For many people, dance is an outlet, a compelling form of self-expression. You get the opportunity to dress up, play a character and expose a bit of yourself in the process. Dance is a marriage of athleticism and artistry, yet there is often more focus on the athleticism and the “ideal dancer’s body,” equating one’s ability and talent with body size.
To be a dancer with an eating disorder is a challenge. Many dancers battle the desire to dance and move, but don’t want to face the dance environment (the pressure, the criticism, the leotards, the mirrors). We asked members of the NEDA and dance community what they would tell a dancer who is in recovery from an eating disorder. Here’s what they had to say:
1. “Dance because you love the art. Dance because it brings you joy. Dance because of the passion. Dance was the best outlet during my recovery because I got to focus on what I love rather than my body. Some dance studios can really increase the pressure on dancers of feeling the need to be ‘perfect.’ Find a place where they accept you for you and you no longer feel that pressure. Remember that in order to be a beautiful dancer, you have to eat to fuel your body. Also remember you’re not alone and you will be OK! Keep dancing!”
2. “You know that amazing feeling we experience when we dance? It is possible to be filled with that much color and light in everything we do in life. And despite what the disorder screams at you, you deserve to feel that much passion and freedom in everything you do, think and feel. Recovery is possible and you can do it. Your soul and your dancing will thank you.”
3. “Dance will always be there, but if you don’t care for your mind and body fully you may not. It’s OK to step away in order to heal, and when you are ready you will return to dance in a way that is genuine and healthy and an expression of art and balance and wellbeing rather than a tool of your eating disorder to drag you into darkness. You will be able to find why you fell in love with dance from the first time you stepped into the studio and remember that it wasn’t about the way your body looked but the way that your soul felt.”
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 800-931-2237.
4. “I was a ballerina for a majority of my life. Your mental health comes before anything else in life: you only get one mind and one body. Take care of yourself. Put your needs first. It’s probably the scariest thing you’ve ever done in your life, but you can do this: you were born to be a fighter, even if your mind is telling you something different. You are strong. Your body is beautiful. And your mind is powerful.”
5. “The mirror you spend hours in front of does not define you or give you an accurate representation of your identity. Let dance be a place of healing and restoration, not a place full of critiques and comparisons. Don’t spend your classes concerned about your weight, but throw yourself into the freedom of having a healthy body that can move. If you use eating disorder behaviors while dancing, you are threatening the very thing I know you love: dance.”
6. “You can only dance to your full potential if you are at your full potential.”
7. “You may be nervous about the road ahead, that even though you know that you’re healing and taking the correct steps for your health, it may affect your future as a dancer. The shape of your body does not in any way define your talent and your capability. Embrace your health, embrace your life and embrace the fact that dance is still going to be an integral, and such a rewarding part of it. Never let the shape of your body dictate the activities that you participate in, and them communities you become a part of.”
8. “Every body can be a dancer’s body. Fueling your body will make you a better, stronger dancer, regardless of what your mind may tell you.”
9. “Beautiful dancers are strong and powerful! Don’t let perceptions of what you think dancers look like wreck your recovery. You were a beautiful dancer before your eating disorder and you’re more beautiful as a dancer in recovery! Remember, always dance like nobody’s watching, including ED!”
10. “Take the time to let yourself truly recover. Do not dive back into dance, do not refuse treatment to keep dancing. Dance isn’t going anywhere but it won’t even be an option if you can’t learn to be gentle with and accepting of your body. Your body is the beautiful instrument that allows you to dance in the first place. Honor the way it allows you to express yourself by taking care of it and showing it love. Dance is for everyone. You do not need to change your body to fit any idea you have of what a dancer looks like. A dancer’s body is strong, a body that is given proper fuel. Let go of the mirror and the comparison and the preconceptions. The only requirement for a ‘dancer’s body’ is to be dancing, with your body. That’s it.”
11. “Remember that little girl or boy who couldn’t stop dancing around the house, who couldn’t resist throwing on a pair of slippers, whose heart burst the first time mom and dad put you in dance classes…that is who you are fighting for. You are beautiful, talented and loved just the way you are. ‘Thick’ or ‘thin,’ let yourself fall in love with the dance again. People’s opinions will always be there, fleeting and ever changing. Be strong and don’t let those opinions, or your desire to control, steal away your passion. Live free.”
12. “Your identity as a dancer is not dependent upon your size, your structure, your body. Your spirit is the one that dances. Your soul is the one performing the movement. Do not crush your spirit in an attempt to control your body. Dance, because you are a dancer.”
13. “I’d tell any dancer (including my younger self) it’s not your fault if *someone else* believes there is only one way to have ‘a dancer’s body.’ Your body — your natural, vibrant body — is not wrong. The notion that ‘a dancer’s body’ looks one specific way is wrong. Do not let others’ narrow-mindedness steal your passion or your health from you. Care for your instrument, and allow yourself to continue to grow as an artist. You’re a beautiful dancer — you’re meant to be so much more than ‘small.’ I love you.”
14. “The beauty when you dance, when you smile, when you laugh and when you are truly yourself, will never change no matter what weight you are. You’ll always be beautiful. Don’t confuse beauty with what you see on magazines, that’s not true beauty. True beauty is diversity. True Beauty is you whenever, whatever, but especially when you’re smiling. Stay strong, you’re going to be OK.”
15. “To dance is to dream; to dream is to be free. But you can’t be free when you’re trapped in an eating disorder. Dance, dream, and be free.”
16. “Dance is a celebration of what your natural body can do. Be strong, nail that combination, and show the world what you can do. I believe in you!”
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Thinkstock photo via DAJ