Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

Let’s Change How We Speak to Dancers About Injury Prevention

I’ll start by stating the obvious: Dancers get injured. A lot.

Studies show us that the injury rate in dance is similar to that of collision sports and, while each study presents a different statistic, the injury rate is often somewhere between 60-100%.

Not to mention that you can’t completely rely on studies that include self-reported data, because many dancers don’t report getting injured.

THIS study, outlined in Science Daily says:

injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was 61 percent. This is comparable to rates found in other studies for athletes in collision sports such as football and wrestling. The average time lost because of a ballet injury was 10.5 days, with the actual time loss ranging from one to 87 days.

In THIS study, the injury incidence in professional Irish dancers was shown to be 76%.

And in THIS study of young ballet dance students, of the 476 students in being observed, 438 injuries were recorded. The injury incidence rate was 0.8 per 1,000 dance hours.

If you dance, you will get hurt.

Am I scaring you? I’m only doing it to make a point. How does hearing these statistics make you feel? Are you inspired now to go out and take care of your joints? Or are you paralyzed, discouraged, and unsure what to do about it?

That’s my point. Scary stats aren’t enough to inspire action. Telling dancers they need strategies to prevent injuries doesn’t count as guidance. One-off injury prevention workshops don’t give long-term support that dancers need.

THIS study done in the UK looked at dancers’ perspectives towards injuries and pain, and one conclusion was:

Dance injury rates do not appear to be decreasing significantly, despite greater awareness and the promotion of the “healthier dancer” in dance training schools, universities and among professionals in the UK.

The way we’re presenting injury prevention to dancers is not effective enough.

There’s enough research supporting cross-training to make it mainstream, yet even the dancers who cross-train get injured.

And fear mongering, kind of like I’m doing now (it’s only to make a point!), isn’t an effective means of getting dancers interested in preventing injuries, it only makes them focus on their fears.

Is it really helpful to focus on pain? To be told that you will get hurt if you don’t do x-y-z? Has being scared into trying to prevent injuries ever really inspired you?

Michael Mullin’s Facebook page is always full of gems like this one below, which I’ve been making a conscious effort more recently to be aware of in my own practice:

michael mullin FB quote

Pain science shows us that focusing on pain only draws our attention to it more, making it more pronounced and threatening in our minds. The more we fear pain, the more we try to stiffen ourselves to prevent feeling it, and the more we alter our movement patterns in compensatory ways that can cause even higher risk of injury.

Please watch this TED talk by Lorimer Mosely, author of Explain Pain, which summarizes nicely why things hurt (and read his book, too):

What if we stopped focusing on pain and injuries?

And what if we stopped putting the onus on the dancer to change they way they do things, and instead, change how WE work with dancers.

It’s a mistake to keep telling our students the same things over and over expecting them to change, while we ourselves refuse to adapt to their situation. We don’t study dance science for our own personal gain after-all, it’s to help the dancers. Isn’t it?

Our language needs to change.

What if, instead of naming programs as “injury prevention screens” we called them “performance optimization screens?” They are the exact same program only with a different name.

What if instead of saying “don’t do this or you will become injured!”, we said, “If you try to do things this way instead, you will be creating better patterns of moving that will help you perform better and stronger”.

Subconsciously we react differently to hearing words like pain, injuries, don’t, not, and bad. Over time, constantly hearing these words can start to change the way we feel about ourselves, and limits our potential.

Take the emphasis off the threat. Let dancers focus on their love of dance.

aaron swanson PT quote

Does inducing fear help reduce pain in the same way that encouraging dancers to experience gratitude does?

Consider that you’re trying to motivate a dance student, or yourself for that matter, to start a cross-training or therapeutic exercise program. How would you word it to them?

Would you a) Attempt to instill a fear of spraining an ankle if you don’t do it, or b) Express how  the exercises will make you stronger and better at dancing.

I think it’s obvious.

Changing your language, both to yourself and to others, is a challenge. It requires that you are completely aware of every word coming out of your mouth. This seems unrealistic but it is possible, and this subtle switch can make a massive difference, and is 100% worth the effort, with zero cost.

I have made this switch myself, and it drove me crazy when I realized how my words could be sending the wrong subconscious message to my clients, and to myself, despite my best intentions.

They say you become what you focus on. I know this to be true.

When I was recovering from an eating disorder, the hardest part was trying to teach myself how to eat again in “normal” portion sizes, without becoming completely obsessive about it. I’m sure if you’ve been through one yourself you can relate to the challenges of acclimating back to being a regular person who eats regularly.

Food was on my mind constantly. When would I eat next? How much would I eat? What would I eat? How many calories? How many carbs? How much protein? Did I deserve to eat that many carbs? Should I go exercise before or after eating? Is that too many calories or not enough? And then how many hours should I wait until I eat my next meal? What should I have for my next meal? Should I just skip eating today altogether??

When I reflect back on the hours wasted and the mental energy spent every day just thinking about food, it’s no wonder I was always exhausted and injured.

It wasn’t until I finally decided to stop thinking about food that I was able to eat like a “regular” person again. Canada is not a third world country. There is ample food here. I had no need to worry for hours each day about where my next meal would come from.

When it comes to injuries, constantly obsessing about them and their prevention is counterproductive in a similar way that my food planning obsession was. It’s a waste of mental energy that can be used more productively.

Don’t get me wrong, we need people to think about injury prevention, but it’s not the dancers who should be worried. It’s us- The scientists, the physiotherapists, the trainers, teachers, parents, and doctors to think about these things, maybe even worry about them a little, but only so that the dancers don’t have to.

Let the dancers worry about dancing, and we, the dance educators can carry the burden of their injuries. Because we’re geeks and we’re into it, and our bodies aren’t the ones on the line.

We, the educators, trainers, and therapists, need to learn all we can about prevention, but not only prevention- We also need to learn how to communicate this information to dancers in a way that doesn’t make them afraid, but empowers them to become stronger. Because the fear and obsession tactics don’t work.

In my first year at Ryerson University I remember that we were asked what our biggest fears were, as dancers. Our response? A unanimous fear of becoming hurt and no longer being able to dance.

What causes this fear of injuries?

You’re afraid of injuries because you don’t know enough about how your body works to be able to heal yourself without an entire team of specialists (which you can’t afford).

Injuries are scary because of the time off you don’t want to take, for which you will have nothing else to fill it with, because dance is all you know.

You’re afraid to become hurt less because of physical pain, and more because you tempt losing a piece of your identity.

You don’t want to think about the fact that you can’t afford rehabilitation fees.

And you’re afraid of injuries because you perceive that teachers will judge you as inferior for becoming hurt (“if your technique was better this wouldn’t have happened to you!”).

So you push these fears to a dark corner in your mind so that you can dance without limits. When you’re not injured you feel invincible, and it feels good to dance like you’re invincible. The best dancers to watch must be the ones who feel invincible because they don’t hold anything back.

You don’t need the constant reminders that you will get hurt, you need goals for performance, a well designed strength training program that is actually fun to do and that helps you feel immediate reward so that you’ll want to keep doing it. You need to be educated on how your body works so you can enjoy using it and, by understanding your limits, you can respect them.

What I feel is lacking for most dancers, unless part of a professional ballet company, is a safety net that has your back when you do get injured. Because injuries will happen. We as educators know that we can help dancers to get injured less often, but it still happens.

By safety net I mean a system that ensures that a dancer doesn’t need to be afraid of becoming injured, because they will have access to the support they need financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally in that situation.

It’s not the dancer that needs to change, it’s you and I. How we educate, train, and make ourselves a part of a dancers’ rehab process. We need to change the system rather than expect the dancers to fit into the one that currently exists, and often fails them.

Anyone who has become injured knows that it doesn’t just hurt the physical body, but it can trigger deep depression and cataclysmic feelings of low self-worth. You feel like you’re losing your identity when you lose your ability, if not only temporarily, to dance.

I am fortunate to live in Canada and that my father works for the government.

Had to insert a Justin Trudeau pic in here somewhere

While I was in school, I was covered under his benefits and could get my physio fees reimbursed through his insurance policy. Physio which, by the way, was not effective because I had no idea how to choose a therapist that would fit my needs.

Despite this accessibility, my rehabilitation experience was not good and, eventually I maxed out my parents’ coverage to the point that I stopped going because I could not afford it anymore. I even paid for treatments out of my own pocket that were ineffective.

I felt bad about myself for not getting better. I felt judged by my teachers and felt the pity of my peers. I felt guilty that I had used all of my parents’ insurance coverage and still could not dance.

It could have been much different if a system was in place to help. If I didn’t have to make decisions alone that I knew nothing about. I was alone and ignorant. Alone, even though I’m sure every dancer in my class had gone through a similar struggle.

At the IADMS conference this past October, I distinctly remember one presentation showing us evidence that insufficient coping skills was one of the top reasons dancers get injured. I can relate.

Most of us don’t have a support system unless we go out and create one for ourselves. We all have the right to a safety net. An incredibly supportive, effective, affordable network.

What if each dance program/school had a network that consisted of a rehabilitation team, a strength and conditioning team, and a therapist.

Welcome to my perfect world where:

1. Each dance school/program has a built in a budget for student rehabilitation. This budgeted amount is established knowing that dancers will get hurt- Not if, but when. This  allows dancers to receive a certain minimum amount of treatment for their injuries, and a subsidized rate beyond that amount, so that they can focus on their dancing without fear.

2. Strength and conditioning is a mandatory part of the curriculum. Not a bootcamp, Barre fitness style class, but a sensible, periodized, dance-specific program taught by a competent coach who would have as much a role in education as supervising exercise,  empowering dancers to become their best while feeling good about themselves and their abilities.

3. The dance program has it’s own  team of rehabilitation specialists. They observe dance classes, communicate with the other teachers and faculty, and, most importantly, aren’t only into making money with fancy treatments and passive therapies. Did you know that some physios can make hundreds of dollars by prescribing an injection that takes them 5 minutes to administer? Makes it pretty tempting to do this than work long-term with a patient to teach them how they came to be injured.

4. Dance teachers are educated on how to speak and interact with their students.  They are taught to avoid negative language and help them adopt a growth mindset, set goals, and raise their self-worth rather than make them feel bad about their abilities.

Imagine how reassuring it would be to dance at a school that had this kind of support system. The dancers in this program would thrive knowing that if their worst fears came true, they wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. It would allow them to dance with more confidence, not subjected to inappropriate language and fear mongering with no talk of solutions.

I write this because a dancer I know has been going through some hard times in his last year university and a system like this could have prevented his current situation, as well as that of many dancers.

Meet Michael.

I “met” Michael via email (probably chatting initially about deadlifts and hamstring injuries, two things we have in common).

Despite his best intentions, desire to learn how to take care of his body, and love of strength training, he became badly injured and has now accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills he can’t afford to pay, and is still trying to get back on his feet.

Michael’s not an idiot. He’s way smarter than I was at his age.

Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He only wanted to work hard and succeed at something he loves, but he didn’t have the support and education he needed to overcome his injuries.

When his physiotherapy program was not helping him improve adequately, he didn’t know whether he should call it quits and find someone new, because that isn’t taught in school.

When he was cleared to go back to dance, still in pain, he was not educated on how to know when to rest, something we all need an education in.

He loves strength training and knows it’s good for him to do, but like most students, he wan not able to afford supervision and a customized program that would have ensured his cross-training was helping him, not just grinding him into the dirt (unlike other collegiate athletics programs which almost always include strength and conditioning training).

Michael didn’t get adequate recovery because he felt guilty about resting, and felt judged for sitting out. He didn’t have a better plan so he pushed through his injuries to perform in a show which, by the end, found him unable to walk without pain.

While he will probably look back a few years from now and see his situation so clearly, it’s not so easy to make the right choices when your life is ruled by judgement, competition, and pressure to succeed, with little support.

Michael needed a system.

He needed better quality physio that insisted upon adequate recovery, guidance for his cross-training, financial aid, compassion from his teachers,  and to be re-assured that  he would have a  smooth transition back into dance if he followed their advice.

Image result for dance injuries

He needed a trustworthy system with this kind of incredible communication between rehab, cross-training, and teaching, with the budget to support him so he didn’t have the financial burden at the forefront of his mind.

Of course there are some challenges this model poses.

The big one: Money. Where does this budget to subsidize rehab, training, and education come from?

Another biggie: Time. Convincing the head of a dance program that it is necessary to make time for screening and strength and conditioning in the already packed curriculum isn’t an easy sell.

This system is my dream. Just give me 10 years and I’ll make it happen ;).

How is Michael now coping with his situation? He’s started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his medical expenses and get back to dancing. It takes courage to put oneself out there and ask for money. I certainly would rather have given up completely than ask for help.

But Michael shouldn’t have to be asking for money. Dance students should not have to reach out to their friends and strangers on the internet because they can’t afford physical therapy. That said, this is Michael’s reality, and if you’d like to help him out, please contribute to his campaign. Better yet, reach out to UC Irvine where he studies and ask them to consider creating a better support system for their dance students.

Michael has been inspired by his situation to start a charity that would support dancers through times of need like his. For now, his Go Fund Me campaign is his charity, and if he meets his fundraising goal, he also hopes to donate to a charity that does something similar to support dancers. Please help him out, and share this post.

And if you are aware or organizations that support dancers, please let me (and Michael) know about them. Many of us are not aware what resources are available to us, so post them in the comments below.

What do you think? Am I too idealistic? (I for sure am, but I’m not changing). Can you relate to Michael’s experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

And yes, realize that I used a lot of negative verbiage in this post, but it was mostly to make a point!

 

 

 

 

Living With a Food Obsession

Living With a Food Obsession

Photo from Fivex3.com

The following is a guest-post from my friend Emily Socolinsky. Emily is a fantastic, uber intelligent trainer who owns the gym Fivex3 Training in Baltimore. She is also a dancer and has spent many years dealing with disordered eating. Sound familiar? We’re pretty much the same person. Except Emily’s maybe 100000 times smarter, stronger and wiser than I.

Emily has been kind enough and brave enough to share her story with us all, and I think you’ll find it touching and beautifully written. She shares how as a young dancer she was told to lose weight, and how this idea stuck with her, defining a portion of her life (kind of like me).  She now lifts heavy (like me), realizes that dancers are better off when they strength train (like I’ve found), and is now able to find balance with her diet (like me) though every day is a new challenge.

Oh, and she recently became certified with Precision Nutrition, so if you want nutrition help, shoot her an email ;).

But I won’t say any more, because I think her story speaks for itself. Thank you for sharing, Emily!

Living with a food obsession….

 

“One, two, three, four. Pull in your stomach. Stretch those legs. Five, six, seven, eight.”

As she walked around the studio, she poked and prodded, pulled arms, lifted chins. Then, as she passed by me, she paused. She stepped back and looked me up and down. I stood a little taller and pulled my stomach in.

“You could stand to lose a few,” she remarked coldly and then continued to the next dancer at the barre.

What did she just say to you, my brain screamed at me. I froze. For how long, I don’t know. After a few seconds or so, I continued with my tendues. But my mind was racing. I was 14 years old. I was a freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts. I was 5’6” tall. I weighed about 110 pounds. And until this day, NO ONE had ever commented about my weight before. EVER. To this day, I think back at that day in the dance studio, and I wish to God  it had never happened. I wish that she had not opened her big, fat mouth. I wish that this did not exist in the dance world, in the world of gymnastics, in the world in general. But it does. It has. And unfortunately, it always will. My world changed forever that day in the dance studio. 24 years later, I still struggle.

I broke down into tears a year later in my mom’s gynecologist’s  office, sobbing over my weight. “I can’t weigh more than 120 pounds,” I wailed. “He said so.” Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the head of the dance department had instituted a weight requirement for the dancers (he had not.) But I was convinced he had in my mixed up, fucked my 15 year old head. My mother was scared. I was going away that summer for five weeks to a ballet intensive dance program in upstate New York, away from her, away from my friends, away from sanity. She did not want me to go but it was paid for, of course I was going. I should go. It was important to dance during the summer.

“Promise me you will eat, Emily,” my mom pleaded with me.

“I promise,” I told her. But honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to the othr girls, to my dance teachers, to being away for the first time. There was so much to think about that the last thing I really thought about was eating.

My dad drove me up to Skidmore College that summer because my mom had undergone unexpected stomach surgery and could not travel. I sat in the window of my dorm room and cried as I watched his truck drive away. There was a pit in my stomach and I ached for home. But as the days went on, I made friends, got wrapped up in my dance classes and settled into my home for the summer. Most importantly and surprisingly, I ATE. I did not even think about. We had all of our meals in the cafeteria and this was really the only time that we had a chance to eat. The first time we all made our way to breakfast, I knew I was going to keep my promise to my mom. I watched the other girls pick up orange juice, nothing else, maybe a piece of fruit. At dinner one night, I observed one dancer eating only a bowl of rice. I looked down at my plate of chicken and green beans and realized that I was the healthy one, not them. I told myself that I would eat my food, all of my food, just to show them that this is how a healthy dancer eats. I looked at their hip bones poking through their leotards and knew that did not want to look like that. I did not want to deprive myself of good, whole foods. I recognized that what I was eating was good and should not avoid it. I actually remember smiling at myself for doing this. But I will not lie to you and tell you that I still did not obsess over my food. This was my true disordered thinking. And this obsession went on (and unfortunately rears its ugly head from time to time) for many, many years after that summer.

When I returned home from that summer, my food obsession was just beginning to bloom. This struggle between eating/not eating and my love/hate relationship would continue to tear me a part all through high school, into college, into my 20’s living in NY, into my late 20’s as a teacher to today. My junior year of high school, I did not get my period for months at a time. And when I would get it,  the period was heavy, so heavy that all I could do was curl up into a little ball in my bed and hold my stomach. Who knows how much of this had to do with my eating habits. I was definitely underweight for  my height and was dancing 5-6 hours a day, five days a week.  And when I say love/hate, I really mean it. There were days when I would just break into tears, so unhappy with the way I looked, so unhappy with my attitude towards food. I wanted to eat it but at the same time, I was so mad that I could not tell myself to NOT eat it.

I injured myself my senior year of high school and continued to eat the same way I always had except I was not dancing anymore so the food I ate made me gain weight because I was not exercising. By the time I started college, I had gained a good 10 pounds which would then turn into 15. College was spent not eating, trying to lose weight, being happy with the way I looked one minute to then sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom down the hall from the dance studios an hour later. I could never predict how I was going to feel one day to the next in regards to my body. I would make myself feel so guilty for eating. I walked around all the time with a large bottle of Evian in my mind, sucking down bottle of water after bottle of water. (Now, I struggle to drink even a glass of water. Yes, I am one of those people. 😉 I drink a lot of tea and water with lemon. But I drink enough to keep my hydrated.)  I would cut up fruit and eat it like it was going out of style. Bowls and bowls of fruit would be consumed on a daily basis. (No wonder I could not get a handle on my weight.) I can remember going to the bookstore on campus which also sold food and buying a bagel, a banana and a Power Bar. This was my breakfast, snack and maybe lunch too, all rolled into one. I drank tons of soda. I ate Power Bars. At night, partying with my friends, I would drink tequila straight from the bottle. I abused my body. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office telling him that everything I ate made me sick. EVERYTHING. He looked at me and told me that I was crazy like my old man. (My parents were patients of his too.) And you know what? He was right. He was fucking right. I was crazy. There was nothing wrong with me physically. It was all in my head. But I could not see it.  I did not want to believe it.  It took me almost 20 years later to finally understand the extent of my obsession.

I moved to NY when I graduated from college and spent my early 20’s talking to GI doctor after GI doctor.  I had a colonoscopy when I was around 22. I took Citrucel and Metamucil like it was going out of style. I took laxatives. I convinced myself that I had some sort of Celiac or Chron’s disease after reading a book that I bought about the diseases after I was diagnosed (FINALLY) with IBS. (Of course, I would understand years later, all doctors who diagnose their patients with IBS do so because there really is nothing wrong with the patient but they want some kind of label put on their ailments. Hmm.) And in my case, this was absolutely true. I had no IBS. No stomach disorder. No Chron’s disease. But I still insisted on eating nothing but tuna fish from a can for a week until I realized I was starving myself. I was mentally wired wrong in the head. I thought about food ALL the time. What I ate, when I was going to eat again, what I was NOT going to eat anymore. There is now a running joke with my family about my ability to remember past events in my life by what I was eating at the time. It is a joke but at the same time, it is not so funny. When you think about food 24/7, one has a hard time understanding how to truly enjoy eating. Food was the enemy. And it was beating me.

(The funny thing was that when I was living in NYC, I kept a journal and in this journal were pictures of women’s bodies that I wanted. When I looked back at those pictures, I was stunned. They were pictures of athletes, basketball players, swimmers, Gabby Reece, the volleyball player. I wanted to look like those women.  Real women with arms and legs and muscles. At least I can take pride in the fact that I never wanted to look like a runway model. But I had no idea how to eat to look like them. For some reason I thought that starving myself was the answer).

My parents arranged me to talk to a therapist when I was in high school. That quickly ended after my mom found out I was using that time to talk about my parents religious differences and that somehow THIS was the cause of my eating issues. (It wasn’t.) In college, I tried to meet with a few counselors but I could not really talk about my problem because, well, I did not think I had a real problem. I met with a social worker in New York when I moved there after college. I would go to her small apartment in the West Village and sit and cry and talk about useless things, never really getting to the source of my issues with food. I eventually stopped going to her. It was a waste of time and money. I wasn’t letting anyone help me.  Then, in 2004, I broke up with my boyfriend of three years, had a complete mental breakdown and started meeting with a new social worker whom I worked with from November of 2004 until May of 2011. She was amazing. It was the longest I had ever been in therapy, and we covered the gamut of my many issues. However, during this time, I never really spent that much time talking about my food obsession. Not specifically. However, I did come to the realization that my obsession with food is directly correlated with how I am doing in my life – financially, physically, emotionally. If I am happy, my eating problems are not a priority. If I am unhappy with my job, my life  or I am injured, my eating problems surface and it is very scary. Yes, this does mean around the clock checking in with myself. I am in control now for the first time in my life. Food does not control me. Although it still wants too sometimes.

Fast forward to today.  At age 38, I am learning to finally come to terms with my eating habits and my issues with eating. I have worked very hard to find a balanced and healthy way of eating that works for me and today, I eat better than I ever have. I am happy with my progress and my new attitude towards my eating and how it relates to my progress in the gym and in my daily life.  But to be fair and honest, it is still very difficult for me to be completely comfortable with my eating, and I would be lying to you and to myself if I said that I have it all figured out. I am not going to say that when I look in the mirror at myself each day that I love what I see because I don’t But I like what I see 99% of the time and that is HUGE progress. I am not going to tell you that I don’t count calories or think about calories because I do. I can tell you EXACTLY how many calories are in a ¼ of an avocado and one large egg. But 99% of the time, I don’t worry about it and just eat the avocado and the egg because I know they are super foods and I LOVE super foods.  I am going to tell you that I am better off than I was last month, last year, three years ago, 10 years ago. And that is progress. I rarely compare myself to other women anymore (that was a huge part of my issue too.) I enjoy eating out with my friends and husband. I choose good foods to eat and occasionally have my burger and fries and enjoy them too. Most importantly, I am married to an amazing man, my best friend, who loves me more than words can describe and has to be one of the most patient and understanding men I know… he knows it too. 😉 Each day I am reminded that he is here for me and that he understands me. And he really does. He really does. For me, it will always be one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time.

 

You can check out Emily’s website and blog HERE, and see what she’s up to over at Fivex3 Training. Thanks again for sharing Emily :). And if you have a story of your own you’d like to share, please send me an email:

I Was a Type-A Dancer With an Eating Disorder-Part 1

I Was a Type-A Dancer With an Eating Disorder-Part 1

First of all, THANK YOU everyone who voted for The Dance Training Project in the Dance Advantage top dance blog contest!

Guess who has two thumbs and snagged #19?

Considering I’ve been doing this “blogging thing” for less than a year, and was up against some pretty establised writers, (like my friends The Healthy Dancer, Lauren Warnecke, and Toronto’s own The T.D.O.T Blog), 19th place ain’t too shabby. Next year, I’ll be up there at number 1 though ;). Watch out!

The tremendous support was seriously humbling , and (here comes the cheese) I really couldn’t have done it without you. Really- There were only so many different computers I could vote for myself on… Just kidding, I kept it legit. I have a special gift planned to express my gratitude, which will be available here on the site soon, but more on that later.

Let’s get down to what I really want to talk about today.

February is eating disorder awareness month!

Call me Grateful Gretta (which was actually going to be my name, by the way), but THANKS AGAIN to those who emailed/messaged me either to share a personal story, or to give me some feedback on the February eating disorder awareness project here at the DTP.

Disordered eating in dancers is something I feel very strongly about. Being a dancer isn’t all glamour. Being cast the role of  “eating disordered dancer” was probably the hardest and longest performance of my dance career. It took it’s toll emotionally, mentally, and physically, and it’s rare that those of us who’ve played the role will talk about it.

Writing about my experience with disordered eating isn’t fun. It was really hard to do. I originally started writing about it back in October, and haven’t had the courage to say anything until now. I know it seems like I talk about myself a lot on this blog, but that’s not what I’m doing here- I’m sharing my experience of being a dancer with an eating disorder, and how it shaped who I am today.

The girl in the story is not the same girl sitting at the computer writing it now. She was a young, naive, impressionable perfectionist (try saying that 5 times fast). You can probably relate to this girl. Looking back on this girl now I can almost see her objectively, see the reason and passion, albeit misdirected, in her choices, and know that everything that she went through happened exactly as it was meant to. We all have our struggles, but our strength lies in harnessing the incredible creative energy of our struggles and using it for something greater.

So let’s take it back to October when I first sat down with the intention of writing something about nutrition for dance performance.

I failed miserably.

I wrote about a page or so of remedial “nutrition 101” type material, and  deleted the whole thing. Truthfully, I don’t think I can actually write about nutrition. Let me explain.

My passion is to give dancers the tools to help them become the strongest, healthiest performers they can be. Nutrition is a huge part of this.

A lot of dancers are so tuned in to the physical aspect of dancing, and have no idea that the “foods” they are eating are hindering the high level of performance required of them.

I’m not going to mention names, but I distinctly remember a class-mate who would walk into the room with a half-dozen pack of croissants- his sole source of fuel for the 5 hour dance day. Oh boy…

Or my other friend who would show up to class carrying a 2 litre carton of O.J. and a bag of chips for breakfast.

The girl who ate pizza and soda every day for lunch.

The girl who, on breaks between rehearsals, would consume a bag of skittles as an “energy boosting” snack.

And the list could go on… Let’s not even talk about our backstage, pre-show “nutrition”. Chocolate is not high performance food. Mmm chocolate…

These dancers were all incredibly gifted. They had so much talent, and even more untapped potential. You have to wonder, if they were able to perform that well on their current crap diet, imagine how well they’d be performing if they ate REAL food.

But I guess I should give them the benefit of the doubt, because I’m sure they did eat healthy outside of school. I mean, I wasn’t around them for every meal, 24/7. I’m not that creepy.

But when you dance 5+ hours a day, like we sometimes did at Ryerson, or as professional dancers do every day, then eating well occasionally is just not enough. It must become important to you.

Do you want to get hurt less? Want to recover from hard classes, rehearsals and injuries faster? Want to have more energy? Better cognitive function? Less achy joints? Better skin? Leaner body? You can improve it all with proper nutrition. But we already know this.

I’ve already spoken of the one extreme- the junk food affliction- and as a quick side note, I’d be remiss not to mention that there were many dancers who DID eat healthy stuff. But they were the minority, for sure.

And this brings me to another chapter in the dance-nutrition saga.

The other side of the story. The dark side. The side we hear about so often, in the media, in movies (Center Stage, Black Swan), but rarely in “real life”. The dancer with the eating disorder, struggling to find the balance between aesthetics and performance.

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think “dancer body”?

This?

According to elle.com, this is the dancer's body (you can get with their special workout program OMG)

This?

Oh, Tracy Anderson... Let's not even get started on that one.

 

As a dancer, how you look is important. Sometimes too important. Who cares if your energy is low if you “look like a dancer”. Who cares if your cognitive function is shit- you look like a dancer. Why worry that you keep getting hurt recover slowly if you’re skinny! That’s the most important thing. Right?

But what does it mean to “look like a dancer”? Does it mean the same as feeling like a dancer? It should…

So anyway, I sat down to write about nutrition, why it’s important, and how you should be eating to optimize your performance as a dancer.

And I couldn’t do it.

I’m not a nutrition major, but that’s not why I couldn’t do it. Anybody who knows the basics of healthy eating can write a blog post about why eating junk is bad, and why starving yourself as an athlete isn’t optimal. I could write about why donuts are bad, and that not eating for 2 days will hinder your performance. But everyone already knows that. It doesn’t need to be re-hashed.

I have a nasty case of cognitive dissonance. It has been like a weight on my shoulders for years, and it’s time to finally let it go.

I can’t write a blog post about nutrition because I feel like a hypocrite- I was one of those eating disordered dancers. I am proud to have since recovered, but I will always be coping with the aftermath, and this, in my mind, makes writing a nutrition article too daunting of a task. For now anyway.

When I was 14, I made a very conscious decision to “become” anorexic. This was at around the same time I was going through puberty (ahhh puberty…), and naturally putting on a normal amount of weight.  I was worried that any iota of fat accumulating on my body would make me unable to become a professional dancer, which was the all-important goal, at the time. Or so I thought.

That was the one crazy idea that began my journey down the slippery slope of body hating, obsessive-compulsion and starvation. I remember I was lying in my bed, in my room one morning, and thought, “Ok, let’s do this. A lot of pro dancers are anorexic. I can do it too.”

“I can do it too”? As if it was something to be proud of.

But I did it. And ohhhhh MAN did it ever suck. For those reading this who have had that same “crazy idea”, you know you can never fully be rid of that sick voice in your head. It’s always with you. Even when you’re done acting on it, like I am now. It is still at the back of your mind, influencing every decision you make.

You can become more rational than your crazy ideas, but you can’t stop them. The fortunate truth is that you are not your ideas, and you are not your body.

I feel that anything I write about nutrition will be tarnished by the disordered part of my brain. Maybe I’m crazy, but that’s how I feel, so… that’s how I feel. I will constantly be judging the words on the page.“ Is this really a good nutritional strategy?” or, “Can this statement be misconstrued?” It would drive me crazy(er).

I’m sure what I could write would be perfectly acceptable. But I’m not content with writing something “acceptable”. I don’t want to write another “Basic nutrition 101” article, regurgitating facts on how great vegetables are, and that carbohydrates are a good source of energy for the active person.

Others might argue that having been anorexic makes me a perfect person to write about nutrition, now that I know what NOT to do. And I realize this. But I don’t feel the same. At least not right now. I would rather leave that to the experts.

Instead, I will, as honestly as I can, re-live my story- what happened to me after I had that crazy idea 9 years ago, and the aftermath.

It has a happy ending, I promise.

Keep posted for part 2. And remember, if you have a story you’d like to share, please email me at monikavolkmar@hotmail.com. You can choose to remain anonymous. I firmly believe that sharing your story will help others. We can all learn a lot from each other.