The harsh pressure to conform to an idealistic body standard creates a negative atmosphere, encouraging dancers to take a critical eye to their own bodies
It was a five minute conversation, but 19-year-old Clare Podvin can still reiterate her dance instructor’s words and hear the tone of his voice six years later. Within these five minutes, her instructor told Podvin she needed to show some improvement in her dancing and advised her to start eating better.
“I was so embarrassed,” said Podvin. “I was a very normal eater my whole life, but then when he said that to me, in my brain it clicked. If I control what I eat, I can become a better dancer.”
Over the next couple of months, Podvin adjusted to an extremely restrictive diet, absent of all “unhealthy” foods.
“If my friends were going out for pizza or something, I’d get so nervous,” explained Podvin. “I’d be like ‘No I can’t eat that. That’s going to make me a bad dancer.’ It was the most illogical thing, but it made sense at the time.”
Together with an already high metabolism, Podvin’s diet helped her lose 15 pounds over the course of one month. This quick weight loss excited Podvin, and her motives switched from improving her dance skills to purely desiring a skinnier body. Her diet then accelerated to skipping meals.
By spring, Podvin had gone from 130 pounds to 88. She no longer had the energy to continue dancing and no longer felt the joy that came from it.
The next February, Podvin’s mother made her an appointment at the Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment center, where she was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa, anxiety and depression.
Approximately 16.4 percent of ballet dancers suffer from potentially fatal eating disorders, making dancers much more likely to develop such mental illnesses than non-dancers, according to a meta-analysis of 33 studies published between 1966 and 2013.
The traditional art form of ballet often favors those with the typical “ballet body,” and with practices in tight-cut leotards and held in front of wall-length mirrors, dancers are often critical and acutely aware of the shapes, lines and muscle tones of their bodies.
“Seeing how some girls look [in the mirrors] when they’re moving, their body disposition might be different than yours,” said Minnehaha nurse Heidi Streed. “You might be more muscular while they might be more long and lean and you both might weigh the same, but it’s just distributed in a different manner. But a person [with an eating disorder] can’t think of that because their brain doesn’t work like that.”
The ideal female ballet body is slim, has a long neck, a small chest, long limbs and appears tall from stage at a height ranging from 5’2” to 5’7”. Being lightweight assists in the aspect of partnerwork, making it more effortless for the male to do lifts with his partner. Meanwhile, the height and limb length is for the aesthetic appeal of dance.
“The height and length is for the continuation of lines,” said Midwest Youth Dance Theatre ballet instructor Margaret Marinoff.
“If you’re sitting in the audience, you can see how pleasing it is. It is a visual sense that you can just see how one thing continues. It’s even just the same reasoning that dancers have more flexibility; it’s a fluidity that’s coming from that flexibility that is more pleasing to watch.”
During Marinoff’s college years as a ballet major in the University of Utah and the University of Minnesota, she and the rest of the dance department members were weighed in every quarter and given critiques from their instructors.
“They would tell you what you needed to work on, and if your weight was one of those things, they would say something,” said Marinoff. “I was a cross country runner…and the way that [running] would build my muscles was contrary to the type of muscle build that you need for dance; I was bulking up instead of lengthening. Obviously I was told not to run. I was told not to walk except to class.
Because I have a more athletic build, the advice to me was, ‘You don’t need to lose weight, but lose weight because it would make you look longer.’ You have to have a very strong sense of self and a strong understanding of what is healthy and what isn’t healthy because if it is said to the wrong person, they’re going to go to an extreme.”
As an instructor, Marinoff does not make comments to her students who are “overweight by dance standards.”
Instead, she is honest with her students and makes them aware that being curvier or having a chest will make it difficult to join a prestigious company like the New York City Ballet, and it would be easier to fulfill their dreams at a smaller, local company.
Streed suggested that when considering entering the world of dance, “it would be a good idea to go in with your eyes wide open.”
“If you knew in advance that your family genes might be such that it’s not going to change and you’re currently at the height that you’re going to be to really reconsider if this is the area you want to be,” said Streed. “But if you really love it, maybe you should do it more for recreation.”
After quitting her first studio after her freshman year, Podvin started dancing again at Out on a Limb Company & School her senior year.
With Out on a Limb’s mission to “provide a healthy, supportive and creative atmosphere for young dancers,” Podvin appreciated the accepting environment of her new studio. With new motivation to regain energy to improve on her dancing, she described Out on a Limb as her savior.
Podvin has now returned to a healthy weight and rarely visits the Emily Program. She explained that instead of being 90 pounds and exhausted after walking across the room, she rather be able to follow her true passion for dance.
“I don’t know many dancers who don’t make comments about themselves every once in awhile; it really sucks but that’s kind of the way dancing is,” said Podvin. “I’ve now become really comfortable with myself, and that’s probably because I have really supportive friends and family. When they tell you they love you because you’re you, not because you’re this weight, that’s a huge part of it. Even if I don’t like the way I look, there’s so much more to myself.”