Ask Amy: The Eating Conversation

What to do if you think a friend may have an eating disorder, plus turnout tips and summer study advice.
Published in the December 2011/January 2012 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers


Have a question?
Click here to send it to Suzanne Farrell Ballet dancer Amy Brandt.


One dancer in my company barely eats anything. She’s not super-thin, but sometimes I see her eating only a handful of vegetables for “dinner.” Should I say something to the artistic staff, or approach her? —Anonymous
You’re in a tricky situation—you can’t assume a colleague has a problem just because you’ve seen her eating a couple of small meals. But, even if she doesn’t look dangerously thin, it’s possible that she could have an eating disorder. And you have every right to be concerned. According to Lynn Grefe, president of the National Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders have the highest death rate of any mental illness. But before going to the artistic staff with your suspicions, try talking to your friend directly.

Be sensitive in your approach. “Express your concern, without being critical,” advises Grefe. “You could say, ‘I’m worried about you. You’re such a great dancer, but I’ve noticed you’re hardly eating. Is everything okay?’” Be prepared: She may react with denial, or be offended by the suggestion that she has a problem. “But don’t give up on her right away,” says Grefe. Continue giving your support and friendship. If she admits to having a disorder, offer to help her find the right resources to get better.

However, if she denies having a problem and you truly believe she needs help, alert someone on the artistic staff. “She might get upset, or think you’re jealous,” says Grefe. “But if she ends up getting help that she needs, she’ll thank you later.” For more information about eating disorders, visit nationaleatingdisorders.org or call NEDA’s live helpline at 800-931-2237.


I don’t have great turnout, especially in fifth position. What can I do? —Olivia
Very few people have perfect 180-degree rotation—I certainly don’t! Unfortunately, you can’t significantly alter your natural range. But you can work within it without compromising your technique by wrenching from your knees and ankles.         
                                                                    
According to Andrea Zujko, DPT, COMT, a senior physical therapist at New York’s Westside Dance Physical Therapy, you can maximize your available turnout by strengthening your hips’ external rotators with clamshell exercises. Lie on your side, keeping your shoulders, hips and knees in line, and bend your knees, creating a V with your feet behind you. Slowly open and close your top leg like a clam, keeping your feet together, until your external rotators start to fatigue.

Zujko also recommends investing in a pair of rotator discs or Functional Footprints (both available at pilates.com), which twist back and forth like a Lazy Susan. “Their moveable surface allows you to practice turning out from the hip,” she says. Stand on the discs about hip width apart in parallel, and slowly rotate one leg out and back in until your muscles start to fatigue. “Take inventory of what the rest of your body is doing,” says Zujko. “Sometimes we tilt our pelvis forward and arch our backs, or roll our feet in, to get more turnout.” After working one leg at a time, try opening both simultaneously. You can also position the discs in an open fourth and, eventually, in fifth.
   

My studio doesn’t allow students to attend summer programs until they’re 17. I’m 16 and have been accepted to many programs that I really want to attend. My school’s intensive is amazing, but will it look bad on my resumé if I haven’t been to many others? —Sarah
Directors will be more concerned with the quality of your dancing than the quantity of summer programs on your resumé. But the fact that you’re auditioning for programs, knowing that you’re not allowed to go, makes me think you’re craving more than what your studio can offer you.

Your school directors probably have specific reasons why they don’t allow younger students to go away. Perhaps they want their dancers to have a solid, consistent training base or fear they might injure themselves. However, you’re not getting a chance to network, experience new teachers or investigate companies of interest. If you really want to go away this summer, set up a meeting with your directors to talk about it. Explain why you feel the need to expand your horizons. If they’re unwilling to budge, take a close look at your ultimate goals and determine whether you can afford to wait another year. Be prepared to deal with the consequences at your school if you decide to go.