Chasing the Sylph: How the Quest for Perfection Impacts Dancers’ Body Image, Nutrition, and Health

Adrienne Stevens, EdD
Founder, Performing Health
New York City, USA

More than any other performing artists, and certainly more than most athletes, dancers are at high risk for poor nutrition, eating disorders, and preventable, career-ending injuries. To address these physical issues, it’s necessary to examine the underlying causes. And to do that, we need to understand the dancer’s frame of mind.

During 15 – 20 years of intensive training, dancers pursue an elegant, meta-human physique that can soar through the air, appearing almost weightless when in motion. The dancers’ ideal is nothing less than perfection, and of course perfection isn’t attainable. I refer to this elusive quest as “chasing the sylph.”

While dancers strive to achieve this ethereal — and highly subjective — state of grace, athletes are usually working toward much more earthly, measurable goals: faster speed, for example, or number of points scored in a competitive match. Whereas an athlete can achieve “personal best” or break a new record, a dancer will never attain artistic perfection. Within this paradigm, an athlete literally receives laurels; a dancer constantly faces defeat. The dancer’s defeatist mindset is further exacerbated by the knowledge that a professional career is usually over by the time he or she reaches forty years of age.

That’s why “chasing the sylph” has direct implications for a variety of health concerns among dancers, including inadequate nutrition, disordered eating, body dysmorphic disorder, depression, dancing while injured (which, in turn, leads to more severe injury), and an unwillingness to follow standard medical advice.

Today most medical professionals are unschooled in the characteristics that set dancers apart from the mainstream patient population. At the same time, dancers who are in dire need of clinical care turn instead to fellow dancers, friends, dance teachers and the media for medical advice. As the emerging field of dance medicine grows and develops, we can expect to see improvements on both of these fronts. In the meantime, new strategies are needed now to protect and preserve dancers’ health. First and foremost, nutrition education must become a standard component within every dancer’s education. Teachers and parents need training on how to identify symptoms of disordered eating. The dance community as a whole would benefit from open dialogue about injury prevention and mental health.

As an organization that is firmly grounded in both artistic and clinical expertise, Performing Health looks forward to playing a meaningful role in all of these endeavors.

Article originally appeared in Beyond Ballet Why and How: Arnhem, Netherlands April 2015