Dance educators play a pivotol role in dancer’s relationship with food and body.
With up to 5-7 hours of a dancer’s day spent inside the studio, dance educators play a pivotal role in a dancer’s career development, personal character growth, and work ethic. Dancers rely on teachers, choreographers, and directors for guidance, support, and safety.
But the culture of dance is nothing less than intense. The reliance on leotards, tights, and mirrors set a stage for body comparisons, and as a result, dancers are highly vulnerable to the development of disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image challenges.
The role of an educator spans further than just teaching the art and athleticism required of dancers. Dance educators are on the frontline: from cultivating an environment that supports the longevity of a dancer’s career to identifying challenges that occur inside the studio. Additional (and often unspoken) responsibilities include:
- Modeling a healthy relationship with food and body.
- Encouraging oppurtunities to refuel and rehydrate throughout training.
- Identifying red flags of disordered eating.
- Promoting work-life balance while encouraging motivation and drive.
Dance educators have the upper hand in helping to reduce rates of disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image challenges in the industry. This article will break down 5 specific strategies that dance educators can implement to cultivate a healthier environment in their studios.
#1: Learn The Signs
A dancer doesn’t have to be formally diagnosed with an eating disorder to be struggling with food and body.
The Differences Between Eating Disorders and Disordered Eating
There are specific criteria in place for the diagnosis, intervention, and treatment for eating disorders like Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, and Binge-Eating Disorder (among others). While not formally recognized as an eating disorder, criteria also exist for orthorexia, a condition that is prevalent among dancers showing signs of perfectionism.
Diagnosis is often dependent on the degree of symptoms (like avoiding X amount of food Y times a week or partaking in X behaviors Y times a week). However, this diagnostic system is far from perfect. Misdiagnoses are common due to issues of bias (an example is assuming those in larger bodies are not struggling) and a complete lack of diagnosis is often due to a lack of access to quality mental health care.
Bottom line: a dancer doesn’t have to be formally diagnosed with an eating disorder to be struggling with food and body. A 2008 survey showed that at least 65% of American women struggle with some form of disordered eating. This is especially true given the normalization and even glorification of restrictive eating habits in our culture.
Though insidious, disordered eating and eating disorders often come with warning signs (more discussed here).
Obvious Signs of Disordered Eating
- Body checking
- Self-deprecating body comments
- Diet talk
- Dieting habits (like food avoidance)
Not-So-Obvious Signs of Disordered Eating
- Inflexible eating regimens
- Emotional distress around food
- Obsessive concerns over “health”
- Obsessive concerns over ingredients “in the name of health.”
If you suspect that a dancer is struggling, choose a time to express your concerns privately. Use compassion and avoid accusatory language. Coming prepared with resources is highly encouraged (keep reading to learn more about those).
#2: Model A Healthy Relationship With Food
When compared to most athletes, dancers exhibit high levels of perfectionism. This can translate not only to their work in the studio but also to their food choices. Striving for “health” and the culturally-constructed version of “wellness” (read this to learn more) oftentimes leaves dancers feeling inadequate and vulnerable to orthorexia. We also know that discussions around thinness can increase a dancer’s risk of the development of eating disorders later on.
For starters, avoid triggering language and judgment around food, even if it’s regarding your own food choices. Here’s an article that dives into what can be triggering. Remember: there are no “good” nor “bad” foods and when eating, dancers shouldn’t be made to feel as if they’re doing something “right” or “wrong” in regard to their choices.
If concerns arise among groups of your dancers, it’s encouraged that educators turn to trusted and licensed professionals for support. Registered Dietitian Nutritionists who are also versed in disordered eating can provide education. Here are a few free and paid resources that can be provided to dancers:
- The Healthy Dancer® Survival Guide is a free 3-day course that dives into the nutrient needs of dancers. Studio owners can assign dancers to complete the course and access a certificate of completion.
- The Healthy Dancer® Studio Package offers downable handouts surrounding topics of performance nutrition and dancer meal planning. Once purchased, studios can distribute handouts to all dancers and dance parents.
- Nurturing The Healthy Dancer® Workshop with myself, a dance dietitian can be scheduled for studios looking to educate larger groups. You can learn more about the benefits of dance nutrition workshops here.
#3: Support Consistent Fueling and Hydration
While triggering conversations should be avoided, this doesn’t mean that educators should close an eye to how dancers are fueling their bodies. Caitlin Sloan, dance educator and owner of The Brainy Ballerina says, “Our job is not to administer nutrition advice. Our job is to cultivate an environment where our dancers feel safe and supported. To do the personal work to heal any past trauma that might inform the way we approach body image with our students. And to connect them with properly vetted resources and professionals who will teach them how to form a healthy relationship with their body.”
Making sure that your dancers have time to eat and rehydrate is largely dependent on scheduling demands that are largely in your control. Dance educators are encouraged to speak with their directors to ensure that time and resources are provided for these refueling and rehydrating opportunities.
A training table is a meal that is eaten together, such as a pre-performance fueling party. Fueling stations can be set up as permanent or temporary food and drink distribution areas in studios, at competitions, or during performances. Including easily-digestible grab-and-go options are helpful for dancers to eat between classes or during costume changes. For college dance programs, meals and snacks can be provided by campus food service.
#4: Encourage Diversity and Body Neutrality
Look around at your studio. Is diversity represented? If not, this is time to reassess your studio’s core values. Fostering individuality is critical. As an art, dancers should focus on their abilities to communicate with an audience, regardless of their skin color, body shape, body size, sexual identity, or gender identity.
Body acceptance doesn’t have to be the goal, as this can be difficult for dancers to imagine while emersed in a culture that is unfortunately drenched in antiquated body ideals. But educators can work to deemphasize body weight and body composition in class. Here are a few resources to consider that can help your dancers utilize body appreciation as a tool for reducing body image challenges in the studio and on stage.
- The Healthy Dancer® Free Body Confidence Challenge is a 5-day email challenge that dancers and dance parents can sign up for.
- The Healhthy Dancer® Winter Intensive is held every December and involves group coaching to deconstruct the nuances of building a healthy relationship with both food and body.
Judgment around body shape, weight, or size should be avoided. This includes complementing a dancer’s weight, especially because we might not know how they achieve any subsequent weight change.
#5: Involve Parents and Guardians
As a culture, dance is intense! The physical, emotional, and mental demands of the art require whole-team support systems. Parents and guardians should be educated alongside their dancers, especially around topics like Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, along with the specific needs and physical demands of dance.
Parents and guardians can also be involved in the creation of refueling and rehydrating stations. However, studios should be sensitive to the financial realities of their families, and therefore, facilitate group fundraising efforts rather than assigning rotating “snack parents.”
Snapshot: How can dance teachers reduce the risks of disordered eating, eating disorders, and body image stuggles in their studios?
All dancers deserve a safe space free from the harms of diet culture. On an individual level, dance teachers can play a very supportive role in a dancer’s recovery from disordered eating and/or an eating disorder. With appropriate consent, teachers can provide reassurance and support along a dancer’s journey of recovery. On a group level, dance teachers can reassure their dancers and their dance parents that support is both available and encouraged. This involves providing qualified resources and allowing students frequent breaks for refueling and rehydrating.