Feature: Dance UK Conference: Nutrition & disordered eating in dance

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company 'Just Add Water', 2009

Nutrition and disordered eating in dance: Artistry, athleticism and the role of the multidisciplinary support team
Report: Josephine Leask

Dance UK’s full-day symposium, held at the imposing Royal Society of Medicine on Monday (30 April), gently prized open the doors to the all too secret world of eating disorders and dance. It was an inspiring event, in which professionals from dance and healthcare came together to share their knowledge and to tackle some of the tricky questions inherent in disordered eating and its relationship with nutrition, artistry and athleticism.

Key note speaker, Kenneth Tharp, Chief Executive of The Place, highlighted how the dance world has been in denial about eating disorders but that now with a much greater body of research and evidence, prompted by Dance UK’s Healthier Dancer Programme, even artistic directors and dancers themselves were more prepared to talk about it.

The first panel consisted of artistic directors, David Bintley (Birmingham Royal Ballet), David Nixon (Northern Ballet), Dame Monica Mason (Royal Ballet), Richard Alston (Richard Alston Dance Company) and Ann Sholem (National Dance Company of Wales), who emphasised how they were looking for talent, rather than some perfect body when choosing dancers. For the ballet directors, there were some variables in terms of body-type they would select depending on what was required by specific roles but all agreed that they wanted strength and versatility in their dancers. Whereas Richard Alston and Ann Sholem were much more involved in their dancers’ health and well-being due to the small size of their companies, Mason, Bintley and Nixon said they relied on the information from other staff members as dancers with eating disorders in these large companies were often difficult to detect. There was a consensus that being overweight was also an eating disorder and male dancers were just as likely to suffer from disordered eating as women.

Following the artistic directors’ discussion on aesthetic and physical requirements was a panel of dancers which included two Royal Ballet principals – Lauren Cuthbertson and Zenaida Yanowsky, Rambert Dance Company dancer Gemma Nixon, Teneisha Bonner, Principal street-dancer with ZooNation Dance Company, Archana Ballal South Asian freelance dancer and Ben Duke of Lost Dog. They agreed on the need to have much more education on the prevention and cure of eating disorders, even though none of them have suffered from it directly. Often, it was difficult to tell which of their colleagues had problems until it was too late as dancers with eating disorders are very clever at concealing it. Yanowsky and Cuthbertson admitted that they felt better when they were leaner and believed they could perform technique more effectively. While Bonner said there was little awareness amongst street-dancers in how they took care of their bodies but that junk food was favoured by many as opposed to the denial of food!

The next session looked at the prevention and early intervention of eating disorders and after a brave introduction by former Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Rachel Peppin who talked freely about her own eating disorders, academic Dr Huw Goodwin, research associate at Loughborough University Centre for Research into Eating Disorders identified his dance-specific research on eating, weight and shape concerns and how they were linked to low self-esteem and perfectionism. He suggested, through examples from research how the training culture of dancers could be changed. Professor Joan Duda from Birmingham University discussed her research on the importance of creating supportive environments around dancers which would enhance their motivation and well being. In conclusion, Louise Dunne from BEAT outlined the organisation’s work with people with eating disorders and stressed the importance of getting in early enough to help individuals.

The afternoon session dealt with the role of nutrition in healthy dance practice and was chaired by Jasmine Challis, Dietician and Nutritionist. Jacqueline Birtwisle, Visiting Dietician, Royal Opera House and Central School of Ballet looked closely at good models of practice such as the Swiss Food Pyramid for Athletes. Mhairi Keil, Performance Nutritionist and Consultant, English Institute of Sport, explained what nutrition is needed to maintain lean but robust bodies.

The final session commenced with physiotherapist Nicola Stephens discussing the importance of establishing ‘multi-disciplinary teams’ in dance companies and schools in order to effectively manage dancers with eating disorders. Following on from Stephens, a panel of doctors, teachers, clinical directors and therapists working with dance institutions and companies discussed the advantages and potentials of working with the mult-disciplinary team model.

The over riding message from the day was that education and information on prevention and cure of eating disorders must infiltrate dance schools and companies, even at pre-vocational level. For students and dancers just knowing where to go for help or advice is crucial. While our media saturated world and aesthetic demands in dance will continue to perpetuate anxieties about the body, for teachers, students and professionals, understanding how to prevent and treat any eating disorder is comforting.

At the end of the day the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science was launched. Full report


Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photo: Shobana Jeyasingh Dance Company’s 2009 production Just Add Water’

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