Dancers may struggle with eating disorders and perfectionism, but dancing environments can play a major role in helping dancers to be mentally healthy. BYU dance professors are striving to make dance environments positive and healthy for dance students.
According to BYU ballet dancer Ashley Bouwhuis, eating disorders can come from teaching practices, a dancer’s peers and the environment they create.
Though few dancers develop a clinically defined eating disorder, many develop some form of disordered eating through the physical aesthetics that are required of them as a dancer, according to Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, disordered eating is used to describe a range of irregular eating habits; the main factor that differentiates disordered eating from an eating disorder is the severity and frequency of behaviors.
While the need to be thin and “perfect” is a common mindset in the majority of the dance world, things are much different at BYU, according to BYU Ballet Administrator and BYU Ballet Artistic Director Shayla Bott.
“We here at BYU are always trying to help people come to a healthier place,” Bott said. “I think overall, especially in small companies across the nation, people are looking for healthier bodies that can do all of the repetition that is required of them.”
According to Bott, dance environments can greatly influence their dancers, and unhealthy influences will be evident in the dancers.
“Our students are with each other for around 22 hours a week, and if that were to be a toxic environment for any of them it could be really damaging,” Bott said.
While comments made in passing by teachers and peers could have no real intention behind them, some comments can have a lasting impact on students, according to former BYU student Nicole Harvey.
“They can cause mental blocks when it comes to insecurities and pushing forward and having confidence, or it can do the opposite and give great confidence and help,” Harvey said.
According to BYU associate dance professor Shani Robison, the pursuit of perfection is a big driving force when it comes to mental instability in dancers.
“I think our art form, being such a visual performing art, affects mental health because of the desire to look a certain way,” Robison said.
According to Department of Dance Associate Chair Pam Musil, there’s always the need for perfectionism in dancing, and that need establishes a feeling of a constant need to be perfect in dance environments.
“There’s quite a bit higher level of perfectionism in dancers than in other populations and that perfectionism, I think, also attributes to eating disorders,” Musil said. “There’s also quite a bit of research that suggests dancers begin worrying about their weight at a much younger age than their peers and begin restricting calories as young as 9 years of age.”
Musil said similar to the ballet department directors, the contemporary dance directors look for healthy dancers and focus more on dancers’ health than on the aesthetics of performance.
“In a contemporary classroom, there’s a lot of space and room for individual choice and a lot of valuing of different kinds of bodies and different looks,” Musil said.
As per university policy, dance department faculty members are prohibited from speaking about weight with students. However, some areas of dance continue to measure and compare their dancers with the hope of achieving a uniform look, a practice that can create an unhealthy environment, according to BYU dancer Mallorie Davis.
According to Robison, with the toll dance takes on dance students, teachers are striving to make dance environments more conducive to healthy thinking.
“I think facing away from the mirror is something that helps dancers focus less on what they look like and more on how they dance,” Robison said. “I also think talking to students ahead of time about the resources that are available to them if they are struggling with mental health or disordered eating is extremely important.”
Ballroom dance teacher Natalie Schultz said change can come from how teachers instruct their classes or how students interact with each other, but it primarily has to come from within the individual dancer.
“If people want to see that change is happening, it has to start within themselves and how they approach it,” Schultz said. “Until dancers accept how they look and that they look beautiful, nothing really will change.”
Along with this change in dancers’ mindsets, Bott said instructors also need to gain emotional intelligence.
“I think that dance can get to a point where those in charge value the individual dancers just as people and not just as a means to put on a performance,” Bott said. “I also think it is important to create a family environment within dancers so they have a support system that is existent even outside the classroom.”
Editor’s note: Reporter Arianna Davidson is a member of one of BYU’s ballroom dance teams.