Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan.
One of my most vivid memories from my time as a pre-professional ballet student is a particular Thanksgiving that I had come home to spend with my family. The table was piled high with my parents’ efforts: a huge turkey, multiple sorts of potatoes, deviled eggs with paprika topping. I sat quietly in my corner seat, pushing an olive around my plate, collecting my meager portions into little piles, when my father left his chair and approached me. As he knelt down beside me, my heart started to pound. Everyone was looking at me. “Please, Katie,” he said, his voice low and desperate, “it’s Thanksgiving.” Within a year of this meal, I would be diagnosed with the first of a series of stress fractures that would haunt me for the rest of my dancing life.
I was not alone. Many dancers cannot and will not eat like normal people. But where is the line between the dedicated dancer making necessary sacrifices with food and the obsessive dancer with a disorder? A lot of people believe that the line is fairly simple: You either have an eating disorder, or you don’t. But the daily eating habits of some dancers fall into a disordered pattern and can be almost as dangerous as full-blown anorexia or bulimia.
There are several reasons why dancers are more susceptible to disordered eating than nondancers. The first and most obvious is their need to be thin in the ethereal world of ballet. According to Roberta Anding, registered dietitian for Houston Ballet, most dancers weigh only 85 to 90 percent of what is considered ideal body-weight. She says that level of leanness can lower the metabolic rate so that it takes fewer calories to maintain it.
Peggy Otto Swistak, nutritionist at Pacific Northwest Ballet, says another reason is the personality traits of the typical dancer. “Dancers are perfectionists in many aspects of their lives,” she says. “In school they’re straight-A students, they’re the perfect friends, the perfect daughter. Even in their cleanliness, their clothes—everything is perfect. They almost think their eating has to be that way, too.”
This tendency is something Dr. Marcia Laviage, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, sees repeatedly in her practice. “We tend to see an anxious temperament, they lean towards perfectionism, they want to perform at the highest level.”
Ultimately, an eating problem is mentally focused. “A disordered relationship sees food as an enemy. A healthy relationship sees food as something that’s necessary,” Laviage says. “A disorder is when behaviors or thoughts or feelings have become so unhealthy that they interfere with one’s daily life.”
I counted calories so much that it upset my nondancing friends and created barriers between us. I talked constantly about how out of shape or soft I was. I will never forget when a dear friend of mine, who was naturally heavy, erupted into tears because of my self-defacing comments. She pulled me over to the mirror and said, “Look, how do you think it makes everyone else feel when you say this stuff about yourself?” My fixation on food turned me into someone people didn’t want to be around.
My refusal to eat was a distraction that caused fights in my family, spurred on by their concern for my health and my defensive stance that they just didn’t understand. Birthdays, holidays, and weddings became joyless and stressful.
The kind of record-keeping I was involved in would have been a red flag for Anding. “There’s a difference between grabbing a handful of carrots to eat in your lunch and counting them out. Two dancers may eat exactly the same meal, but for one it’s health promoting and for the other it’s not.”
It may seem like an unfair distinction because as a dancer, it’s part of your job to control what you eat. But how you make your food choices reveals whether or not you’ve fallen into disordered eating patterns. Leslie Bonci, nutritionist at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, feels that the line is distinguished by whether you’re making food choices that are selective or restrictive. “A dancer may decide that she isn’t going to have a bagel sandwich because it is a little excessive calorically, but she may decide to do a wrap or a pita instead. That’s being selective,” she says with approval. “Somebody who’s restricting may decide across the board, no carbs.”
For both Anding and Swistak, the line between “normal” and “disordered” eating has a name: orthorexia (“correct appetite”). While it hasn’t yet received its own listing as an eating disorder in the DSM (the official manual of mental disorders for medical professionals), its relevance to the dance world should not be ignored. Orthorexics are obsessed with eating “perfectly,” even when their idea of perfect eating isn’t nutritionally sound—and it’s becoming more prevalent.
“They may be eating perfectly,” says Swistak, “but it’s just not enough calories for them at their growth or activity level. It’s not normal to say, ‘I’m never going to eat ice cream, ever—or have a brownie, or eat pizza with my friends.’ ”
Swistak sees signs of orthorexia when young dancers keep overly meticulous track of their food intake. “They have it precisely written down—in different colors of ink and it’s perfect. Everything is lined up. They might even write down how many calories are in the three crackers they ate. That’s on the verge of an eating disorder,” she cautions.
To Anding, orthorexia is a means of eliminating foods you are afraid to eat by claiming health benefits. “It’s food elitism that is under the guise of ‘I want to eat healthy,’ ” she says. “But what you’re doing is essentially restricting the foods you eat, not necessarily because of a true health belief, but to mask things,” she says. “If I tell you that I’m gluten intolerant, then you’re not going to offer me a slice of bread because you’re going to respect my food choice,” she says.
Eliminating certain foods from your diet completely, or not getting a high enough caloric intake, can have dangerous results and even cause malnutrition. One day you’re fine; the next you’re injured or sick, asking, “What happened?” Anding says that some diets with self-imposed rules create nutrient holes, like lack of protein or vitamin D, that are exposed when the body is stressed. (For a balanced diet, see the American Dietetic Association’s website, www.eatright.org.) “Malnutrition can cause fatigue that creates stress fractures and other things that dancers can’t quite rally from.”
Dancers are impressionable when it comes to dieting methods. Swistak wants to educate them about orthorexia, but worries that they will use the information as a smoke screen instead of a warning. “Dancers are more health conscious than normal people and they talk a lot,” she says. “One person tries something new to lose weight and then they’re all doing it.” Swistak reminds PNB members that their ultimate goal is to dance well and that disordered eating compromises their dancing.
While orthorexia may not have a DSM classification, it is widely agreed that orthorexic behaviors can be a gateway to—or a screen to cover up—a full-blown eating disorder like anorexia nervosa. Once that line has been crossed, it’s imperative to put a medical team into place to deal with the disease. “An eating disorder is primarily a mental health concern with medical and nutritional consequences,” warns Anding. “If you don’t deal with the underlying stress, you’re using a Band-Aid when you need a surgeon.”
Laviage echoes the idea of a root cause, pointing out that a long-term solution is rarely possible without psychological help. “The thought processes that go into disordered eating become so ingrained and inflexible that they won’t resolve on their own. Medically we can force-feed somebody and physically they’ll feel better,” she says, “but the fear about food is still there, and that’s what we need to target.”
When you’re confronted with the possibility of a friend, colleague, or student developing an eating disorder, there are specific changes to look for. A dancer may show signs of malnutrition—loss of period, low heart rate, and lowered body temperature—and perhaps mood changes as well. “They become more grumpy, more anxious, more irritable, sometimes all three,” says Bonci. Even with these telltale signs, however, one shouldn’t jump to conclusions. All the experts I interviewed recommended addressing the person with concern, but without sounding accusatory.
A healthy relationship with food is vital to a successful career as a dancer. Without the foundation of a well-nourished body, your long-term stamina could be in jeopardy. And while it is easy to focus on the immediate desire to be skinny tomorrow—or by the time Swan Lake opens—you need to be patient. Your body is a delicate thing and your only instrument.
I spent my critical training years fixated on food. My negative attitude toward eating caused me more than injury; it affected my friendships and my family as well. Even after I began to eat in a healthier way, the fear of what every bite would do to my body remained. Eventually, I found my way out of this tunnel, but I wish I had spent those years focused on what really mattered—dancing. Today, with more information out there and greater awareness among teachers, I think that young dancers will have more help in their struggle to maintain a beautiful dancer’s body—safely.
Kathleen McGuire writes about dance from her home in Pittsburgh, PA.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
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What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."