“If you don’t start to help yourself, Kelsey, you will be dead in under 10 years.”

Well, at least I’ll be skinny, thought 12-year-old Kelsey DeMelo, who had recently been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa.

Perched atop a leather chair in an Oakville therapist’s office, Kelsey’s mind flashed back to that dreaded time of year — costume measurement week. She remembers being in the stuffy ballet studio at the long wooden barre, La Spagnola flowing around the room through the speakers in the space’s four corners, warming up for the first day of her 20-hour rehearsal week. Competition season was quickly approaching and it was time for the company’s dancers to be measured for costumes.

The dance teacher entered the studio, calling upon Kelsey and ushering her into another room in the hallway. On the floor lay a white measuring tape and a clipboard with numbers on it. As Kelsey stepped toward her teacher, her body exposed in nothing but a black sports bra and Lululemon shorts, she looked down at the clipboard containing the rest of her classmates’ measurements.

In that moment, Kelsey said she registered the fact that her hips were bigger than her friend Sam’s.

“I remember seeing that chart and it bugging me, but not really knowing why,” she said. “It was really easy to get caught up in a number even at age 12.”

Dance is and has always been an art fixated on appearances. In the 20th century, George Balanchine, the founder of the School of American Ballet, preferred ballerinas who had a straight body and long limbs. A biography on Balanchine described him as someone who would go around tapping dancers’ chests saying, “Must see the bones.”

This preference introduced the term “Balanchine body,” which many people associate with dancers to this day. A leaner ballerina looks more graceful on stage. A leaner ballerina is easier to lift. For Kelsey, a leaner ballerina was what she wanted to be at all costs.

Scroll through the points to see the qualities of a Balanchine ballerina. Article continues after multimedia.

“The pressure to maintain or get into this small range body size is quite high because your performance or value in the profession is determined by that — or, at least that’s what they make you feel,” said Tara Miller, a holistic nutritionist from Toronto.

Not surprisingly, as a study from 2013 suggests almost one-fifth of dance students, particularly ballerinas, suffer from an eating disorder. Another study suggests that about 10 per cent of individuals with anorexia nervosa will die within a decade of the disorder manifesting.

At age 12, Kelsey was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, but if you asked her if she had an eating disorder, she would have said no.

“For some reason it was never enough,” said Kelsey about the weight she lost. “And I, unfortunately, have to say that the thing I loved the

most was probably the biggest contributor to it because people were critiquing my body the entire time, the way it moves, the way it looks, the way it performs.”

Kelsey can’t pinpoint the exact time her eating disorder began, but when she lost 20 pounds in two months, her teachers began using her as a positive example for the rest of the class.

“Wow, you’re on a mission, girl,” she recalls one of her teachers saying.

“Guys, if you want to look like Kelsey, kill this conditioning routine,” said another.

During this time in Kelsey’s life, these comments were rewarding and made up for when the students would be scolded at for having McDonald’s before class. These positive comments — no matter how wrong they were — made her feel in control.

“It’s weird,” Kelsey said. “Because we all have this idea of perfectionism drilled into the back of our minds, but don’t know and can’t appreciate when we’re there.”

Holistic nutritionist Sarah Berneche said most dancers exhibit perfectionist mentalities. According to Berneche, this is the “perfect storm” for an eating disorder because perfectionists have a binary way of thinking — there is either a right or wrong way of doing things.

“When someone is going with this black-and-white thinking, it lends itself really well to developing an eating disorder,” said Berneche. “Ultimately, if you think there’s a right way to eat then there could be some level of rigidity.”

``You want to be your best self``

Shannon Flaicher, a dance major at York University, sat on a burgundy-carpeted floor in the lobby of a theatre just outside of Guelph, Ont. It was finally competition season and, usually, Shannon was uplifted by the buzz in the theatre lobbies and the rush of being on stage. This time, though, Shannon felt an unease only her 10-year-old self would remember.

The black bodysuit that clung to her now 18-year-old body made her feel uncomfortable — jittery almost, but not in a good way. The elastic bands of the costume ran across her stomach, putting all of Shannon’s biggest insecurities on display.

But maybe the costume made everyone in the group feel uncomfortable, too.

“Most of the costumes in the competitive world are revealing and show a lot of either stomach or leg,” said Shannon. “Everyone has their own insecurities, so it’s very difficult to take that into account when you’re trying to dress a whole company of dancers.”

As she looked around the lobby, tall, leggy girls and their teams sat waiting, some with lunch in their hand, others fixing their top knots with hairspray or jumping around to warm up. Shannon’s stomach growled, punishing her for not eating anything all day.

It’s worth it, she thought to herself. I’ll look nice in this costume and not bloated.

Shannon recalls this particular costume because she said it traumatized her. She spent hours in the gym doing cardio and ate next to nothing so she would look — what she thought to be — decent in the ugly bodysuit.

According to the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, dancers tend to place extremely high expectations on themselves, leading to the pursuit of perfection and, as a result, an increased dissatisfaction with the self.

“Being in the studio and seeing yourself everyday and being so committed to and passionate about this art, you want to be your best self,” said Shannon. “And not being able to be my best self when I was younger was hard because I couldn’t figure out why or what was wrong with me.”

Shannon said the world of eating disorders opened up to her since she became a dance major at York University. She doesn’t think she had an eating disorder when she was younger, but she said she did have “disordered” eating.

Disordered eating is less severe than anorexia or bulimia, but it can leave people at risk of developing an eating disorder in the future. A study that examined adolescent females across the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa suggests that over 27 per cent of girls aged 12 to 18 showed signs of disordered eating attitudes and behaviours.

As with any mental illness, it is important to understand how disordered eating affects the daily functioning of the dancer.

For Shannon, her disordered eating often influenced the way she worked in dance class. If her arms or legs looked thicker in the studio mirror on any particular day, her mind would get the best of her and hinder her training.

“I’d mostly stare at my body and be really distracted and not fully there,” she said. “You make a lot of your progress in the studio, and I think I was stunted mentally where I didn’t think I could get any better because I was so obsessed with my body.”

Shannon has also noticed this issue amongst her peers, and said it is partly the fault of instructors with a traditional dance body mentality. Rather than giving students technical corrections, teachers will pose sub-corrections that have nothing to do with the execution of a movement, but rather the way you look doing it.

“They commend you for having a nice body,” she said. “They’ll give you compliments like, ‘Oh, you’re looking fit,’ or say ‘Suck in’ or ‘Engage’ and, to me, that’s not OK because you can be engaging your stomach and still maybe look like you’re not to the teacher.”

 

I didn’t think I could get any better because I was so obsessed with my body.

 

Louis Laberge-Côté, an associate professor at Ryerson University’s School of Performance, said these terms are an old-school way of teaching, and some instructors still use these phrases because that is how they were taught.

“When you’re working with younger people, whatever you say can really affect them for a very long time,” said Laberge-Côté. “There’s a lot of different images and words that one could use, but it’s hard to change a teacher, and you have to be willing to change as well.”

He said when he teaches, he focuses more on the energy and intention of a movement rather than the way a body looks.

“If you have the right intention and direction, and you channel the right thoughts and breathe the right way, it is beautiful and expressive and complete,” he said. “And that for me, that’s something that goes beyond whether somebody has a thin structure or a bigger build.”

Changing the narrative

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.”