Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of experiences with eating disorders, bullying, suicidal thoughts, attempts of suicide, and self-harming.
In the spring of 2014, I was 16 years old and dancing at Gus Giordano Dance School in Chicago. The dance hall’s walls were white with deep, dark black floors. The left side of the studio had a ballet barre with bright windows above and there were six-foot-tall mirrors. I stared at myself in the mirror, comparing the curves of my body to the angles of the other girls in my class. The other dancers were shorter, thinner, and more muscular than I was. I felt uncomfortable showing my full figure to the thin teacher standing at the front of the room.
We sat in a circle after an intense, high cardio class and asked the teacher questions about how the dance industry works. Finally, the question I dreaded to hear.
“What size do you have to be to dance professionally?”
I felt my stomach shrivel up.
The teacher looked across the group of students and finally landed eyes with me. She said, “Look, your body is your instrument, and if it’s out of tune, you tune it.”
Years later, I can still remember the sweat dripping down my back after hearing the teacher’s response. Every time I slip on my black leotard, I hear a voice saying, “tune your instrument.” I’ve wondered if I was the only one who felt isolated and different. At 16, my figure didn’t fit the image of a dancer in popular modern styles like ballet, lyrical, modern, tap, and hip hop. I didn’t feel big, but I didn’t feel small.
Now, some dancers are famous on social media for being fat, curvy, or plus-sized, such as 18-year-old Delaware dancer Lizzy Howell (@izzy.dances on Instagram) who rose to fame after a video of her performing fouettés went viral in 2017. Is this an anomaly, or are dance studios becoming more accepting of different shapes and sizes dancing competitively and professionally?
Harley Muth, 13 at the time, and her mother stood in her kitchen hunched over the table staring at her tablet. She had just received an anticipated email from her dance teacher.
The email’s first line read, “Congratulations Harley.”
Harley had auditioned for a tap and jazz workshop at the Winnipeg dance studio she’d danced at since she was eight years old.
As Harley continued to read the email, her heart started racing. She was one of the lucky girls accepted in the workshops later that summer.
“I felt on top of the world. I mean, I was over-the-moon excited,” said Muth.
A few minutes later, Muth received a second email. It was from the studio director explaining that for her to be accepted into the classes she would need to lose 30 to 40 lb. by the end of the summer.
Muth burst into tears. She said it felt like millions of shards of glass slamming into her body.
“For a moment, I felt I was good enough and strong enough to be in those workshops,” said Muth. “Dance is something I loved for so long and now it’s stabbing me in the back.”
She showed her mother both emails. Her mother looked at the second email and said, “Well, do you think you could do it?”
I’m Not Born with it
Muth, now 20, is a University of Winnipeg student studying microbiology. Before starting university, she spent most of her teen years dancing.
After receiving that email when she was 13, Muth decided she would count her calories, go to the gym six days a week, and limit her eating.
Each day, Muth would eat, at most, 600 calories. She’d eat half a slice of toast and drink one glass of water for breakfast. Muth explained that she survived on this diet for three months at a time. If she ate over 600 calories, she would run to the washroom, blast music, and stick her finger down her throat.
“I would see my friends eating smaller portions, so I thought I had to, too. And if they started losing weight and I wasn’t — that’s when I would throw up,” said Muth.
Muth said she would try to feel her collarbone every day. If she couldn’t feel it, she ran to the washroom.
Muth’s battle with bulimia nervosa started when she was 14 years old.
Many dancers face an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies due to the perception that dancers need to be thin. According to a study by Nicole Doria at Dalhousie University, female dancers suffer from greater body image dissatisfaction, body image distortion, neurotic perfectionism, and disordered eating compared to non-dancers. The study also found most dancers learned from instructors, parents, or media that their body must be thin and attractive to entertain others.
This study could be describing Muth throughout her 10 years dancing.
The study also found that the dancers believed it didn’t matter how strong a dancer’s technique was — if they didn’t have the idealized version of a dancer’s body, they couldn’t dance professionally.
Doria’s research found that dancers believed ballet was the cruellest when judging a dancer’s figure, and other popular styles of dance were more inclusive: lyrical, hip hop, jazz, and tap. However, Muth said she received scrutiny for her figure in all these styles of dance.
“Girls in my classes would either be stick thin or insanely strong, and the ones that were different … they were picked on without anyone letting them know why,” said Muth.
She said her dance studio followed a strict, unspoken appearance policy regardless if a student danced competitively or recreationally.
“The studio director had an old-fashioned view on how a dancer should look,” said Bonnie Muth, Harley’s mother.
Harley said her ballet teacher seemed to pick favourites of the girls who had the “ideal dancer body.” This is often someone who has long legs, long arms, flexible feet, a small and short torso, and a long neck, according to dance magazine Dance Informa. If you were the studio director’s favourite, you would partner with the boys, be at the front in dances, and receive corrections and compliments.
“She would say ‘Good job, good job, good job’ to the other dancers in my class, but when she saw me, she’d look away,” said Harley.
Harley explained that most days her ballet teacher would ask her to stretch her splits in the corner while the other students practiced partner choreography with the boy in the class. “I was flexible, and she didn’t know what to do with me because I was bigger, so she stuck me in the corner to stretch my splits,” she said. Harley now has permanent hip displacement issues from years of overstretching.
It wasn’t just Harley who received scrutiny over her figure. Alissa Lee, now a dance instructor at Calgary’s Soul Connexion, danced with Muth for several years at the studio and Westwood Collegiate.
“If you look different then you don’t look part of the team or at least the image they wanted to show up to the competition with,” said Lee. “They had a distinct image of what a dancer should look like and no one really fits that.”
Both Lee and Harley said their teacher would tend to ignore students who didn’t fit into this body image. However, sometimes at other dance studios having a different body figure meant verbal scrutiny.
Sophie Ashton, now 24, was body-shamed by her dance teacher in front of a class of 22 women when she was 18 years old.
Ashton’s ballet teacher referred to the fat above the pubic area as a dancer’s kangaroo pouch.
She explained that she never thought much of it when her teacher referred to the area as a kangaroo pouch. Until one class when Ashton stood at the barre, her teacher said, “Looks like Sophie has twin kangaroos in her pouch today.”
Ashton said she felt furious the teacher would comment on her body. She said that she always felt different from the other girls in her classes because of her weight.
“I wasn’t fat, small, petite, or tall — I was muscular,” said Ashton. “I was always thicker than the other girls and people just didn’t get it.”
After that class, Ashton felt uncomfortable dancing and later that year, she quit.
Am I Skinny Enough?
If a dancer doesn’t have the right body type, it’s highly unlikely they will make it professionally. Although there are hundreds of articles out there explaining what an ideal dancer’s shape looks like, this ideal figure may be changing.
Misty Copeland, the principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre (ABT), is known for having a figure that doesn’t look like the typical ballerina. In her book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You, Copeland said while studying ballet, she was told she was too curvy and short to make it as a professional dancer.
The ideal dancer body comes from the father of American ballet George Balanchine. Balanchine was one of ballet’s most influential choreographers of the 20th century. He would hire ballerinas who followed our now known perception of a dancer’s body: thin, short and small torso, long limbs, and a small head.
The average height of a professional female dancer is 5’6 ft., according to dance magazine Dance Informa. That is four inches taller than Copeland. Not only that, but most ballet dancers have a petite and slim figure with a small bust which is the opposite of Copeland’s strong, muscular figure and larger bust size.
Misty Copeland became ABT’s first-ever African-American female principal dancer in June of 2015 and her success has paved the way for more curvy ballerinas to enter the professional world. But she’s still slim, weighing 110 lb.
Does this mean the dance industry is moving forward to become more inclusive to different dance figures? From Harley and Ashton’s experience, that might not be the case.
Even after losing 20 lb. over the summer of 2012, Harley found herself excluded from competitive dance classes not only in ballet but also in tap and jazz. Harley was 5’2 ft. and weighed roughly 144 lb.
“Most of my friends were the same height as me and wanted to weigh 99 lb.,” said Harley.
Harley said that her teachers in jazz and musical theatre would push against the studio director’s strict appearance policy and asked for Harley to move up into the competitive classes because of her strong technique. Unfortunately, her teachers had no say if she was in their class or not according to Harley.
Bonnie Muth said she felt hurt and upset watching her daughter be rejected from the competitive team and classes because of the strict weight policy.
“So, she isn’t toothpick of girl. She has more meat on her bones … she was able to do everything the other girls could do,” said Bonnie. She said that it was difficult to pick up her daughter from ballet class and see her depressed because of the body shaming that went on in her dance classes.
Bonnie said that Harley spent her teen years on and off “fasting” or “starving herself” to be skinny enough to move up in her dance studio.
Harley explained she still feels her mouth water and acid come up her throat whenever she feels like she’s overeaten.
“I have to fight this feeling knowing that I need these nutrients I just ate to survive,” said Harley.
She explained that she thought throwing up, starving, and dehydrating herself would help her look like other girls in her class.
Do I Deserve to Eat?
“Some days I wouldn’t eat at all,” said Harley. “I would think, you don’t look like the rest of the girls … you don’t deserve to eat.”
While Harley spent most of her teen years eating 600 calories a day, she spent days before performances not eating at all. Harley said she would take the meal her mother prepared for her to her room and throw it out. She didn’t want her mother to know or worry when she wasn’t eating.
She said if she did eat before school, she would leave early so that she could speed walk through the school halls to burn off her low-calorie breakfast.
“I would put my headphones in and walk around the school as fast as I could,” said Harley.
Muth’s mother knew she had a close group of girlfriends who could help and nurture her through her body image issues and eating disorder, but most of Harley’s dance peers were unaware of her eating disorder.
Alissa Lee said while dancing with Harley in high school she didn’t know about her struggles with bulimia. She said Harley would joke about her weight and act like she didn’t take her body-shaming too seriously. Lee explained the body-shaming comments she made never seemed out of the ordinary.
“I just reminded her that she belonged … but she was always focused on her weight,” said Lee.
Harley said she kept her battle with bulimia nervosa to herself and even today, her mother doesn’t know.
How often do parents, friends, or teachers not know about a teen’s eating disorder or extreme dieting? And how many teens have negative body perceptions or unhealthy relationships with food?
Shelby Yankoski, a dance teacher in Winnipeg, said seeing student dancers lose an unhealthy amount of weight isn’t unusual.
In 2016, one of her ballet students who used to be considered the “bigger” student came back after the summer having lost so much weight that she looked fragile and sick. Yankoski explained that the student’s mother denied any signs of unhealthy behaviour and said that her child was fine.
Worried, Yankoski still kept her eye on the student wondering if she was struggling with an eating disorder. It wasn’t until later that year Yankoski found out in a staff meeting that the student had been bullied about her weight by other students in the dance class. While Yankoski still doesn’t know if the student struggles with an eating disorder, the student has maintained her slim figure.
It is difficult to pinpoint what starts or triggers a person’s eating disorder, but according to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), being body-shamed or teased can heavily influence a girl’s body image and they’re more likely to develop an eating disorder. NEDIC also reported that 37 per cent of girls in grade nine believed they’re too fat, and 12 per cent of those teen girls attempted to lose weight. Eating disorders are also 10 times more likely in ballet dancers than other dancers, according to a BBC article by Sandish Shoker.
Harley explained she had a reoccurring internal dialogue telling her, “you’re not skinny enough…you’re not enough to do what you want to do,” when she thought about dance. It’s not only because of this internal dialogue and preconceived body image of the ideal dancer that hurt Muth’s self-esteem. There is sheer competitiveness between dancers.
Harley said she often heard other students in her class commenting on her weight.
“This person is supposed to be my friend and she called me a whale behind my back,” said Harley.
She said not only did the students called her a whale, but the studio director did too.
She was bullied by peers in dance and school because of her weight. She explained that while eating lunch at school, boys would tell her to join the F.L.C. (fat lesbian’s club). She said one of the boys was suspended for bullying her.
Muth’s mother said the guidance counsellor in middle school raised concerns about Muth’s well-being because of the bullying. But her mother said her main concern was that her daughter started self-harming.
Harley explained she would wear long sleeve shirts to cover her scars, and at one point, she started cutting her hips and ribs to hide the scars from friends, family, and teachers.
“It got really bad and I was worried that Harley would do something…that she couldn’t…couldn’t come back from,” said Muth’s mother. “All I could do is hug her and tell her I loved her.”
Harley said she struggled with self-harming and suicidal thoughts throughout middle and high school. “I just didn’t feel good enough to live,” said Harley.
Muth attempted suicide for the second time at 16 years old.
It’s My Fault
After performing a lyrical piece with Westwood Collegiate at Manitoba Dance Festival, 17-year-old Harley ran off stage feeling woozy and panicked. She could feel her body going limp.
“When I got to the changing room, I looked in the mirror and my skin looked white and translucent,” said Harley “I couldn’t even lift my arm.”
She had starved herself for the day before the performance.
As Harley started to panic, breathing heavily and crying, her teacher sat her down and asked her a few questions. After she told him she’d been starving herself, he grabbed a granola bar and asked her to eat it.
Harley tried to stomach the granola bar, but she knew she wouldn’t have the energy to perform in the second dance number that day. She felt heartbroken knowing she did this to her body.
“Who else could I blame? I knew it was my only fault,” she said.
My Internal Dialogue
Harley still struggles with her eating disorder, body image, and mental health.
“Some days I still struggle eating or looking in the mirror,” she said.
Harley said she’s grateful for her high school dance teachers who helped and recognized her eating disorder.
She stays active by going to the gym, but there isn’t a day that goes by where she doesn’t see the scars on her body.
“She tries to think positive now: buying herself pretty clothes and working out all the time. But I think it will take her time to get to where she wants to be,” said Muth’s mother.
The 20-year-old stopped dancing at 18 because university was too demanding. She hopes to one day get back into dance but made a promise to herself she’ll only dance in a place without a toxic, body-shaming environment.
There are studios such as Fat Babes Dance Collective (Fat Babes), Drop In Dance Winnipeg (Drop In Dance), and Studio One School of Performing Arts that promote an anti-body-shaming and anti-bullying environment for children, teens, and adults.
Fat Babes owner, Laura Elliott, said changing the ideal dancer body perception is going to be an uphill battle. She said the dance institution will need to change their practices and come on board with the inclusion of different body shapes to create a more inclusive, safe environment.
Elliott started Fat Babes in 2017 as a response from a comment in the Fat Babes Winnipeg Facebook Group asking where fat-identifying people could dance or exercise without feeling stigmatized. The studio has a policy that bans diet talk, body shaming, and bullying.
Sierra Hill, 22, said dancing as a plus-size woman at Fat Babes is extremely rewarding and comfortable. She said throughout her life she’d always wanted to dance but believed she couldn’t because of her figure.
“All the girls who danced were slimmer and more muscular — different from the way I looked,” said the 22-year-old. She said that throughout her life she struggled with her body image and felt dance wasn’t a place for a curvy figure.
Hill said that Fat Babes and Drop In Dance offer a space for people who don’t look like the stereotypical dancer. She said both studios offer a safe space for people, but she still struggles with body image.
Hill explained every day is a battle to fight the negative internal dialogue that tells her she can’t dance because of her weight. But she said talking about her body perception, networking with people who experienced the same internal dialogue she’s experienced, and dancing in a safe space has helped turn the negative internal dialogue into a positive one.
According to Kids Health, opening up about our feelings and experiences helps us feel closer to the people who care and know that we’re not alone in our feelings and experiences.
Harley Muth has kept her struggles with bulimia, self-harming, and mental health to herself for years. She’s feared what people would say, how they’d react, and what her studio director would do or say if they found out.
I’ve danced at Studio One School of Performing Arts (Studio One) for 15 years, and I haven’t had a teacher comment on my body unless it was positive. Even still, I can’t forget the workshop in Chicago. Now 22 years old, I still hear the teacher’s voice saying, “tune your instrument,” when I look in the mirror at dance.
I danced with Harley at Westwood Collegiate when I was 17 and she was 15. I remember standing at the barre in class with Harley thinking she was so lucky to have a smaller bust unlike me — not knowing everything she went through. I was so focused on comparing my body to the other girls in my class, I didn’t even notice someone else could be experiencing the same negative body issues I did.
I would make negative comments about myself and contribute to diet talk, and no one stopped me.
Dance studios that are inclusive to different body types are leading the way to more inclusive dance culture. However, these studios can’t help dancers who are scared to leave a dance studio where they experience body shaming. It’s not only the body-shaming dancer’s experience from teachers, but it’s also the dancers themselves involved in diet talk and body-shaming.
I’ve wondered why dancers dance at studios where they experience body shaming and bullying because I always thought, “why don’t they just switch to a different dance studio.”
But Harley explained it isn’t all that simple.
She said switching studios meant meeting new teachers, making new friends, and having to prove your skills to more people. It means opening up to strangers with the chance that they might have the same reaction the other studio did.
It means starting all over again.