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by Janine Bryant for The Dance Journal

What if grant money for the arts were contingent on health concerns and physiologic weights? What if dance publications presented youngsters with a variety of legitimate body types in their glossy photos instead of an ideal unhealthy for most young women? If we are serious about the health of dancers, we must challenge the aesthetic. {1}

Most recently, the potentially negative impact of exercise upon the health of exercising females has received attention with the recognition of the Female Athlete Triad, a syndrome consisting of disordered eating, amenorrhea (disruption of menstrual cycle), and osteoporosis that presumably develops due to external and internal pressures on female athletes to maintain an inappropriately low body weight. The presence of this syndrome has been identified across a wide variety of sports that demand low body weight and a lean physique including gymnastics, figure skating, endurance running, and especially ballet. {2}

Most dancers have experienced, at one time or another in their careers, feelings of inadequacy stemming from an inability, whether perceived or real,  to reach a desired aesthetic, which might be either technical in nature or involving physical appearance.  Whether the genre in question is ballet, modern, contemporary, jazz or a fusion of any of the aforementioned, there is often some degree of pressure to conform to a desired ‘look’.  Moreover, individual companies can sometimes require a very specific aesthetic, depending on the artistic director’s vision.   Long, lean bodies that make sculptural movements come effortlessly out of nowhere are incredibly beautiful and inspiring to watch! Audiences can be transfixed within seconds of an entrance when a dancer at this level is performing at their peak. How can dancers reach this aesthetic without jeopardizing, in the short and long term, their instruments?

Elite dancers put in grueling hours of training and rehearsal with little time during their dance day to eat.  When a meal is taken, often the caloric intake falls short of the body’s requirements to facilitate a proper recovery from that dance day. For a dancer at any level, but especially for those who have made dancing their full-time career, maintaining the aesthetic and technical ideal is a daily effort which takes its toll over time.

The effects of disordered eating on a dancing body can include low energy, injury, lower than normal body weight, low body fat, disruption of reproductive hormone secretion, infertility, bone demineralization, and unfavorable changes in lipoprotein profiles.

All of this information begs the question, what can dancers do?!  Some good news is that the suppression of reproductive function that occurs with prolonged states of low energy availability appears to be reversible through an increase in energy availability. However, the degree to which bone demineralization and possible effects on lipoprotein profiles can be reversed is less certain. {2}

The dance community can respond. Through teaching that begins in neighborhood schools as well as sharing of important research, we can help dancers reach their artistic goals and raise awareness that dancers are in fact athletes. A simple shift in perspective might mean less injuries and a longer career for dancers, especially when it comes to energy intake requirements.

The dance community must establish useful guidelines for the prevention of exercise associated reproductive abnormalities and aggressive treatment of female athletes who already are affected. The available evidence suggests a strong association between menstrual dysfunction, eating disorders, and osteoporosis. Future research efforts should be directed toward the psychological and physiological mechanisms causing aberrant eating practices. {2}

There are many resources to help point dancers in the right direction:

American Dietetic Association – www.diet.com/nutrition

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – www.eatright.org

American Nutrition Association – www.americannutritionassociation.org/newsletter

In addition, a visit to the primary care physician and referral to a nutritional or psychological counselor can also be beneficial to help dancers reach their wellness goals for optimum performance.

Until next time, dance healthy and strong, friends!

Janine Bryant
Co-Director of Dance
Faculty of Biokinetics, Education
and the Campolo College for Graduate and Professional Studies
Eastern University, St. David’s Pa.




  1. Vincent, L, M.D.. Disordered eating: confronting the dance aesthetic, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Vol. 2 (1), 1998.
  2. Williams, N, Reproductive function and low energy availability in exercising females: A review of clinical and hormonal effects, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science Vol. 2 (1), 1998.



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