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If I have to weigh THAT much I’ll have to change career…

by Jasmine Challis

‘Weight’ and ‘fat’ are two words many dancers and dance students, particularly females, seem to have a ‘love-hate’ relationship with. Many women, let alone dancers, do not like the number they see when standing on a set of scales. Why should dancers be different? The fact that there is an occupational requirement to be an ‘acceptable’ shape, which often seems to translate into weight, accentuates this issue.

The sum of the body: bones, muscles, nervous tissue, fat, blood, etc. results in ‘weight’. The fact that we are all over 50% water, with that amount varying from day to day, seems to sometimes get overlooked. If the number on the scales changes, the immediate conclusion is that body fat content has changed. In reality, it takes a fluctuation of a minimum of 3000 kcal for weight to change up or down by 0.5 kg. Considering the typical daily intake for a woman is approximately 2000 kcal, it doesn’t take a maths degree to work out that fluctuations in calorie intake are not the cause of many weight swings.

A scenario where an individual makes a decision on how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ a day is, according to the weight on the scales, is neither healthy nor productive. Weight needs to increase with height in those who are still growing. If nutrition is compromised at this stage, their final adult height may be less than expected. Weight monitoring can sometimes be useful, but educational establishments would be wise to think about whether all students need to be monitored, by whom, how often, and what purpose the information will serve. If a decision is made to use weight measurements for health and training purposes, the reasons for doing so need to be completely transparent and clear for everyone: dancers, teachers and parents.

A careless comment about a dancer’s weight can be, and has been, the final straw in lowering self-esteem in a talented individual.

It can result in the dancer thinking that weight loss is the only solution. Almost all female dancers feel high anxiety about the result of any ‘weighing’. It is important that individuals working with dancers, especially those in a position of authority, are careful to encourage (and demonstrate) a healthy attitude towards body shape and weight, and are themselves fully informed about the risks to a dancer of an unhealthy diet and low body weight.

So how do you deal with the scenario where an already very slim dancer starts to look thinner? When is ‘too thin’? If you have a knowledgeable doctor involved then they will usually talk to the dancer and examine them. Low weight is one of several signs that, when taken together, can indicate that a dancer is suffering from anorexia nervosa. If the dancer is approached before they are too thin to perform or take class, and they acknowledge that their weight is too low, and then proceed to gradually regain the lost weight (a steady gain of between 0.25- 1 kg per week is acceptable) all may be well. However, those on the edge of disordered eating will, generally, still benefit from counselling support to examine why this happened and how it can be avoided in the future.

If a dancer is visibly losing weight and looks ‘painfully’ thin, is it ethical to let them dance?

Despite, or possibly even because of, protestations that they are ‘fine’, ‘have plenty of energy’, ‘are dancing well’, it is important to remember that eating disorders are serious medical conditions (anorexia nervosa has a crude mortality rate of 15-20% at 20 years follow up). To allow someone who is, undoubtedly, aware that all is not well, to dance is not helpful to recovery as it negates the problem: ‘well I can’t be ill because I’m still allowed to dance’. Individuals at low weight will be spending much of their time with ‘food’ thoughts and are likely to be very rigid in their eating, and general thinking, and will be fearful of either changing their food pattern or their weight. This is assuming that we are dealing with a ‘restricting’ food patter – someone in the grip of a binge/purge illness may be more flexible in their eating but resistant to weight gain.

Body Mass Index is a ratio that can be used in deciding whether individuals and populations fall within a healthy weight range or not. It has been criticised because it cannot reflect body muscle/fat ratios but nonetheless is more useful than weight alone. From a scientific point of view, women are ‘underweight’ with a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 18.5. Having a BMI of below 17.5 is one of the indications for a clinical diagnosis of anorexia nervosa.

BMI can be calculated by:

Taking the weight in kilos e.g. 49

And dividing it by the height (in metres) squared

e.g. 1.64m x 1.64m = 2.69

49  2.69 = 18.2

There are certainly classical dancers with a BMI below 18.5, but above 17.5, who are well and have regular periods (a crucial marker for wellness). An adult dancer with a BMI below 17.5 is very underweight and should be carefully monitored. (In younger dancers, BMI charts can be used and those below the lowest centile should then be reviewed.) To allow a dancer with a BMI of less than 17 to continue to dance should be seriously questioned for the reasons outlined above, as well as for their own and others’ safety, and for moral reasons to avoid negative role modelling.

BMI does not, of course, directly equate to body fat content as mentioned above. Despite a general understanding that it is necessary for women to have a higher body fat than men, many women and dancers see fat as a real enemy. Acceptance that fat is an essential part of any body seems to be a message that could usefully be repeated. Body fat measurements can be useful if carried out by an experienced physiologist or nutritionist/dietitian, but due to problems with the methods available, they need appropriate explanation. It can, however, be helpful to a dancer who is heavier than expected, due to a higher muscle and lower fat content, to realise that ‘more weight’ does not automatically mean more fat.

A brief warning: consulting a doctor who is inexperienced in this field, can be counterproductive. A health certificate could be signed by a busy GP who does not pick up on the underlying problem. School and Company staff need to bear this in mind.

Low weight and poor nutrition are potential time bombs for the dancer and dance student. In the short term, injury rates are likely to be higher and injuries slower to heal. Many physiotherapists have been the first to spot a case of poor nutrition when the rate of healing is not what it should be. In addition to the major effect on the dancer, this also had financial implication for companies and schools alike. In the long term, low bone density and osteoporosis are real threats to health.

This is not an area with easy solutions. It affects sport as well as dance (a quick web search highlights articles about the same issues in cycling, athletics, rowing, diving and gymnastics amongst others), but tackling the issues is more likely to result in ‘The Healthier Dancer’, than hoping things will just improve on their own.

For more information on nutrition, osteoporosis and disordered eating see Dance UK’s Information Sheets Nos. 11 (How to have Healthy Bones) and 12 (the newly updated Nutrition for Dancers) and the book Your Body Your Risk.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 52 – Spring 2004