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.