WHY SHOULD THERE BE A CHOICE BETWEEN ART AND HEALTH, ANYWAY?
A guest blog post by Tabitha Moorse
NB: Within both research and media, discussion around health and wellbeing in dance is often centric to the experience of the female ballet dancer. For the purpose of articulating how the above choice comes to be considered, I too am going to speak from this perspective. However, it is important to know that a) this experience is not representative of dance training or performance as a whole and b) the issues at hand are those which impact male dancers too.
Over two decades ago, former dancer and physician Lawrence Vincent (1998:5) posed this question in a critique of the dance establishment’s ‘timid’ approach to prioritising female dancers’ health over aesthetic ideals. I remember reaching the end of this paper and thinking well that’s wild, not much has changed.
I recently admitted to someone that I struggle for knowing that my body was at its unhealthiest when I was ‘dancing at my best’. I explained that rationally I knew the two did not have to be correlated, but that nonetheless it felt that way; there are videos and images, as well as my own recollections of that point in time to back me up. They were very patient and listened, let me finish and have a bit of a cry, before asking me what I meant by ‘dancing at my best’. Cue some more tears and muttering that it meant hearing other people praise my dancing and how I looked, and knowing full well this shouldn’t be the case.
They then proceeded to do something incredibly helpful in validating the fact that I probably did receive more praise and recognition at that time than any other, but that this is unrelated to true success or happiness. I even came round to the idea that maybe I’m ‘dancing at my best’ now, not in terms of technical proficiency by any means, but because that real love and joy for dance is something I feel I now truly have. It also clarified for me just how problematic it is that success in dance is reliant on the opinion and preference of an external other; this was something that throughout my studies I’d noticed often came up as a problem for researchers, but I hadn’t really considered the extent to which such subjectivity had affected my own wellbeing.
From a scientific perspective, we know that conflicts exist in the professional dance environment between skill enhancement, aesthetic ideals, and optimal health (Krasnow, 2005), and that to successfully train a dancer may cause concurrent detriment to their health and wellbeing. When we look at why this is, subjective opinion is a key factor: who is deciding on the level of skill and body type required for success, and what does it realistically take for any individual dancer to achieve this? What has led concurrent detriment to health to become an accepted fact?
To start with the question of ‘who’, it has historically been the case that authority is exerted within dance environments for the purpose of conformation, through means of surveillance, valuation of an ideal balletic body and hierarchal power relations. Seventy-five percent of artistic directors of the current top fifty ballet companies in the United States are male (Dance Data Project, 2020), yet we know that it is predominantly females who are training or working as artists. I’ll leave you to consider how this gender-power imbalance may be affecting social discourse on dancers’ health, and its prioritisation.
Risk culture is often found to exist within elite sport and offers insight into how endurance of pain comes to be accepted by athletes as a cultural norm. In dance, we see something that is similar and indicative of measures individuals might take in order to achieve the required aesthetic ideal and level of skill (McEwen & Young, 2014). Recent research found some students to perceive a culture of overtraining as being endorsed within their training environment, and that a learned response of pushing through pain, fatigue, and injury was seen to be encouraged and expected (Blevins et al., 2020). We know that regulation of passion (Rip et al., 2006) and personality factors such as perfectionism (Flett & Hewitt, 2014) can contribute to sustained engagement in risk-taking, so it is little wonder that a win-at-all-costs mentality is encouraged to thrive in the presence of rigid institutionalised codes and psychological inflexibility (i.e. ‘all or nothing thinking’).
Dancers are generally perceived to have an enhanced awareness of their bodies in comparison to the general population (Sze et al., 2010), however this culture of risk offers a contrasting insight into how dancers care, or fail to care for their bodies, through consciously neglectful behaviours. The endorsement of such behaviour has been shown to occur both insidiously and overtly, we need only look at methods of weight surveillance and conformation to an idealistic balletic image to illustrate this. Body standards are perpetuated not only by those within dance but also by wider society, with the ballerina archetype holding dancers to the standards and expectations of paying audience members (Angyal, 2021, p.123). From the ages of ten to eighteen, the words ‘perfect ballet body’ and ‘ideal figure for ballet’ appeared on my performance reports, were verbalised in front of my parents and peers and as I now understand it, became totally intertwined with my self-image and worth. By the time I entered full-time training, I was wholly wrapped up in trying to control my weight in order to compensate for my height, an attribute that seemed to become increasingly undesirable year on year.
My standpoint is that should an individual be consciously considering a choice between pursuing art, in any of its forms, and maintaining their wellbeing, then one can assume that a current positive state of health is not likely to be on the cards. To be successful, there too often exists a pressure to accept a state of diminished well-being, evident in numerous anecdotal accounts (McGuire, 2017; Muir, 2019; Waterbury in Stahl, 2018). All seem to suggest that to interact with various facets of ballet’s institutional code inevitably alters an individual’s approach to health and wellbeing, predisposing that individual to normalise the notion of attaining exceptional performance at the expense of optimal health.
My decision to study dance science after quitting ballet came from a desire to better understand what could be done to alleviate both the physical and psychological pressures of dance training and performance. During the year I left ballet training, I read a research paper that provided evidence for these pressures being a ‘problem’ in our industry, and I realise now that this had quite a substantial, positive impact on my state of mind at the time. For years, I had accepted a poorer state of health as a requisite for the career path I had chosen, but now I was consciously asking myself questions.
Why are there five of my friends sat out on the side, injured?
How am I supposed to ‘eat well’ and have enough energy to get through my day, but look the way I have to in order to get cast/get a job/show that I am committed?
Why do I feel as though getting my period is some sort of failure?
What are the consequences going to be of my telling someone that I am not okay?
Why do I feel so guilty for not being able to just get on with it, as everyone else appears to be doing?
My challenging of this acceptance had started to materialise before I came across dance science and that research paper, but I wholeheartedly believe that it acted as somewhat of a wake-up call, that actually these questions I had were valid and that my asking them did not mean I was inherently weak, nor undisciplined. Others were also asking these questions and most importantly, those others were wanting to do something about it. This said, there were still times throughout my dance science studies where it was difficult to adopt the above mentality. I could agree entirely with what I was learning, and simultaneously disbelieve the experts around me advocating committedly for the co-existence of high-performance outcomes and a positive state of health. I knew that in order to have succeeded in ballet, I would have needed to neglect mine.
‘If realizing my dream of becoming a great and famous dance artist entails the sacrifice of my health, isn’t the sacrifice worth it, and my choice to make?’ (Vincent, 1998:5).
I suppose that to an extent, the answer is yes. But I implore you to ask questions of why you are led to assume such a ‘sacrifice’ would be ‘worth it’. Consider even the language there, the word ‘sacrifice’.
What has led you to perceive a disregard for your health to be the utmost display of dedication, or valued as a necessity for a successful performance career? Why is this something that you perhaps do not want, cannot, or are not yet sure how to challenge? What would need to change in order for this to happen?
Every so often, sparked usually by a piece of dance-specialist health content shared online, a ballet friend will send a message along the lines of ‘HAHA have you seen this?! Do you remember when…’ and we proceed to make light of some awful situation or drastic misinformation we received whilst in training. Research has shown that dancers of the previous decade were reluctant to complain that their institution failed to provide sufficient support for their health and wellbeing; with each dancer carrying an engrained sense of responsibility for this, neither the culture nor institution was perceived as predominantly liable (Dryburgh and Fortin, 2010). This is now starting to change, as we see ever-increasing numbers of both students and professionals challenging outdated modalities of teaching, and questioning instances where ‘exceptionality’ can only be attained to the detriment of health.
I currently work with Beat (for more information please click here), the UK’s leading charity for supporting individuals affected by eating disorders, and over the weeks I’ve taken to write this I’ve spoken with a number of parents who express concerns about the impact dance is having on their child’s health. I’ve directed them to the appropriate resources and made the best suggestions I can, all whilst knowing that it likely won’t be enough without real change being enacted by individuals with the power to do so. My hope is that those members of artistic staff who we do see to be driving progress in their respective corners of the dance world inspire, encourage and support others to follow their lead; to unite in the agreement that a co-existence of health and success in dance should never be up for dispute.
Angyal, C. (2021). Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers is Saving Ballet from Itself. New York: PublicAffairs.
Blevins, P., Erskine, S., Hopper, L. and Moyle, G. (2020). Finding Your Balance: An Investigation of Recovery–Stress Balance in Vocational Dance Training. Journal of Dance Education, 20(1), pp.12-22.
Dance Data Project, (2020). Artistic and Executive Leadership Report: March 2020. https://www.dancedataproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Leadership-Report-2020.pdf
Dryburgh, A., and Fortin, S. (2010). Weighing in on surveillance: perception of the impact of surveillance on female ballet dancers’ health. Research in Dance Education, 11(2), pp.95-108
Flett, G.L. and Hewitt, P.L. (2015). Measures of perfectionism. In Measures of personality and social psychological constructs (pp. 595-618). Academic Press.
Krasnow, D.H. (2005). Sustaining the dance artist: Barriers to communication between educators, artists, and researchers. Ausdance national, Dance rebooted: Initializing the grid, pp.1-10.
McEwen, K., and Young, K. (2011). Ballet and pain: reflections on a risk-dance culture. Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, 3(2), pp.152-173.
Muir, D. (2019). Down the rabbit hole. https://butterflydiaries.home.blog/2019/12/15/down-the-rabbit-hole/
Stahl, J. (2018). Should Aspiring Ballet Dancers “Run in the Other Direction”? https://www.dancemagazine.com/alexandra-waterbury-2602545003.html
Sze, J.A., Gyurak, A., Yuan, J.W., and Levenson, R.W. (2010). Coherence between emotional experience and physiology: does body awareness training have an impact?. Emotion, 10(6), p.803.
Vincent, L.M. (1998). Disordered eating: Confronting the dance aesthetic. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 2(1), pp.4-5.