THE first thing to remember is that eating disorders* are seldom “caused” by one sole factor. Eating disorders arise as the result of many factors, many of which medical science has not yet identified or understood.

Moreover, young people are influenced by numerous forces beside the dance class – such as family, school, society, the media – over which a dance teacher has no control.

Remember too that for every individual there is a different reaction: something barely registered with one student might be taken the wrong way by another. It is impossible for teachers to try to groom their behaviour to take all those reactions into account – otherwise they would become so paranoid nobody, least of all the students, would enjoy themselves.

That said, the classroom environment being what it is – the stripped down bodies, the constant exposure to mirrors, the aesthetic requirements of the art form – does make it one of the more likely places for eating disorders to take hold. And for some students their dance teacher can be a very powerful mentor – a responsibility that should be taken very seriously.

The good news is that the best way for teachers to safeguard their school against the possibility of eating disorders is to promote a positive, healthy, happy environment – surely what any teacher is already striving for.

Learning to dance, particularly at a vocational level, involves discipline, serious application, constant improvement, criticism and competition. In some cases the pressure to succeed, to be approved of, is extremely high. These are all a part of life, and particularly an elite performer’s life. Sometimes they can make the classroom a testing place, especially for adolescents. Even in casual classes, feelings of inadequacy can arise if pupils feel they are not keeping up with their peers or are struggling with the steps.

It can be easy to forget that dance should be fun. Apart from the joy of moving to music, dance is about reward, achievement, self-expression, teamwork, and can provide some of the happiest times you could hope to experience. If a teacher emphasises the enjoyable side of dance training, the pupil is more likely to cope with the serious side.

Crucial to this is communication. When teachers communicate well with their students, it is less likely that misunderstandings and resentments will arise and fester. Pupils will feel able to share their frustrations and problems. Openness and mutual respect should be the teacher’s aim.

Lucinda Sharp believes that many of the psychological risk factors – such as low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, perfectionism and competitiveness – can be overcome by teachers encouraging pupils to set personal goals, rather than setting blanket goals for the whole class. “Of course there will always be competitiveness,” she said, “but by aiming for improvements of their own, pupils are less likely to compare themselves, often unfairly, against others.” Help each child to understand and celebrate their individual qualities, as well as in others.

A happy environment should also be a healthy environment. Dance is a celebration of the body’s capabilities – its fitness, strength and beauty. Part of learning to dance is understanding how to keep the body healthy and trim.

So it makes sense that nutrition and health should be part of a dance education.

A good way to achieve this is to have occasional lessons or seminars with students about nutrition and well-being. Make it part of your school’s curriculum. Additionally, casual discussion about rest, exercise and eating well could also form part of your communication with your pupils.

Such talk could include sensible facts about different body types and debunk unrealistic ideals about “the perfect ballet body”. Openness about such issues “normalises” them, so that pupils feel no embarrassment about discussing them, and discourages the sort of secrecy and shame associated with poor body image.

It is important to ensure that any such discussion revolves around fitness and health rather than weight gain or loss, fatness or thinness. Keep the message about “getting the most out of your body”, Sharp said. This helps get across that a malnourished body is not good for dancing.

Both Moyle and Lilley suggested that schools could draw up a policy on healthy lifestyles, “so everyone – parents and pupils – know what they’re aiming for,” said Lilley.

If a student is “overweight”, should you discuss it with them? It depends on the reason the pupil is dancing. “I don’t think it’s the teachers role to tell casual students to lose weight,” said Lilley, “certainly not in front of their peers.”

But for the elite dancer, Gene Moyle said: “We can’t shy away from the brutal fact that dance requires a certain body type. So, yes, if there is a change in their attitude or physical appearance it should be a trigger for a teacher to have a conversation with them. But rather than judging or blaming them, it should be about finding out why and offering assistance. You have to be sensitive, but if it’s normalised from the beginning [it shouldn’t be so difficult].”

Find out if there are other factors – with younger students it can be hormonal, boyfriend problems, changes at home, anything. If they are struggling with their weight, refer them to a specialist dietitian.

“Any discussion should be done with purpose and compassion, emphasising good health, sleep and exercise habits,” said Lilley.

Most importantly, never tell a student to go on a restrictive diet. “Dieting is often the first stage of an eating disorder and dietary recommendations are best left to the expertise of the dietitian,” said Sharp.

When sufferers of eating disorders recall what triggered their illness, they often blame a few careless remarks someone made about their appearance. Many teachers worry that they might be the unwitting perpetrator of such remarks.

Corrections are a part of a dancers’ life, but in a vulnerable pupil can be tell pupils to pull in their stomachs, for instance?

All three psychologists agreed that teachers’ remarks should focus on what the body does, rather than what it looks like, or “function rather than form”, as Peta Lilley said. Stick to the facts.

Rather than say “pull in your stomach”, tell pupils to engage or strengthen their  abdominals. With corrections, said Sharp: “focus on strength, power, shape of movement, dynamics, quality.” For example, you can say: “Use your feet to land softly”, instead of “you landed like a sack of potatoes”.

Beware of teasing. Much depends on the teachers’ relationship with the pupil, but on the whole it is probably unwise to tease if it means having a laugh at the pupil’s expense. Peta Lilley suggested using yourself to demonstrate something funny, rather than pointing out the mistake in a student. “I used to stand in front and say, I look pregnant, don’t I, and then show them the right way to do it.”  As for sarcasm, it should be avoided at all cost.

If all this sounds rather humourless, that needn’t be the case. Moyle said:

“You don’t want to be worried about every word that comes out of your mouth. But on the other hand, it’s about teachers reflecting on how they instruct and on the words they use. We all tend to use habitual words, and often they are the words that were used on us by our own teachers. Ask yourself, ‘are there more helpful ways I can get a student to do what I want?’”

Lucinda Sharp recommended against what she calls “black and white thinking”. “Try to avoid terms like:

‘You should do it this way’; ‘You must have your arms here’,” she said.

“This kind of black and white thinking is implicated in perfectionism, which is implicated in eating disorders.” It leaves no room for progressing or making mistakes. Instead she recommended such expressions as “Try it this way”, or “this is what you’re aiming for”, or “this is the correct way”, or “this is how it’s done”.

Gene Moyle: “If the class has completed an exercise, you can say things like: ‘Okay, this time I want you to do it with stretched feet’, instead of, ‘that looked awful, your feet were all flapping’. You want to focus on what you want the dancers to do, not what you don’t want them to do.”

Use praise to broaden your and your students’ concept of what is valued in dance. Praise energy, grace, lightness, dynamism, pleasure, smoothness, speed, attack,  expansiveness, power, lively eyes, expressive hands – the list is endless. Use a much wider vocabulary and introduce students to different concepts of what constitutes dance other than just looking sweet and delicate.

Touching your pupils’ bodies to help them feel the correct action is a valuable aspect of teaching. How you go about it is a matter of commonsense – be sensitive to the student and respectfulof their bodies. And remember that laying on the hands is not the only way to demonstrate – some pupils respond better to being shown.

Dance gear has to be close fitting for teachers to identify correct technique. But for pubescent students still getting used to their new shapes, it might help to choose colours and styles that are not too revealing.

All dancers are familiar with the merciless stare of the mirror – a curse  and a lure. There is little question that seeing yourself every day in the mirror, surrounded by your peers for comparison, encourages constant critical self-assessment, and possibly all the  self-loathing that goes with it.

Mirrors are a necessary tool, but they shouldn’t be relied on exclusively. Many students become too dependent on them for a whole range of reasons.

All three psychologists interviewed for this article agreed that it would be beneficial to cover over the mirrors or turn the pupils’ backs to them as a regular practice. It not only gives dancers a break from their own image, but helps them develop their kinaesthetic awareness, exercise their memory, and direct their eyeline elsewhere than on themselves.

Sharp tells students with body image problems to put themselves at the barre where they can’t see themselves, and concentrate on “how fantastic their body is, the things it can do, rather than checking out their thighs”.

Dressingroom chat
What if you hear your pupils talking among themselves about how fat they are? Should you say something? Once again, it’s a matter of judgement.

If you think the chat is a sign that your pupils are too obsessed with food and body image, Gene Moyle recommended it as a good opportunity to re-emphasise what you want from your students – such as strong, healthy bodies that can dance well. However, Sharp pointed out that too big an issue can be made of such remarks, and Lilley pointed out that sometimes a thin child will make such claims because they are seeking attention, not because they have a potential eating disorder. If you have a good open relation with your pupils, it will make be easier for you judge the situation.

If you suspect a student has an eating disorder or has lost too much weight, what should you do?

If they are young, up to about 16, you have a duty of care to talk to the parents. If they are older, discuss it with the student first. There may be many reasons for the change in body shape that have nothing to do with eating disorders.

Boys and young men do suffer from body image problems but, in the dance world, they rarely translate into eating disorders. Boys tend to worry about being too thin, or not looking muscular or sculpted enough. Said Sharp:

“I find with boys that they are really keen to grow, and they love catching up with the doctor because they want to see [how much they’ve grown]. The males we have [at the ABS] tend to be a finer build anyway. The new male dancer is leaner than 30 to 40 years ago.”

Remember that if a student does have an eating disorder, it is not a dance teacher’s responsibility to cure them. Continue to treat them as you would normally. Just by being at class the student is socialising and staying involved and hence aiding their own recovery. Obviously you should act with care and sensitivity, but eating disorders are complex conditions and are best left to the professionals to treat.

Lucinda Sharp is Head of Student Health and Welfare at the Australian Ballet School; Gene Moyle lectures in performance psychology at QUT Creative Industries; and Dr Peta Lilley is the principal clinical psychologist at Lilley Place Clinical Psychology, a specialist child and adolescent private practice in Brisbane.

* ”Eating disorder” is the clinical condition covering a number of behaviours such as aneroxia and bulimia. It is different from the more common “disordered eating”, which refers to a wide range of abnormal eating behaviours, such as chronic restrained eating, compulsive eating and habitual dieting. Disordered eating includes irregular, chaotic eating patterns which may reflect some but not all symptoms of recognised eating disorders.

For simplicity, we have used only the first term.

Some risk factors

• Low self-esteem
• Feelings of inadequacy
• Depression or anxiety
• A belief that love from family and friends is dependent on high achievement
• Poor communication between family members, or the reluctance of parents to allow appropriate degrees of independence as children mature
• Difficulty expressing emotions and feelings, particularly ‘negative’ emotions
• Ineffective coping strategies
• Perfectionism
• Competitiveness
• Impulsive or obsessive behaviours
• A need to please others
• Highly concerned with the opinions of others
• Prone to extremes, such as ‘black and white’ thinking

Social Factors
• Cultural value placed on ‘thinness’ as an inextricable part of beauty
• Current cultural emphasis on the need for a ‘perfect body’
• Valuing of people according to outward appearance and not inner qualities
• Media and popular culture’s portrayal of men and women’s shapes and bodies that are not representative of ‘real’ men and women
• Pressure to achieve and succeed
• Professions with an emphasis on body shape and size (eg. dancers, models, athletes)

Physiological/biological factors
Scientists are currently researching possible biochemical and biological factors and their
role in the development of eating disorders.

For a complete list of factors see

There are many sites devoted to eating disorders. Some useful ones (apart from the one listed above) are:

This article was first published in the April/May 2010 issue of Dance Australia

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