Professional dancers undergo lots of physical strain on their bodies. A professional dancer averages dancing for six to seven hours a day. A dancer’s goal is to achieve perfection, a lean body type, and to be the absolute best that they can be at what they do. The focus on size, shape and weight can put extreme pressures on a dancer. Some professional dance environments can lead to destructive eating habits which may have long-term and even fatal consequences for the dancer.
The most common eating disorder found amongst professional dancers is anorexia nervosa. Anorexia nervosa is defined to be an eating disorder characterized by weight loss. Those with the disorder tend to exercise compulsively, purge via vomiting and laxatives, and/or binge eat. When a dancer is burning 337 calories an hour, and dancing for 7 hours a day leading to them burning 2,359 calories a day, it is very dangerous to one’s body to not refuel what is lost.
One study performed by Daniel Le Grange examined the presence of anorexia-nervosa like symptoms in a group of 49 professional female ballerinas.
The purpose of the study was to determine what implicated the disorder and how they diagnosed the disorder among a given group. The age of the dancers ranged from 16-29 years old. All were assessed for certain physical (weight and height) and physiological (Eating attitude test [EAT]) indices at the beginning of the training year, and then again at the end to measure the differences. The EAT test is a 26-itemed self-report that assess the symptoms and concerns characterized with eating disorders.
Some of the questions asked on the test include “Are you terrified about being overweight?” and “I avoid foods with sugar in them.”
The person taking the test must rate themselves from a 3 being always and a 0 being never. In this study, the EAT test was administered as well as demographic and dietary information. If the ballerina scored >30 on the test, they were invited to a semi structured psychiatric interview. Those whom concerted efforts to achieve weight loss were diagnosed to contain the disorder anorexia nervosa. Those whom shared a lot of the same features as patients with anorexia but were insufficient for the diagnosis were identified to have a partial syndrome case. 10 months later, the same students were reassessed again using the same tests. Based on the recorded data, it was found that 4.1% of the 49 dancers tested, could be identified to have the full case of anorexia, and 8.2% had the partial syndrome case.
Although that study identified how to diagnose the disorder and what symptoms to look for, another issue is how the disorder is becoming more and more common within recent generations. A study performed by Jon Arcelus and Gemma L. Witcomb was designed to examine the rates of eating disorders present in today’s populations and how they specifically relate to ballet dancers. They did so by putting together 15 conducted studies that used the EAT test and calculating the percentage of each eating disorder present in today’s population and how that compared to just dancers. It was concluded based on the recorded data that the overall prevalence of eating disorders within the study group was 12.0% (16.4% for ballet dancers), 2.0% (4% for ballet dancers) for anorexia, 4.4% (2% for ballet dancers) for bulimia and 9.5% (14.9% for ballet dancers) for eating disorders not otherwise specified.
The dancer group studied had higher mean scores on the EAT-26 questionnaire. Dancers, in general, had a higher risk of suffering from eating disorders in general, anorexia nervosa , but no higher risk of suffering from bulimia nervosa. Based on the previous research done by Arcelus it is confirmed that anorexia is more prevalent in dancers compared to the average person, but how about compared to other sports? This idea was explored by Laura Herbrich. The purpose of her research was to determine the frequency of sport-specific eating disorders, compared to the concept of anorexia athletica. This field study contained one experimental group and two control groups (diseased and healthy). Fifty-two professional ballet dancers aged 13–20 years were tested for clinical eating disorders, anorexia athletica criteria, eating disorder-related psychopathology and self-concept, and were compared with 52 patients with anorexia nervosa and 44 non-athletic controls of the same age.
Similarly, to the first research performed by Daniel Le Grange, the EAT test was used as well as semi-structured interviews. Anorexia was more striking in the professional ballet dancers due to them scoring lower on the questionnaires than the athletic patients who contained acute cases of anorexia. Some physical damage done to the body due to being anorexic include infertility, the shutdown of many viable body systems, brain damage, heart attacks, or even death. The body lacks so much energy and therefore produces so much fatigue a strain onto itself. Yasmin Rodrigues constructed a research study to compare fatigue and eating disorders in dancers and how one may affect the other. The study was conducted using 49 women and 52 men ranging from 20-29 years old. The data collected verified that 15.89% of dancers presented symptoms of anorexia, 25.23% symptoms of bulimia on the symptomatic scale and 29.91% symptoms of bulimia on the severity scale.
It is noteworthy that the occurrence of eating disorders among females compared to males was much higher. Since the presence of eating disorders symptoms in dancers has been associated with body image dissatisfaction, the higher incidence of these symptoms in females is due to the women’s concern with the body, being more dissatisfied. The results were discouraging because as explained before, the effects on anorexia on the dancer can affect their performance and performance quality. Due to the negative affect’s anorexia has on dancers’ body and performance quality, and how frequently seen it is amongst professional dancers, it is very important that they receive treatment for their disorder. Some common treatments include hospitalization due to issues such as a heart rhythm disturbance, dehydration, electrolyte imbalances or a psychiatric emergency from malnourishment.
Other options include a treatment program, regaining a healthy weight, medications, psychotherapy, and more. All the research studies examined, reiterated the idea that anorexia is a very common eating disorder amongst professional dancers when being compared to other athletes or the normal person. Some of the reasons as to why, were shown to all be focused around the idea of perfectionism. Professional dancers are always under pressure to achieve perfection. That idea of perfection can include but is not limited to their performance, their performance quality, their hair, their makeup, but most obsessed about is the body.
They are always aiming for that lean, slim looking body type. The obsession with having the perfect body often times prevents them from living a healthy lifestyle and causes much too frequent anorexia disorder. As observed by some of the research studies, they malnourish themselves to the point of extreme fatigue and harm on their bodies. The commonness continues to increase as each generation as dancers goes by and is a lot more common in a dancer when compared to other athletes as well as even non-athletes. In order to prevent such commonness of anorexia in dancers, dance instructors as well as the support system of professional dancers and even pre-professional dancers should encourage the idea that they do not need to malnourish themselves into achieving the “perfect” body type. There is a healthier, less damaging way on the body to do so.