In our book, Marcia and I advise parents to be especially vigilant if your child—especially one who is genetically predisposed to an eating disorder—is involved in a “thinness-demand” sport or activity such as gymnastics, figure skating, ballet, dance, diving, or distance running. These are activities that place emphasis on or favor a specific body type, usually thinness or small stature.
Last fall, I happened to write two articles that involved dancers. Knowing about the high-risk nature of dance when it comes to eating disorders, I asked my subjects about their experience with eating disorders. Both told me they had lots to say on the topic.
Andrea Bergquist-Zamir danced for six years with the Dance Theatre of Harlem in New York City before becoming a successful chef, working alongside famous names such as Floyd Cardoz and Marcus Samuelsson. She now leads a chef training program at a Manhattan food pantry. Marla Hirokawa trained as a ballet dancer, danced professionally in Hawaii and New York, and worked as a teaching artist for the New York City Ballet Education Department. For the past 25 years, she has headed her own dance school and ballet company, Covenant Ballet Theatre of Brooklyn.
Newly enrolled at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts boarding school in Winston-Salem, Andrea’s dreams were crushed when she was told that she was too big—not so much in weight as in size—says, the 5’-8” former dancer. Instead of ballet, she was placed in the modern dance department. Getting over that setback, she recalls, “took me years.”
In the dance world, Andrea says, disordered eating is a part of life, and her school was no exception. Eating in the cafeteria “where everybody is watching you,” she recalls, was one of the most difficult times of the day. She was lucky in that she didn’t have to constantly diet to meet her teachers’ approval; instead, she exercised as a way of staying fit. While some students suffered from anorexia, the most prevalent disordered-eating behavior was purging. Yet “there wasn’t any type of discussion about it, no help or anything like that,” says Andrea.
Ironically, when she began auditioning for a position with a dance company in New York in the early ’90s, she couldn’t land a modern dance job. Instead, she was selected for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, at last fulfilling her dream of dancing classical ballet. The director at the time, Arthur Mitchell, was known for hiring tall women. There, she was again fortunate; “I wasn’t one of the people they picked on about weight,” she says.
Before launching her professional career, though, Andrea was part of the merit scholarship program at The Ailey School (a part of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater that was underwritten by large corporate donors). Since one of the conditions of keeping one’s scholarship “was to maintain your weight,” she explains, weekly weigh-ins were conducted. Marla, too, mentions that one of her students, who later became an instructor at Covenant, was in the certificate program at The Ailey School and “was constantly having to take what she called ‘the fat class,’ which was focused on nutrition and aimed at getting students to lose weight.
As someone who has both danced and taught ballet professionally, Marla notes, “there are some balletic institutions where there’s very strong pressure to maintain a body type. It’s tough because you’re talking about girls in particular whose bodies are changing and whose hormones are raging.” The years between 15 and 18 are also when young female ballet students audition for and are selected by the larger, better-known dance programs. The combination of the athletic demands of dancing and the pressure to maintain a low weight is such that Marla encountered one dancer who did not begin menstruating until after she stopped dancing in their 20s—a serious threat to bone density that can lead to painful and debilitating bone fractures.
Marla says that it wasn’t until she arrived in New York in the early ’80s that she began to notice signs of eating disorders. “It just started to become a lot more visible,” she says. In classes, she saw “girls, women, looking absolutely emaciated. They moved so slowly, and I thought, ‘Wow, what is that?’”
Her first close encounter with an eating-disordered ballet student came in about 2003. She noticed one of her students, who was about 16, picking at her food or not eating. Marla was concerned enough to broach the subject when they were alone. “She was incredibly honest with me,” she recalls. Although the student’s relationship with her mother was strained, Marla knew her condition was serious and that she had to tell the parents. At one point, the student came to live with Marla. The student did eventually move beyond her disorder, and the last time she visited Marla, her relationship with her mother was greatly improved. Today, Marla says she wished she had known about the Maudsley method, also known as Family Based Treatment, and had been able to suggest a trained professional to help involve the family in her student’s recovery.
Since then, several other students battling an eating disorder have come through her school. In one case she recalls, her student was being fitted for her sweet 16 dress. When she was told, “this dress fits you to a T, and you’d better not gain an ounce,” the young dancer started to restrict her food intake and Marla noticed a drastic drop in weight. She talked to the girl and her parents, and with appropriate care, the student regained her equilibrium.
There have been cases at Covenant where some of the company’s instructors or a parent have alerted Marla to a possible problem. In the case of the parent approaching her, the parent did not want her daughter to know she had alerted the school. In order to protect her confidence, Marla casually initiated a conversation and gave her student some advice on healthy eating.
In contrast to the harsh weeding-out approach of the pre-professional academies, explains Marla, Covenant Ballet Theatre Dance Academy accepts all students without an audition process. Its mission is to foster a holistic appreciation of dance, introduce young generations to the art form and in some cases act as a bridge to the city’s larger and better-known dance schools. The many Covenant graduates who have continued dance through college and beyond attests to the success of this approach, yet it is an anomaly among serious dance schools.
Students who don’t have the narrowly defined body type typically considered suitable for ballet are encouraged to continue dance, says Marla. If the student is intent on dancing professionally, she notes, “there is a point where reality will hit, and we can have that conversation then, but talk about it in a more healthful way.” She cites the example of one former Covenant student “who, when I first met her as a kid, had the least going for her as a body type. Yet of her class, she’s the only one who went on, graduated with a degree in modern dance, went on to dance with small modern companies and continues because she loves it.” Marla concludes, “If you have a realistic perspective, are very open, and love the art form, you can find a way to continue doing it.”
In my next post, I will tell you about how Andrea Berquist-Zamir returned to her old company, Harlem Dance Theatre, and taught a class in cooking and nutrition. As a former professional dancer and a chef, Andrea will pass on her tips for healthy cooking and eating for dancers.