The Language of Eating Disorders: Are you helping or harming? Part 2
Author: Dawn Smith-Theodore
Martha Graham said “Dance is the hidden language of the soul.” I believe that dance is a conversation between body and soul. Most dancers can execute the moves, but it is the expression of the emotions through the body that is so important.
A dancer must step out of the comfort of technique to achieve humanness, which is what will allow the audience to connect with the dancer. Most members of the audience do not know about technique, but they want to understand the story a dancer is telling with their body. After all, the body is the instrument of the dancer, which expresses the language of the soul. Being a dancer is something very special so you must feel the passion.
Dancers are often tormented by the critical language in their mind. The negative thoughts of a dancer can and often do work overtime and inhibit the dancer from being able to perform their best at auditions, class and performances.
Dancers need constructive criticism to improve and be the best dancer they can be. If the dancer has a predisposition to an eating disorder, the dancer will hear the critique as an affirmation that they are “not enough.” Not all dancers develop an eating disorder, but they are more likely than the general population.
A common theme among dancers, whether they develop an eating disorder or they have body image issues, is that their ability as a dancer was not enough and they must have the perfect body. This is language that definitely needs to be challenged by dance educators and choreographers. The language a teacher or choreographer uses can be interpreted in a way that was not intended. For example, a teacher says, “Three dancers in the front row and four dancers in the back.” This is a very benign instruction, but what the dancer hears with the critical mind is, “I am not good enough to be in the front row.”
Someone with an eating disorder may think, “ As I watched the attention given to other dancers in my class, I knew that I could never be thin enough.”
It is important as a teacher to create a positive environment for learning. Always give positive reinforcement before giving constructive feedback. It is important to focus on the dancer’s strengths. Trust is such an important element in relationships and it is no different for the dancer you are teaching. Create a trusting relationship with your students. Get to know them as a person and allow them to use their voice. It is important as dance educators that we support the well being of all students both mentally and physically. Be sensitive to student’s needs and experiences as each dancer is unique.
Some examples of language not to use with dancers are:
- Your tummy and/or bottom is sticking out.
- You sound like a cow when you jump and land.
- You cannot wear that costume as it will not look good on you.
- Look at how another dancer does the combination and try to be more like him or her.
- You need to lose some weight.
- You will never have the right body for dancing.
- You will never be a dancer.
The language of a dancer who has taken perfectionism to an extreme will become self-critical and they may spiral in their ability to perform. Their thoughts will become very critical such as: “I know I am the worst one in the class because it takes me a lot longer to pick up the choreography.” “My turnout is the worst in the class , which is why the teacher never looks at me at the barre.” “I completely blew the choreography and now the choreographer is never going to want to use me again.”
The downward spiral, which ensues once a dancer has crossed the bridge of taking perfectionism to the extreme. Pursuing the perfect body will be the beginning of an eating disorder.
If you suspect a dancer in your school or company may have an eating disorder, you will need to speak to them in private. It is important to express concern about the dancer’s health, eating, nutrition, and energy. Do not confront the dancer about specific behaviors you may have noticed. Be sensitive to the language you use with the dancer. The goal is to get an evaluation and diagnosis from a healthcare professional with eating disorder experience and expertise.
When a dancer has an eating disorder, it can seem like a foreign language to those who are trying to support the dancer. It is important to know the intention of what is said and how the dancer hears it.
Therapists working with dancers will need to look at the negative patterns and self- defeating self-appraisals. Self doubt can lead to the thoughts, “I am not good enough” or “the director does not like me”. Dancers will need restructuring techniques for their cognitive distortions.
Some examples of language used in cognitive distortions are: Dichotomous thinking or better known as black and white thinking If I don’t dance then I cannot eat….. If I am not moving than I am doing nothing Overgeneralization Sitting down means you are lazy Discounting My doctor tells me not to dance, but she is flabby so I don’t listen to her Magnification If I can’t dance, my life will be over Selective Abstraction I feel great when I dance, so if I dance, I will never be depressed Superstitious Thinking I must dance everyday or something bad will happen.
The dancer will need to challenge the language of the distortions. The distortion: If I don’t dance then I cannot eat. The healthy voice: You need to fuel your body so you can dance. The distortion: Sitting down means I am lazy. The healthy voice: Our bodies need to have rest, both with sleeping and sitting. The distortion: If I can’t dance, my life will be over. The healthy voice: You need to heal your body so you can return to dance.
Being a dancer is an identity. It is important to have a healthy relationship with yourself, which includes the language you use within your own mind. It is also important that you have family and friends who can support the dancer and understand the language necessary to be a source of support.
About the author: Dawn Smith-Theodore is a former professional dancer who has recovered from anorexia nervosa. She owned her own dance studio in Los Angeles for 25 years and has been treating eating disorders for over 20 years. Dawn has a private practice in Los Angeles. Dawn is the author of the book, TuTu Thin: A Guide to Dancing without an Eating Disorder, for dancers 12-22 years old. Dawn is an international speaker and continues to teach Master Classes around the country.