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Supporting My Dancer Through An Anxiety & Eating Disorder

As a dancer I had witnessed it. There’s a point when the statement “you look fit” doesn’t apply any longer. At that point there’s a shift to “she is too skinny”. I had dealt with it in my close group of friends in dance and again in high school. When I created my own dance programme I coined the motto “creating positive dance experiences” and tried to integrate that into our programme. I understood that FUN had to be the driving force for kids wanting to dance and worked with all of our teaching staff to integrate that at every level from recreational to competitive.

I easily develop relationships with my students and their families because I absolutely love my job. One particular student had been dancing with me since she was 6 and over the years I came to teach all of the kids in her family. She was an eager student in dance, in school, and in life. She had enthusiasm to spare. Any dance class, any style, any volunteer opportunity, any workshop she was there. With strong dedication and a highly developed work ethic, she would arrive early to warm up and stay late to work on improving skills. She worked just as hard in school, achieving high grades and participating in extra curriculars, as well as in the community by volunteering for various organizations. Having personal experience with a drive to achieve, I knew that overloading meant increased feelings of pressure to achieve and an inability to do any one thing at 100%. I had spread myself too thin in the past and I saw my student beginning to do the same. We talked. I reminded her to take time to slow down, to breathe, to stroll in the woods, to sleep, and to take care of her self. By spring competition, recital, and high school exams were in full swing. She was stressed and I could see it clearly. Dance finished, high school continued, and she earned many awards at dance competitions. Then one day as I was packing to travel for a conference I got a call from her mom. She was worried; she recognized the signs and described them to me. I understood the signs of anxiety, having dealt with anxiety personally, and my student’s anxiety was manifesting in compulsive behaviours: she worked out too often and for too long, she spent increased hours in the studio, she obsessed over everything she ate and even skipped meals.

While at the conference I received the notice that she had been diagnosed with an eating disorder. I knew this was the most outward manifestation of a deep issue with anxiety and her drive to achieve. I cried for a while, called my programme coordinators to enroll them in what we were going to do to help, and sought support from my province’s dance umbrella. I was shocked and disappointed to learn that this umbrella had absolutely no current resources to support teachers dealing with eating disordered students. I called the local children’s hospital for resources and didn’t even get a return phone call. I realized it was up to me, my programme coordinators, and her family to see her through. As the programme organizers we had to consider liability, as cold as it sounds, with respect to her using our facility while in poor health. As teachers we had to consider how not to increase her anxiety while limiting her access to the studio and to working out. As friends, we had to provide her with unconditional love and support whenever she needed it for as long as she needed it. We took measures such as ensuring someone was with her when she used the studio, to limiting her time in the studio, and to debriefing with her everyday. We’d keep the rehearsals light and fun, we’d use positive reinforcement around things outside of dancing – school, friends, community programmes she was involved in, etc. I checked in every day and told her I love her. Her mom sent her to stay with me for a few days at my house and we included my programme coordinators. We tried for a light, easy, and fun weekend with lunch out, strolling around the big city, and standing at the water’s edge along the ocean. At lunch I soon realized how badly she was suffering and how deeply it was impacting her well-being. She cried and stormed off when I suggested we bake some of my famous (healthy) cookies. She was never a difficult student or person and this behaviour was completely unlike her. I recognized that it was the anxiety crying and storming off. I spoke candidly and honestly with her. I told her that she was no longer the girl I had known for 10 years. I told her that her dancing was suffering simply because she didn’t have love driving her dance. I told her that she could not expect her body to perform any work, let alone the demanding physical work of dance, if she did not love it and provide it with fuel. I told her I loved her and would always support her. I told her the truth at the risk of hurting her fragile self because she needed to understand that the anxiety had changed how she is as a person but that she could get back to feelings of peace, joy, and love if only she recognized that she needed to seek that for herself.

She did seek treatment and began to heal. The joy she had for dancing soon returned and was present in her performing. She looked stronger, healthier, and she smiled again. Surely the love and support she had around her helped but it took her own resolve to be able to get back the things that the anxiety was overshadowing. She continues to dance and to work hard. Her life will always be a balancing act: recognizing anxiety when it first manifests and sweeping it away promptly. In some ways she is lucky to have had this lesson early in life. Her ability to recognize destructive behaviour or behaviour that does not serve her in meeting her goals is developed and will not be a barrier to her success. Surely she can support others who also deal with anxiety and eating disorders through her experience and thusly increasing her support community. Her struggle is not unique. We all must seek to find balance and re-establish it on a daily basis when the worries of the world become a heavy burden on our shoulders. The practice is in how you achieve it, in finding what works for you, and in being conscious of the need to achieve balance everyday.

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