Advice For Dancers

August 21, 2007

My daughter’s ballet teacher has asked that she seek treatment for a possible eating disorder. She goes on and off crash diets, and her weight has frequently fluctuated more than 10 pounds over the last year. I’ve tried talking to her about eating healthily, but she won’t listen—I’m at my wit’s end. Should I send her to a psychologist? She is only 16.

Frantic Mother

Richmond, VA

It’s frightening to think your child might be struggling with an eating disorder, given the potential damage this can do. I’m glad that her dance teacher is being proactive. People with eating problems tend to deny them, but early warning signs can be a tip-off that something is wrong. Common symptoms include behavioral changes (skipped meals, use of gum or caffeine in place of food, frequent trips to the bathroom after eating); psychological changes (depression, lying about the amount and type of food ingested); and physical changes (gaunt collarbone and ribs, big weight fluctuations, red knuckles from induced vomiting). Teachers are often the first to suspect an eating problem, based on a dancer’s altered appearance in leotard and tights. As her parent, the next step is to get an evaluation from someone who specializes in eating disorders. Treatment (if needed) requires a team approach, involving a medical doctor, nutritionist, and psychotherapist. My advice is to contact the Renfrew Center, which offers expert help with this kind of disorder and has a national referral network as well as various treatment facilities (800-RENFREW). The sooner you address an eating problem, the better the long-term results.


You’ve often said that everyone makes mistakes in dance class. While I believed you, I still felt I had to be perfect to get into a dance company. Imagine my surprise when I got to watch a company class and my idols were making mistakes. Wow! If they can be professionals, maybe there’s room up there for me too.


Brooklyn, NY

You bet! Just watch out for your perfectionism. While most professional dancers have extremely high standards, the ones who view mistakes as a normal part of the learning process do best. They can try out new steps and test their limits without losing self-esteem. They also know the value of taking care of their bodies, and make a point of working in regenerative activities, such as massage, helping them to remain injury-free. So try to set challenging but reasonable goals, and listen to your body. It can mean the difference between reaching your potential or succumbing to unrealistic standards and overwork. Remember, dance companies are not looking for automatons. They want responsible performers who use their technique as a stepping-stone to an artistic performance.


I absolutely adore ballet. The problem is that my knees crack and constantly cause me pain. How can I prevent injury?

Crackly Knees

Fort Worth, TX

Dance medicine specialists tell me that knees can hurt from internal damage, external force on the joint, or a combination of both. You need to find out what’s causing the problem. Painful cracking or swelling can occur in dancers who tear their cartilage by forcing turnout from below the knee. Joint pain also can develop when you have patellar malalignment, where the kneecap veers off to the side instead of tracking up and down when you do a step like a piqué turn. Then, there are the hypermobile dancers with loose knees that make them prone to painful subluxations when the kneecap momentarily pops out of the joint. An orthopedist can evaluate your knee joints, as well as any difficulties with alignment, placement, turnout, and strength. Once you have a diagnosis, you probably can manage knee problems with physical therapy. And those dancers with painless cracking joints shouldn’t worry! It’s extremely common in dancers and usually harmless.


What can I do to get in shape before going into an advanced dance program? I’ve been off for two months because of a stress fracture that’s finally healed. I’ve done floor barre and P.T. exercises, but no dance classes. I’m almost afraid to start after this long. Do you have any suggestions?


Santa Monica, CA

Get back in shape gradually through cross-training. Hatha yoga, Pilates, or Gyrotonic can help dancers to regain strength and flexibility without unduly stressing their bodies. Aerobic training can also build much needed stamina. Try to do both kinds of exercise three times a week. Gradually add easy dance classes into your routine. Adult beginner’s classes are a good way to start back, even for professional dancers. Increase the amount and level of training as your body adjusts. Soon you should be prepared to handle an advanced dance schedule.