The Gray Area That's Not Quite an Eating Disorder, But Is Common Among Dancers
When the cat food started smelling good, I knew I had a problem.
I'd always considered eating disorders to be extreme. Someone who never eats. Someone who weighs less than 100 pounds. Someone who gets hospitalized.
My behavior didn't fit the mental health definition of an eating disorder. I ignored it because I didn't know how to articulate it. It took me several years after the cat food smelled good to have the language to describe what was going on.
It Started as An Act of Teenage Rebellion That Had Nothing to Do With Weight
For the author (above), being vegetarian turned into an excuse to get out of eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto
I had decided to become a vegetarian at 17. It started in earnest as a way to protest my dad hunting birds and bringing them home for my family to eat. First, I wrote off the meat he hunted. Then (enjoying the rebellion of it), I wrote off all meat.
It was circa 2001 and at that time books like "Fast Food Nation" were on the rise. I read up on the inhumane practices of the meat industry. I morally got behind my choice to be a vegetarian.
As a bit of time passed, I began to use my vegetarianism as a way to write off eating a healthy amount of food. "Oh, I can't eat that" or "I'll meet up after dinner" were frequent responses that came out of my mouth in my early 20s. Vegetarianism had become my excuse. It was a socially acceptable way to get out of eating.
Don't get me wrong—to this day I love animals and have met some vegetarians who are informed and balanced about their nutrition. That was not my case.
Having rice and vegetables for every meal, I thought I was eating like an enlightened monk. I did no research on what I needed to eat as a substitute for meat. But I had a well-rehearsed (and well-researched) speech ready about the meat industry's treatment of animals to defend my choices. I was often light-headed, and not from being enlightened. It was because I was malnourished.
Also, I was a professional dancer. Somehow, I didn't connect the dots. I knew about how many dancers had eating disorders. But I've honestly never met one dancer who doesn't obsess over their body. Seeing my behavior as fairly normal, I thought it'd be weird to ask for help.
Just Because It’s Not Classified as An Eating Disorder Doesn’t Mean It’s Safe
Thinking about food all the time is an early sign of disordered eating. Photo by Eszter Biro.
New York City-based dietician Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, recently explained to me that there is a difference between eating disorders and disordered eating. An eating disorder has a set of diagnostic criteria and is diagnosable by a doctor. Disordered eating encompasses various behaviors such as restricting food intake, restricting food groups, having rigid rules, bingeing, purging and over-exercising. Disordered eating can be really complicated, but it's technically not diagnosable by the mental health standards manual, the DSM-5.
"Disordered eating may be more likely to happen in those with certain personality traits, like perfectionism," Hogan said. "It's also more likely if you already have other emotional turmoil going on. Recent review studies and surveys on disordered eating have found that most women exhibit disordered eating behaviors at some point in their lives."
"Most women?" I asked. She confirmed: About 75 percent. "This is a newer finding that is currently being looked into in a deeper way now." Hogan told me that women in aesthetic-based sports such as dance, gymnastics, running, ice skating and diving are at the most risk.
"Early signals for disordered eating include thinking about food all the time, finding ways to cut out foods or food groups from your diet, if your relationship with food affects your social life, or if you have low energy, aches and pains," she said.
Hogan acknowledges that, for dancers, it can be to discern if low energy, aches and pains are from their activity or a lack of nourishment. "Losing your period is a clear sign that you may not be eating enough to fuel your activity and that your body is under a significant amount of stress because of this energy deficiency," she says. This can put you at risk of injury, especially bone injuries.
Dancers Are Three Times as Likely to Have Disordered Eating Patterns
Since she got healthier, the author has noticed how many other dancers struggle in the gray area of disordered eating. Photo courtesy Tenuto
I rationalized my own disordered eating as, "I am still eating. I eat healthy food. I eat three meals per day." I didn't know how much more I needed to eat because I was dancing six to eight hours a day. I also didn't try to learn. Instead, I was restricting an entire food group from my diet for a non-health-based reason.
I also became really into looking as thin and as long as I could—the idealized version of a dancer body. Hogan says that research shows dancers are as much as three times more likely than other people to exhibit disordered eating patterns.
That afternoon when I fed my cat wet food, I actually started to drool. I was about seven years into being a vegetarian. In that moment, I knew I had to eat meat again. I called my family and coordinated a barbecue with some "organic, grass fed-only" hamburgers. I plowed through my first hamburger and felt a surge of energy. My body was like "Finally! Thank you."
That first barbecue was more than 8 years ago. Since then, I've noticed a ton of other dancers whose relationships to food aren't extreme disorders, but they live in the gray area. Maybe it's over exercising. Maybe it's no food after 7 pm. Coffee after every meal to stimulate digestion. Hopping on the most recent fad diets. Or eliminating gluten when it's not a health concern.
Whatever it is, know that there are so many people with you.
If you're ready to seek help, Hogan warns that not all physicians understand disordered eating or know how to treat patients exhibiting symptoms. She suggests seeing a registered dietitian and/or a therapist. "A specialized professional can help you get to the root of why these behaviors are happening," she says, "and eventually, understand how to better nourish your body."
For choreographer Raja Feather Kelly, music is simple: "There's good music and there's bad music and I love good music and I love to hate bad music."
But, true to form, Kelly—whose past few months have included choreographing the Skittles Super Bowl musical and earning one of our first-ever Harkness Promise Awards—had some surprises up his sleeve when he made us a playlist he describes as "for moody Geminis who work over 12 hours a day and need a playlist that can shuffle and never disappoint."
Though the playlist has some whiplash-inducing twists and turns—from Coheed and Cambria to Carly Rae Jepsen to Missy Elliott to Schubert—there is a through-line: "Music that makes you feel like you're in your own movie. I love walking through the street feeling like I'm on a runway, living my best life."
Every dancer's nutrition goals are different. Maybe you're trying to go vegan, or maybe you want to cook your own dinner more often. No matter what your personal objectives are—or whether you work with a dietitian—there are all kinds of apps that can help you make smart decisions at the tap of a button.
The lack of female leaders in ballet is an old conversation. But a just-launched website, called the Dance Data Project, has brought something new to the discussion: actual numbers, not just anecdotal evidence.
Whether she's performing on stage, in music videos, or on television, French electro-pop sensation Chris (formerly known as Christine and the Queens) never seems to stop moving.
Building a full-length ballet from scratch is an intense process. For the world premiere of Anna Karenina, a collaboration between The Joffrey Ballet and The Australian Ballet, that meant original choreography by Yuri Possokhov, a brand-new score by Ilya Demutsky, costume and set designs by Tom Pye and lighting designs by David Finn.
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Growing up, I never saw a problem with my dancing and neither did my Muslim-Egyptian dad or my non-Muslim, American mom. They raised me to understand that the core principles of Islam, of any religion, are meant to help us be better people. When I married my Pakistani husband, who comes from a more conservative approach to Islam, I suddenly encountered perceptions of dance that made me question everything: Is it okay to expose a lot of skin? Is it wrong to dance with other men? Is dance inherently sexual? What guidelines come from our holy book, the Quran, and what are cultural views that have become entwined in Islam?
When Thomas Forster isn't in the gym doing his own workout, he's often coaching his colleagues.
Two years ago, the American Ballet Theatre soloist got a personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Now he trains fellow ABT members and teaches the ABT Studio Company a strength and conditioning class alongside fellow ABT soloist Roman Zhurbin.
He shared five of his top tips for getting into top shape.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
Since its founding in 1999, more than 80,000 ballet dancers have participated in Youth America Grand Prix events. While more than 450 alumni are currently dancing in companies across the world, the vast majority—tens of thousands—never turn that professional corner. And these are just the statistics from one competition.
"You may have the best teacher in the world and the best work ethic and be so committed, and still not make it," says YAGP founder Larissa Saveliev. "I have seen so many extremely talented dancers end up not having enough motivation and mental strength, not having the right body type, not getting into the right company at the right time or getting injured at the wrong moment. You need so many factors, and some of these are out of your hands."
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.