Why We Need to Talk About Eating Disorders on The Dance Floor

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I spent Saturday morning Googling “how to avoid an eating disorder relapse”. The real question in my mind, however, was why this issue had resurfaced a full eight years after my last relapse.

The answer, when I thought a little more, felt obvious. It was the unfortunate combination of taking up salsa again during a period of personal stress.

In 2014, a review established that on average dancers are three times as likely to have eating disorders as the general population. And contrary to stereotypes, it isn’t just waifish ballerinas who are affected. In 2015, researchers surveyed 447 hobbyist salsa and ballroom dancers to find a significant correlation between those exhibiting “dance addiction” and those with eating disorder symptoms.

But where does this stem from? If you, like me, are looking for ways to dance without exacerbating issues with your body or food, what can you do? And how can we build a more body positive dance community?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions.

Eating Disorders, Body Issues, & Social Dancing: What’s The Connection?

First, a full disclaimer: I’m not a medical professional. Moreover, I’m a follower, I’m a woman, and I have a generally slim body. As such, while I’ve tried to keep the article open to diverse perspectives, it will be skewed towards my experiences. I would love to see people responding to this article so we can broaden the conversation.

That being said, after talking with both my fellow dancers and eating disorder professionals, there seems to be a link between several aspects of the Afro-Latin dance scene and body image issues/eating disorders.

Obsession With The Body

Of course, we value our bodies! We’re dancers. We literally spend hours at a time moving our bodies in different ways out of pure passion. And when we need a breather dance, we sit out and admire how other people move their bodies.

Yet when this turns into an obsession, it’s an issue.

Gill Wilson MBACP of Eating Disorders Devon and Just Embrace UK reminds me that body obsession and eating disorders are “separate but linked”. There is an important distinction between the two, but they often go together. “I have several clients [with eating disorders] that enjoy social dancing,” she says, “and they are quite often concerned that they are not the ‘correct’ size and shape.”

Wilson highlights several points that these clients bring up: concern when being held around the waist, worry about not being chosen for a dance, and anxiety about lifts.

Sound familiar?

In no other social network do I hear as many comments about body size and weight than among my dance friends – both admiring and critical. And when I ask those friends about this, they agree. What’s more, they echo the same concerns that Wilson mentions (and add chest/ribcage and hip isolation, practising in front of mirrors, and poring over photos after dance events).

Wilson admits that her clients who dance are all women, ranging from children to adults in the local salsa and ceroc scenes. However, men also struggle with the pressure to be “strong enough”, feeling “too big” or “too small”, and concerns that people might not want to dance with them. I’d welcome more input from men reading this so we can get a more nuanced discussion going.

As for trans and non-binary people, I can’t speak for this section of our community – who do exist, no matter how invisible they may at times seem. However, transgender people are more likely to have negative feelings about their bodies when compared to the general public. Similarly, race, age, class, and culture can all affect the way eating disorders and body image issues affect us in at times extremely complex ways.

Discipline & The Pursuit of Excellence

Another point I wanted to ask Wilson about was the reasons behind eating disorders. These illnesses are mental health issues: as Beat Eating Disorders says, the roots of an eating disorder often lie in a person’s feelings. (Although it’s worth mentioning that genetics is another common factor.)

While warning me that it was a “big, big generalisation”, Wilson explains that “black and white thinking” tends to “tie into the make-up of somebody with anorexia”. The 2014 review I mentioned before found that this specific eating disorder was particularly common among dancers. Those of us with predispositions towards it like rules and discipline, Wilson elaborates, while also emphasising that other eating disorders such as binge eating can be more common in other personality types.

There’s something about this and the Latin/kizomba scenes that resonates. Our dance culture is far more relaxed than others, but it’s still a technical skill. Who among us hasn’t memorised the ‘rules’ of styling and devoted time to practising them in the mirror? Or turn/spin technique, shines, and body isolation?

Of course, every person with an eating disorder is different. It would be a gross over-simplification to say that dancers who like to practise technique have disorders or vice versa. However, we can say that those of us who value it over creativity and musicality may be more vulnerable to restriction-based eating disorders.

Additionally, certain teaching styles can encourage us to prioritise mastering complex moves over expressing our individuality on the dance floor (one-size-fits-all routine-based classes, I’m looking at you). So too could the idea that a follower’s role is to simply follow, rather than to add something of themselves to the dance.

One last thing: although I’ve labelled this section “the pursuit of excellence”, I want to make it clear that eating disorders are not linked to excellence. Speaking personally, some of my worst salsa nights have been when I’ve been so concerned over what I ate that day and how I looked during the dance to truly connect to my partner and the music. And by worst, I’m referring to both my enjoyment of the dance and my dance ability.

Everyone has a different experience of eating disorders. They are incredibly complex mental health issues. Yet eating disorders sap us. They don’t make us better dancers and they are not part of “a price we have to pay” for improving.

Coping Mechanisms & External Factors

There’s one final aspect I want to mention, and that’s what’s happening off the dancefloor. That same 2015 study that linked dance addiction to eating disorders in Latin and ballroom dancers also linked dance addiction to escape-based motivation, i.e. dancing to forget all your stress. It didn’t investigate if there was also a relationship between escapism and eating disorders; however, eating disorders can begin as a coping mechanism for other issues.

There’s a pattern here, one that I am not qualified to adequately untwine, but the connections between obsession, coping mechanisms, dancing, and eating disorders are worth contemplating. And those of us struggling with them should remember to look at all the factors that lie behind our illness.

How to Foster Body Positivity in Your Dance Scene

We can’t remove body issues and eating disorders from the social dance scene, but we can work to create a more positive culture. As a group, we generally set out to be considerate on the dance floor, thanking people for dances, packing deodorant in our dance bags, and investing time in learning good moves. We’re careful not to harm people through poor leads or flailing arms and we try to remember our partners’ names. Being careful with our words, working not to exacerbate eating disorders, is merely a continuation of what we already do – but it’s an important one.

As Daniele Fisichela, Press Officer at Beat Eating Disorders, tells me, “Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses, with anorexia claiming more lives than any other psychiatric condition.” Exercising some caution over what we say can have a huge impact.

I’ve come up with some suggestions for how we can do this. While I’ve run this past both Wilson and Fisichela, it’s worth mentioning that this isn’t a definitive list; I would encourage anyone with additional suggestions to share them.

  • Think ability. We’re here to dance, a skill that we’ve invested hours, months, or years into learning. So, let’s focus the conversation more on that skill rather than on size, weight, and appearance. And as part of that…
  • Never comment on someone’s weight or size. Any such comment can exacerbate or trigger body issues and eating disorders – even the ones that often come out of concern, such as “don’t lose too much weight” or “you’re getting too skinny”.
  • Consider your compliments. We often fall back on weight and size when we want to say something nice. Next time, try saying how much you love someone’s musicality or arm styling.
  • Teachers: keep your lessons balanced. Obviously, if you’re leading a class on body isolation, there’s going to be a strong focus on how the body moves! But demonstrating the importance of every element of good dancing – musicality, connection, frame, balance, creativity, footwork, body movement, and more – will help you avoid over-valuing specific body types.
  • Pay attention and provide support. It’s hard to support someone with an eating disorder, especially because many of our initial reactions can make the situation worse. However, Fisichela sent me links to resources on how to recognise warning signs and talk to someone you’re worried about.

What to Do if Dancing Is Triggering Body Negativity & Eating Disorders

As for those of us who are struggling with negative feelings about our body and/or eating disorder behaviours and thoughts, I also have some suggestions.

Before I begin, let me emphasise again that I am not an eating disorder specialist, medical practitioner, or in any other way qualified to advise on this topic. I’ve drawn this advice from various resources and asked both Wilson and Fisichela to check it for anything harmful. However, the most important item on this list is bullet point number two: talk to a doctor and/or mental health professional. Only they can give you advice that’s targeted to your specific experiences and that will be likely to help.

In particular, Fisichela describes my suggestions as “valid” but reminds me that some points “might not apply to every sufferer as eating disorders are very complex mental health issues”. Since all eating disorder experiences are different, the most appropriate coping methods and treatments will also vary.

Treat this list as a band-aid fix, not a permanent or particularly effective solution.

  • Acknowledge your feelings and behaviours. Simply by admitting them to yourself, you can give yourself more power to tackle them.
  • Talk to a doctor and/or mental health professional. There’s no such thing as feelings and behaviours that are “not serious enough” to discuss with your doctor. They can do anything from recommending self-care books to referring you to a specialist. Although it can be intimidating to start talking about it, Beat Eating Disorders has tips on how to do so with a section specifically for telling doctors.
  • Recognise triggers and root causes. Doing so can both reduce their impact and help you to either avoid them or create healthier coping mechanisms.
  • Reach out to a supportive network. Family and friends (including dance friends!) can help you, whether through providing emotional support or checking in on you as needed. Since there is often an emotional reason behind eating disorders, being surrounded by people you care about can be extremely helpful.
  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms. We’ve already looked at reaching out to friends, but breathing exercises, journaling, and other creative pursuits can also support you in managing eating disorder thoughts and impulses.
  • Consider a traffic light system (traffic signal for any North Americans reading this). This is where you list dangerous thoughts/behaviours under red, neutral under amber, and positive under green. It can help you to be aware of your behaviour and start adopting better habits. However, I recommend doing it with the help of a professional who can guide you into making sure that it doesn’t become a tool to condone negative behaviours.
  • Remind yourself that a good dancer is more than their body. Concentrate on the other skills you want to enhance, at least for now.
  • Focus on the progress you make, rather than slips along the way. That progress is far more important than any setbacks, slips, or mistakes. Keep reminding yourself of everything that you’ve accomplished.

Eating disorders can consume us. At their worst, they damage our bodies and put our lives at risk. At the very least, they demand our energy, our attention span, our will power – diminishing the passion we have to spare for our own relationships and interests.

The dance floor, whether it’s salsa, kizomba, tango, ballet, or something else altogether, is supposed to be a place where we come alive. We connect to the music, to our partner, and to ourselves. We feel. We can create and we can heal.

Social dancing has the power to positively benefit our mental health; the fact that it can instead exacerbate issues such as eating disorders is tragic. As a community, it’s time we nurture a healthier environment. Let’s start by talking less about what we look like and more about how we dance.

Additional Resources

UK: Beat Eating Disorders

USA: National Eating Disorders Association, Eating Disorder Hope, The Recovery Village

Canada: National Eating Disorders Information Centre

Australia: Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders

International: Eating Disorder Hope International Resources & Information

With thanks to everyone who spoke to me about this, including fellow dancers, Gill Wilson of Eating Disorders Devon, and Daniele Fisichela of Beat Eating Disorders.

6 Comments

  • Mick says:

    This is the 2017 article of the year. Congratulations.

  • Karen Felton says:

    This is a great article. Although not a dancer, I do work as a fitness teacher and see the same issues in classes, in the gym, with runners, etc. Obviously we can’t know everyone’s motivation for exercising so you’re absolutely right when you say it’s so important to focus on technique and ability rather than how the person looks.

    It’s also common for people who have a mental health issue to take up some sort of physical activity as part of their recovery/ management of their condition; there’s lots of evidence to show that exercise and group-based activities are helpful in maintaining good mental health.

    Add to this, that 1 in 4 of will experience poor mental health in our lifetime; and it’s clear to see that we all have a role to play in being considerate in our language and our actions.

    Thanks for your research and signposts!

    • Tanya Newton says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this! You’re right in that this issue extends far beyond dancing. And as you say, exercise is so often recommended for mental health and eating disorder management. (In fact, I believe non-competitive dancing and dance therapy are common suggestions because they can be so introspective and emotional.) The relationship between exercise and eating disorders is so complex… however, I hope that increased awareness of, and sensitivity to, these issues within our communities will help.

  • mark moon says:

    Mark Moon This ,artical is a bit one sided ,there are men out there that have this disorder ,we are not all fat ppl that sit n the sofa all day , i dont like food, i avoid cooking at any cost ,i find it a waist of time,when i shop all i see is diet, and low cal every where you look ,when i do eat i eat very little, and also start every meal with coffee, larger, or water to make sure i dont eat to much .i look in the mirror, at every chance i can, to look see if my body looks good to me . i will never be over weight,. i am not under weight by any means, but using things like smoking and drinking high caffeine drinks .replacing food with larger .is always a must . hope that explains things to some ppl, that know me and that think i am vain, or superficial ,because i like to look at slim ppl . this is a problem i have, it is a physiological and mental state of mind .thanks for looking

    • Tanya Newton says:

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks so much for your bravery in posting this. I hope that doesn’t sound patronising; I really do think it’s brave.

      You’re right in that the article is a bit one-sided – as I said in it, it is skewed to my experiences and we do need men to talk about how this affects them (as well as people with different eating disorders, body shapes, and backgrounds) because it’s not just women (or women like me) who suffer from this. People like you talking about it is really helpful for changing the stereotype of eating disorders.

      I would really encourage you to go and talk through your relationship with food/body image with your doctor. You say yourself that it’s a problem – and when it comes to eating disorders, there’s no such thing as “too small” a problem. Please consider this. Your doctor can do anything from recommending books to read/websites to visit to arranging a talk with a qualified counsellor, depending on what they think will help you the most. There’s information on how to talk to your doctor here: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/recovery-information/tell-someone and I definitely recommend the part about writing down things first.

      As for your other points – I think you’re right that shop signs and marketing in general don’t help. And as we come up to January, there’s going to be a renewed focus on weight and diets so it can be really stressful. (Another good reason to go to the doctor’s before then?)

      And as for looking at slim people, I can understand that. In my worst eating disorder periods, I used to be so angry and resentful of other people eating and I since also had such a fear of looking fat… It really affected not just how I saw myself but how I saw other people.

      Again, Mark, thank you for sharing this and please do go book an appointment with your doctor.

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