Standing in the studio with her fellow dance company members, Emily Jones compared her body to the others. Even though she knew she was at a healthy weight, at 16, Jones felt as if all the older dancers were skinnier than her.
She began to research how to be as thin as possible during her junior year of high school. Clipping models out of magazines and taping them to her mirror for motivation was one of her ways.
Her self doubt and obsession with being thin led her to a more serious problem: she began making herself throw up each night after dinner. After about a month of regularly purging, Jones said she realized her actions were dangerous and stopped before it was too late.
Constantly wrestling with the image of an ideal body is something that is problematic for dancers, said Michelle Heffner Hayes, professor and chair of the Department of Dance. She said it can play havoc on self-esteem if the dancer doesn’t have the right body type for the art form they want to practice.
“No matter how good you get, you will never be able to pursue that dream,” Hayes said.
Twenty-five percent of college-aged women binge and purge as a means of managing their weight, according to a National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders survey. The graphic below shows related statistics about eating disorders and young adults.
While some college dance teams have weigh-ins, the University of Kansas does not. Most dancers decide to embrace their career in their late teens or early 20s, Hayes said. She said that contributes to other cultural tensions such as femininity and bodies in general.
“You have to do a lot of mindful contemplation as a dancer to be able to accept your body at different stages of life,” Hayes said.
Having a child 18 months ago, Hayes said she is still struggling with the difference between her mothering body and performing body. She said she has to be careful about how she speaks to her own psyche and not criticize herself for not being 20 years old anymore.
“I think 20-year-olds suffer from that same sense of self-criticism,” Hayes said.
Dancers tend to be perfectionists and drive themselves too hard, Hayes said. While career-ending injuries are not as likely to happen in dance as other sports, overuse injuries are very common. She said dancers need to reevaluate how they train to make it a more efficient and strategic process because it’s the mental rigor that drives that practice.
“I think if we focused more on the process and being observant, that we could dance just as well without that kind of relentless perfectionism,” Hayes said.
The Department of Dance will host its New Dance Student Choreography Showcase tonight at Robinson Center at 7:30 p.m. The showcase mainly consists of student choreography and several of the pieces are senior projects.
Kenna Sullivan, a senior from Chicago, will be graduating from the dance program this May. Sullivan said seeing her choreography performed is the most satisfying experience she’s ever had.
Sullivan teaches yoga at the Ambler Student Recreation Fitness Center as well as running regularly. She said she is health-conscious because physicality is part of dancing and cross-training helps with that.
“I think it’s veered away from just being skinny,” Sullivan said. “It’s more about muscle and technique and just being healthy.”
As the image of a dancer is slowly evolving, Jones, now a sophomore at the University, has matured and realized that the dancing aspect is more important than looking like the perfect, tiny ballerina. Finding mental and physical peace her senior year of high school, Jones said she realized not everyone can look like that.
“Beautiful dancers come in all shapes and sizes,” Jones said.
Jones entered the dance program at the University as a freshman. Even though she is not a dance major anymore, she regularly takes classes at Point B Dance, located at 3300 Bob Billings Parkway. She said the people at the studio make her feel welcome and she comes out of practice refreshed.
Now that she has accepted her body, Jones said she can finally embrace herself and the dance.
“I can take it all for what it is and not think of all the extra things like weight and being thin.”