High performance body-focused sports have long been associated with the development of Eating Disorders. Dance, particularly ballet, is a discipline that sees a high prevalence of Eating Disorders as the ideal body type is considered as slim and delicate which is out of reach for many. According to a 2018 study published in the National Library of Medicine dancers are three times more likely to develop Eating Disorders (particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS) than the general population.

Dr. Blessyl Buan is a Toronto-based chiropractor with a special focus on treating and conditioning preforming artists. She says the prevalence of Eating Disorders in the dance world is largely due to the fact that the industry still lacks representation. “The standard of dance body aesthetic gravitates to white, slim bodies in the classical ballet world,” she says. “This unconscious bias towards ableism, ageism, defined standards of beauty, and selection of bodies that look like the individuals that make decisions in dance institutions, that cast company members and prospective students perpetuate the establishment of Eating Disorders.”

Because of this an immense amount of focus is put on appearance instead of a dancer’s skill and ability to perform. Many dancers who do not fit into the ideal mould fall into unhealthy behaviours in order to survive and be accepted in the dance industry. Dr. Baun says that unfair financial compensation, lack of access to health care and a toxic work environment are all factors that perpetuate the problem.

In order to prevent Eating Disorders in the dance world Dr. Baun says there should be standardized guidelines that every dance educator and institution must follow that supports the healthy physiological, mental and neuromuscular development of a dancer from childhood to adulthood. Education is also necessary among dance health providers when it comes to some of the subtle warning signs of Eating Disorders, including amenorrhea, chronic injury, bone fractures, and longer healing times. This is important as many dancers will not report their symptoms to a healthcare professional. Dr. Baun says she also finds that parents of the dancer are often in denial of their child’s distress and are more focused on their performance than their physical and mental health. “When flags arise, I have a conversation with the dancer as well as the dancer’s training team to find ways to support them in an impactful way,” she says.

Although it is clear that the dance world can be a huge trigger for Eating Disorders, dance and movement can also be a powerful tool for healing. Lea Nasrallah is a dance movement psychotherapist based in Ottawa who is currently working with a group of women with Eating Disorders at Hopewell Eating Disorder Support Centre. She says dance movement therapy is not about learning dance techniques or choreography but using the body to tap into emotions and finding themes in the way the participant reacts with the world. “Every movement that we do, every exercise, every activity or theme that we explore is usually related to the emotional experience of this person and what they’ve been through.”

Lea says that when working with people with Eating Disorders they often concentrate on exercises that will help the person feel more connected to their body. This includes having better body awareness, developing body limits and identifying personal space. When going through the exercises with her group at Hopewell many participants had memories come up about how they interact and move in their everyday life. “People started telling us about, for example, when they are out in restaurants, how they feel they want to be smaller, they make themselves smaller, how they struggle and use this space and they always feel like they’re taking up too much space,” she says.

Dance movement therapy can also help build self confidence, which is something that many people with Eating Disorders struggle with. Lea says they often work on how a person presents in their body and whether they are using body language to hide or disconnect from people. “All of these issues about relationships and how difficult relationships could be is also a big theme when we work in a session,” she says.

All dance movement therapy sessions are set up to provide a safe space for participants to process emotions, while giving them the skills and the confidence to live life in recovery.  “Everything that we do inside the session has the goal of being helpful for your when you’re out,” Lea says.

Many of the people that Lea sees have been through traditional therapy and are finding that they need a different approach to processing their emotions and healing from the effects of their Eating Disorder. She says it is really up to the person to decide whether or not they are ready to engage in this type of body-focused work. “I recommend it to anyone who is interested in finding a new approach, a non-verbal approach, to therapy and anyone who has tried a lot of therapies and now is ready to actually go deep into body work and body awareness,” she says.

Lea says they are preparing to run another dance movement therapy group at Hopewell and they are also looking at offering a session specifically for teenagers. All sessions are currently being held through Zoom. For more information visit www.hopewell.ca.