
Mollie Sansone, Nashville Ballet
“I’m short and compact. Sometimes it’s an advantage: You always get to be put in the front. But I feel like if I had a longer, leaner body I’d have better extension. I have a natural quick rhythm, but to fill out the music with slow-moving graceful things is really challenging. I do feel like I’m strong because my body is so together. I can use my core easily.
One area I need to work on is partnering. If I’m always quick and doing things on my own because I’m strong, then it’s hard for the guy to do his job. You have to lift up out of your legs and do slow, lofty turns instead of quick ones. You have to create space for the movement to translate. Yoga helps my body to stretch and relax and not always crunch, crunch, crunch.
I also don’t have great feet or the lines I wish I had. I need to step back and realize that other people can’t necessarily do what I can do. As a professional with bad feet, you just have to make sure you are making the lines that look good on you. Don’t compare yourselves to others, because what they are doing might not look good on you.”
Mollie Sansone as the Blue Bird in Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Marianne Leach, Courtesy Nashville Ballet
Khara Hanlon is a DM associate editor.
Do as They Say, Not as They Did
• “Don’t let thoughts control your body language. Don’t show that you are insecure and maybe you will fool yourself into being secure.” —Sarah Hay
• “You can always improve areas you are weak in. But there is a limit to what you can do physically in terms of changing. Be comfortable in your own skin. If you are insecure with your body, nobody else is going to like it. You have to say, ‘This is who I am.’ ”—Xiao Nan Yu
• “I learned that imperfections are not to be feared. There is no one mold. Embrace yourself as an artist; that’s what makes you feel beautiful.” —Rachel Sherak