[Update: This post is old. Read more recent stories about anorexia.]
My name is Sarah, and I am a ballerina. I was a dancer from the time I was 4 years old until the age of 20. I became more serious about dance, specifically in ballet in my early teens and decided to focus on that, rather than tap or modern dance, because the company I danced with had a very large ballet collaboration with girls of every age and it had always fascinated me. I wanted to be a part of it. When I was in my early twenties, I moved away from the studio I had danced at my whole life. I was a good dancer, but I knew then and still know that I did not have what it takes to be a professional ballerina.
To become a professional ballerina, the first thing you need is a lot of time – to rehearse for multiple hours at a time, every day. As a student, I couldn’t devote that time. Your body has to look a certain way, all the way down to your feet. Long, lean and thin are the adjectives that describe the way a ballerina should look. It takes an incredible amount of time and effort to make movements look effortless. People don’t realize this.
There are constant injuries that come with dancing, as with any sport (and yes, we dancers feel that dancing is a sport), that are, many times, career shattering. For me, it was a torn hamstring during a high school competition – not a strain or a sprain, I literally tore the muscle in a few places. It took months to recover physically. Meanwhile, blisters, and grossly enough, blisters under blisters (ew, I know) were every day occurrences, on top of other muscle strains, Achilles issues, and more. I being an increasingly insecure dancer. My skill-set was perfectly fine, but I feared getting injured again.
The eating part of being a ballerina, and keep in mind that I was never a professional, is hard to comprehend. When you think of athletes, you generally don’t think of them starving themselves. But ballerinas work an obscene amount of hours on toning muscles, cardio, and stretching, on very few calories. This is simply the life of a ballerina. I was never bulimic (I try to throw up as infrequently as possible, for any reason), but when I was dancing, I definitely took dietary supplements/appetite suppressants and kept to an extremely limited diet each day.
There is always someone who is thinner than you are, or who may be a better dancer, and the desire to have that “edge” over her, drives you to do things you wouldn’t normally do – diet, work more hours, sleep less. While I never dropped my body fat down low enough to skip my periods, this happens to a lot of ballerinas (and other female athletes). When you look at pictures of professional ballerinas, you notice they don’t have “normal sized” breasts, and they almost look like girls who are just getting their first bras.You need to be small so that the male ballet dancers can do lifts, and even the girls who aren’t being lifted need to be small.
In fact, I now have a heart condition. I don’t have a proven direct link, but I would bet money on the fact that it was caused from taking those dietary supplements. Being a dancer, you want to (scratch that) NEED TO look graceful and fluid. The costumes are beautiful, but you “know” they’d be even more beautiful on a smaller body. And so you skip lunch daily, or maybe you don’t eat breakfast. You have a lunch that consists of only very low-calorie, non-fat foods (and very little of even that), and then eventually, you’re just “too busy” to eat dinner with your family. It’s classic anorexia, added with hours of dancing each day/week. And for me, it just wasn’t sustainable.
I started doing ballet again last year, after several years off, and was amazed at how much I LOVED it again – I loved how it felt, I loved how my muscles changed back to dancers’ muscles, I was so happy, and sometimes I was too happy to eat… but then I started recognizing that I was slipping into bad habits. (It’s still painful to look at myself in a mirror, under lights, in a leotard). I still dance – mostly at clubs with my friends – and I was a ballerina for Halloween this year, wearing my favorite costume from years ago. I still have body image issues, though I eat pretty healthy and maintain a healthy weight (I’m 5’6″ and weigh 125 lbs on a good day). So while I may not take formal lessons any longer, I still have the ballerina mindset. I don’t think you ever lose that. It’s a tough life, being a dancer.
(Top photo – The Royal Ballet: Swan Lake, via Getty; bottom – Sarah as a ballerina for Halloween this year.)
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