It's no secret that ballet dancers are diet conscious. For physical and esthetic reasons, they must be thin but strong, must have grace and stamina. But dieting, or sticking to a maintenance diet can be difficult. And in a few cases, dieting can become an obsession and may lead to anorexia nervosa or anorexic symptoms.
Anorexia nervosa is a syndrome characterized by a morbid fear of gaining weight, even when the person is already thin. Anorexia affects a person's physical well-being; among other things, loss of sleep, constipation and loss of menstrual periods can result. As well, the sufferer becomes preoccupied with food and loses concentration.
David Garner, a psychologist at Toronto's Clarke Institute of Psychiatry and the University of Toronto who has studied anorexia nervosa in the general population for seven years, was in Winnipeg and spoke to students in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's professional program about the results of a study he did on dancers and eating habits.
His study, done over the last few years, involved 183 dance students and professionals from three dance schools in Canada, including the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.
His article in Dance in Canada reveals that 44 per cent of the dancers surveyed scored high enough on an Eating Attitudes Test questionnaire to "indicate a significant degree of anorexic-like symptoms."
"Twelve definite cases of anorexia nervosa were identified, 6.5 per cent of the total dance sample. All but one of these cases had developed while the individual was studying dance."
These results were "at least six to 10 times higher than the highest prevalence rates reported in medical literature."
While the majority of dancers have no anorexic symptoms. Garner said, "it may be that for the kind of disciplined, striving individual in search of perfection who would ordinarily be prone to anorexia, dancing could accentuate this vulnerability."
Too much emphasis
Pressure to be thin is rampant in society and ballet is only an extension of that, he said. "There's too much concern in our society with weight and shape."
The higher incidence of anorexia among dancers Is due to a number of factors, Garner said, including pressures to he thin and high performance expectations and, as an "alternate hypothesis, that these types of people are attracted to ballet.
"Anorexic people tend to come from higher socio-economic groups, tend to be females and it occurs iri families where there are high-performance expectations. This seems to be the same social class distribution. The upper social class is over-represented in ballet."
When he began talking to dancers, Garner indeed found "that the ballet world is an obsessionally weight-conscious subculture."
Jackie Weber, vice-principal of the RWB's professional program, said in more than 10 years the school has encountered only two cases of anorexia which forced the dancer to be sent home.
However, she said, "there are some people here who have the tendency for anorexia. If we see someone who has the symptoms we talk to them, ask them how they're eating, sleeping and we'll approach the parents if they're nearby." Those suspected of having such a tendency are usually sent to a doctor or dietitian, she said, "who makes them out an individualized diet."
The RWB,' like any company and school, must set standards for its dancers' weights. If a girl is five feet, three inches, she should weigh no more than 100 pounds, Weber said. At the same time, the directors are concerned about possible anorexic tendencies.
"It's a well-known fact that you have to be thin to get into the program. But some people get in, gain weight and then have to be told. Some of them go too far and some can't lose the weight either. We're concerned about good health in all the students."
Being thin is important because the female dancers must be lifted by a man, sometimes several times in a dance, Weber "said. There are also esthetic reasons because lighting and costumes can make a dancer look a bit heavier. However, dancers, because of their superb muscle tone and strength, "shouldn't look emaciated," she said.
"Some people have a tendency toward anorexia from the beginning, before they walk into ballet. We find young teen-agers are trying to emulate the older ones. They want to be thin and they can be vulnerable to becoming obsessed with it. We haven't found it a problem but we do watch it carefully. 1 feel very lucky that way."
The most important thing a dancer can do is learn how to maintain her weight and stay healthy once she has lost what was required, Weber said.