In 1999, the National Ballet School of Canada held an international conference called “Not Just Any Body: Advancing Health, Well-being and Excellence in Dance and Dancers.” The conference addressed the issues surrounding dancers’ physical and mental health and well-being, which had never been discussed in such length before.
“The two basic elements I feel are necessary for longevity in a dancer are physical and emotional health, and a well-fed soul,” said Coleen Davis, former Dutch National Ballet principal dancer, at the conference. “If these two elements are nurtured then the dancer will be a whole person with the ability to perform to their optimum, enjoy their life in and out of the theatre and cope with the ups and downs they encounter.”
But despite these efforts, body diversity in the dance world still seems to be evolving slowly, and dancers, instructors and health professionals want the narrative to change.
Berneche said the dance world should focus more on the strength and the power of a dancer rather than the dancer’s body build.
“There’s a lot of pressure, in general, on people to change their bodies and look a certain way,” she said. “And really you can’t really change the way your body looks anymore than you can change your shoe size or your height.”
This change, according to Berneche, begins with changing the narrative dancers have about food.
“You need food to perform and for your muscles and body to recover,” she said. “Food is an amazing thing that helps us do what we need to do versus food is something to eat as little as possible. That’s not really going to help your performance in any way.”
And the new generation of teachers can help change this narrative, too, according to Laberge-Côté. Through new coaching methods and an awareness of the power of language used to teach, instructors are helping students develop healthier mindsets.
“It’s an ongoing process because the students change,” he said. “Even if you have a great way of teaching that has worked for 10 years, a decade later, the outside world has changed. A new generation of students arrive with different concerns, different perspectives and different ways of understanding.”
We have to starve and cleanse ourselves before competition season for what? So we can look good for three minutes on stage.
Shannon said she thinks changing the narrative begins with having wellness programs tailored to artists. While post-secondary institutions such as Ryerson and York University have mental health and well-being programs, they are designed for the general population of students and not dancers in particular.
To fill the void, Shannon said she and her dance peers help each other through discussion. Although she said she knows dance’s body-image preoccupation will be slow to change, it is important to keep the conversation going.
“I think that it’s really important to feel good about your body being a dancer,” she said. “Because our bodies are our form of producing art, and if we’re not feeling our best we should be able to speak about how we’re feeling.”
After two years of intense therapy and being an outpatient at age 14, Kelsey recovered from her eating disorder. Now, at 21, she looks back on her experience and recognizes that, ironically, the thing that contributed to her anorexia was also the reason she pulled through.
Once the studio faculty began to notice the extremity of her eating disorder, one of Kelsey’s teachers gave her an ultimatum. If she didn’t get better, Kelsey wouldn’t be allowed to compete in the next dance season.
“And that was the thing that shifted my perspective,” she said. “I could hear that I would die, that my organs were failing and nothing was working inside my body and shrug it off. But then my dance teacher said, ‘You’re not competing next year unless you get a hold on this,’ and that was it.”
Kelsey no longer dances competitively, as most dancers graduate from their studios at the same time they graduate high school, but she still dances in her own time. She said the industry can change its body-image preoccupation by thinking about the art of dance as exactly that — an art that is beautiful.
“It’s a very toxic narrative that we teach,” she said. “That we have to starve and cleanse ourselves before competition season for what? So we can look good for three minutes on stage.”