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Bringing Up the Weight Word
How to talk to students about a touchy subject
by Nancy Wozny
An offhand comment from a teacher such as, “Gained a little weight?” can leave its mark on a young dancer. When Patricia Rozow heard those very words from her ballet instructor at the age of 15, something shifted in her thinking that contributed to a 15-year struggle with anorexia and bulimia. “I went from 113 pounds to 85 pounds,” recalls Rozow, a former dancer with Ballet West and Cincinnati Ballet. “That probably wasn’t what that teacher had in mind.”
Maintaining a healthy physique—not too heavy but not dangerously thin—is a reality of going pro as a dancer, and helping students commit to that ideal is one of a teacher’s many jobs. “A physically toned and sculpted body is a part of a dancer’s package, just like turnout, extension, and elevation,” says Rozow, now chair of the dance program at Cincinnati’s School for the Creative and Performing Arts. But the subject of losing (or gaining) weight to achieve that aesthetic can be extremely sensitive, particularly during the emotional minefield of the teen years, when the body is in flux and body image more vulnerable than ever. So what’s the best way to talk to students about their weight, without causing undue emotional, psychological, or physical harm? Dance Magazine spoke with school directors across the country to find out.
At Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy, you won’t find teachers making sly “slim down” comments at the barre. Shelly Power, associate director of the school, insists that teachers concerned about a dancer’s weight come to her first. At least three teachers need to bring up the same concern before Power calls for a one-on-one conversation with the student, which she does only with parental consent and notification. “We want to make sure it’s not just one person’s opinion,” she says. “These situations are best handled as a team, when the student knows they have support and access to resources that can help them make a change. That can’t happen with a remark in a hallway.”
Age and emotional maturity are other factors to consider. “I almost never bring up the subject with a child before the age of 15,” says Margaret Tracey, associate director of Boston Ballet School. “The body needs time to settle in. And if the discussion isn’t completely necessary, it’s not worth the trauma.” She also thinks about a dancer’s professional goals. “If I know they’re going on to a university to pursue another career, it just doesn’t make sense to start that conversation.” Like Power, Tracey keeps parents in the loop. “I need to know that the child is in a supportive environment,” she says. “Without that piece, we’re not going to get anywhere.”
Once she has decided to meet with a student, Tracey chooses her language carefully. She steers clear of the words “weight” or “fat” and never mentions a specific number of pounds to be gained or lost. Instead, she frames the conversation around being in the best shape possible. “I talk about dance being a visual art. You will be presenting yourself, so let’s figure out how you can be at your best,” she says. “And I never draw comparisons to other dancers. That can be very destructive.” Similarly, Power focuses on “physicality” (rather than “weight”) as “part of a larger set of requirements” for a dance career. She stresses the demands of partnering, and the aesthetic preferences of different choreographers, as reasons to stay fit. “It’s not just about getting skinny,” she says.
Helping dancers reach an acceptable weight means educating them about nutrition. Both Tracey and Power arrange for students who need assistance to work one on one with a nutritionist. “They learn to keep a food journal and receive an individualized eating plan, while not entirely giving up their favorite foods,” says Power. “What we give them isn’t a diet but a life-long strategy for health.” At Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet, group nutrition classes are also a regular offering for all students.
In contemporary dance, the pressure to look long and lean may be less intense, but staying sculpted and toned is just as necessary. As Denise Jefferson, director of The Ailey School, explains, “You’ll see all kinds of bodies in our two companies, but the fitness level is extremely high.” The school’s nutritionist, Marie Scioscia, offers a seven-week health and nutrition workshop for freshmen in the Ailey/Fordham BFA program and students dealing with weight issues, as well as in-depth one-on-one sessions. Her classes debunk common myths like low-carb diets. “Carbs are a dancer’s fuel,” she says. “Without them the body craves sugar. We also address portion size and timing of meals, to minimize nighttime eating.”
At the School for the Creative and Performing Arts, Rozow often talks about healthy eating during technique class. She also offers student-parent workshops taught by former dancer Judy Vogel. “We encourage parents to prepare healthy snacks,” she says. “When I see kids toting around a box of cereal all day, I get worried. I also stress that a diet isn’t what you eat to lose weight, but what you do to be physically and mentally fit.”
Staying in shape does not mean wasting away. A too-thin dancer requires immediate attention due to the long-term risks of eating disorders. “My alarm bells ring louder in this potentially dangerous situation,” says Tracey. “A dancer needs to know that their health is more important than being in class. We don’t take it lightly, and require a doctor’s note to return.” When Jefferson has concerns about a student rapidly losing weight, she either asks permission to call their parents, or, if less urgent, places them in a wellness workshop with Linda Hamilton, Dance Magazine advice columnist.
A dancer usually knows when she needs to work on her body. “Sometimes it’s almost a relief to have it out in the open,” says Tracey. "The student might decide not to make this their battle and pursue another career." Jefferson remembers a student who, after a long struggle with her weight, chose to study physical therapy. "We can't force students to make changes," she says. "Some will find ways to continue dancing where their weight is not an issue; those possibiities exist."
Whether it leads them forward in dance or into another field, grappling with a weight problem compels dancers to ask, "Can I do this? Do I want to do this?" Whatever they decide, the teacher's role is to guide and support them, not bring them down. Tracey sums up one of her goals: "I want them to come through this with their self-esteem intact."
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health in Houston.
Learning about nutrition in a seminar at Houston Ballet's summer intensive. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.
Do's & Don'ts: Getting More Grounded
By Jen Peters
“Get more grounded!” “Connect to the floor!” Sometimes it seems like teachers have a secret manual with these phrases as mantras. But what do these commands mean, and how can dancers attain such an elusive “grounded” quality? If you’ve trained mostly in classical ballet—and learned from a young age to “pull up”—finding a deep connection with the floor can be a challenge. It’s also one keystone to becoming a fluid, versatile mover. For advice on giving in to the ground, we spoke with E. Gaynell Sherrod, dance director and Dunham teacher at Florida A&M University; Rachel Berman, a stager of Paul Taylor’s work; and Jennifer Muller, artistic director of Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Do relax into your plié instead of pushing down or bending the knees with muscular tension. “Using your plié doesn’t mean just bending lower,” says Berman. A grounded plié gives in to gravity, or, as Muller says, “relaxes into the floor.” Think of the energy drawn from grounded pliés radiating outward from the core and shooting out past each fingertip. If you can begin to work like this, you’ll find it easier to move big and connect movement smoothly, in both contemporary and classical work.
Do investigate oppositional forces: down and up, weighted and light, bound and released. If you want to fall to the floor and roll right back up into multiple turns, you need a strong grounding to feed those upward balances and jumps. “You have to be connected downward through the feet and lower body, while also projecting upward through the top of the head and torso,” says Sherrod. Dancing grounded doesn’t mean dancing like “a ton of bricks.” The challenge is finding a polarity. Start with something basic like triplets to juxtapose sending energy down and up.
4 Do take your shoes off! While teaching Taylor’s Aureole at the New York International Ballet Competition this year, Berman asked her students to go barefoot to heighten their awareness of the floor. “Feel your whole foot on the ground and imagine what’s below you,” she says. Bare feet also allow you to dig into the floor rather than “skating on the surface,” says Muller.
Do actively use your imagination. The power of visualization is often overlooked. “I’ve worked with classical dancers who hang on to verticality or a muscular way of moving,” says Muller. “To help them understand the body’s relaxed state, I ask them to imagine being on a beach or sitting on a sofa. I have them think of lava flowing, rivers running, or unknitting that musculature. It helps to get very specific images in your mind.” Sherrod likes the image of a tall tree with deep roots, because if the roots disappear, the tree will fall.
Don't hold your breath. If the breath is held, the muscles are most likely held and unable to release into a grounded state. “Relax into anything that seems foreign, and breathe like in yoga!” says Sherrod. “Send breath through your entire body.”
Don't initiate movement from the extremities. Instead, use the core to shift the center of gravity. “Dancers must have a strong core to work effectively with gravity,” says Berman. She uses the Taylor “back exercise,” to help her students develop a weighted quality while moving from the center. “It starts with contracting and releasing, then spirals down to the floor and comes right back up. I tell dancers ‘Drip down and splat! Then twist and slide back up.’ ”
Don't fall back into muscle memory or the most comfortable movement approach. “Many dancers immediately translate contemporary movement into classical terms,” says Muller. But developing a new quality of movement means focusing your energy in unfamiliar ways, which may feel “wrong” at first. Sherrod stresses open-mindedness. “Ballet prepares the body to do a lot of things, if you stay open-minded,” she says. “Contemporary work is not alien to the ballet body!”
Don't confuse grounded with heavy or ungraceful. In attempts to look grounded, you many feel like you've gone too far and are flopping or pushing down into the floor instead of connecting with it. Remember, new skills require time and practice. But once you really find the floor, your dynamic range in all movement styles becomes endless. "Dynamics allow you to be far more expressive. You can be buoyant, lengthened, sinewy--anything you wish," says Muller. "When you're grounded, fluidity replaces delicacy."
Jen Peters is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine and a member of Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Across the Floor
Small-Town Performance Gives Back
Freeport, IL, is a rural town two hours from Chicago and two minutes from cornfields and cows. When dance teacher Jill Wagoner Johnson, a Juilliard graduate, moved to the community in 1991, a dance revolution began. She created and directed Freeport’s Studio 121, offering ballet and a Limón- and Graham-based modern class, and formed a company, New Expressions Dance Theatre. During Johnson’s 15 years as director, the school took in 500 students, many of whom studied there from age 5 until going off to college.
Last year, Johnson discovered she had lung cancer. A nonsmoker, she was shocked by the diagnosis, as were her students and the community. Former student Heidi Seals has organized a benefit concert in Johnson’s honor, with proceeds going toward The American Cancer Society. “Jill made a huge impact in all of our lives by opening doors to dance careers and other creative paths,” says Seals. The event, Dancers Against Cancer, takes place Oct. 17 at Freeport’s Masonic Temple.
Of the 16 alumni asked to perform (this writer among them), six have danced with companies, including Jennifer Muller/The Works, Gina Gibney Dance, Ivy Baldwin Dance, and the Merce Cunningham Repertory Understudy Group. Two of them recently founded their own companies: Enid Smith Dance in Chicago and Kimberly Young’s Extra-Sensory Pedestrians in NYC. Alumna Sarah Long took over Studio 121 as director in 2008.
“Several of my students matured into exceptional young artists and moved on to professional careers, which is terribly exciting and rewarding for me,” says Johnson. “But just as exciting has been seeing my other students apply the effort, discipline, and commitment they learned in dance to other areas of their lives.”
The benefit concert will not only celebrate our teacher and mentor; we will have a chance to give back the passion she gave to us. —Jen Peters
Revisiting a Time of Protest
With searing simplicity, Jane Dudley’s Harmonica Breakdown depicts a Dust Bowl woman bravely trudging through her life of poverty. Like many modern dancers in the 1930s, Dudley was part of the New Dance Group, a hotbed of dance dedicated to social reform. Seattle’s historically inclined Chamber Dance Company, in residence at the University of Washington, presents the 1938 solo, coached by Sheron Wray, who learned the three-minute dance directly from Dudley. Also on the program are Eve Gentry’s Tenant of the Street, about the homeless; Charles Weidman’s powerful Lynchtown; and Donald McKayle’s Dink’s Blues, about a chain gang. Completing the evening is Bill T. Jones’ exhilarating D-Man in the Waters. Oct. 22–25. —Wendy Perron