Going to Extremes

November 20, 2013

Royal Danish corps member Carling Talcott’s long struggle with her weight nearly cost her a ballet career.

As told to Laura Cappelle

Growing up, food was a non-issue. I had long legs and a short torso; I could eat whatever I wanted without losing my figure, and I loved milk shakes and chocolate. There was always food in the refrigerator, and I was allowed to go to McDonald’s once a week. There were no rules: It was just “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.”

I began dance classes when I was 3; by the time I was 6, I wanted to focus on ballet. Eventually, I started taking classes at New York’s Ballet Academy East. Then I went to a School of American Ballet summer intensive and was invited into the full-time program. When I heard crazy stories of dancers surviving solely on crackers, I thought: “That’s not real life.” And then it happened to me.

I was a teenager spending all day on my own in New York City, and I didn’t take very good care of myself. I liked easy food. I would choose pizza over salad because it tasted better. I put on a little weight, but I knew that I had solid technique, so I didn’t give it too much thought.

A family vacation to Disney World, of all places, was the trigger. I’d turned 16, and because I was traveling with my parents, I didn’t eat as much junk food. I lost a couple of pounds, and when I came back to school, people said, “Did you lose weight or something?” No one encouraged me to keep going, but I suddenly became very self-conscious.

I’m an extreme person. At first I just tried to have a healthier diet, but soon I was eating only fruits, vegetables or sushi in small quantities, and drinking a lot of coffee. I went from 130 to 110 pounds very fast.

At first everyone thought I was trying to be healthier, but soon it got to a point where my teachers were asking me if everything was all right. I told them I was fine, and left for Miami City Ballet School’s summer program. There, the teachers were very surprised, because I was half the person they had auditioned, and they had a firm talk with me. It helped, and over the summer I got my eating more or less under control.

A Love-Hate Relationship with Food

I decided to stay in Miami for my final year of training in the hope of getting a job with the company. But when we started learning Nutcracker, I felt that since I was working with the company, there was no room for error. I started to control everything I ate. I would have just enough to get through the day. I wanted to be perfect, and felt I needed a superlative: I’m not the most flexible, I don’t have the best feet and I thought being the thinnest could be my thing.

Not eating didn’t feel like a big deal, but it’s extremely dangerous. Down the line, it can lead to heart problems  and organ failures. I lost the color in my face. Looking in the mirror, I could see my bones; I looked tired and sick. I was cold all the time, and my muscles would cramp easily because I was dehydrated. I didn’t like how I looked, but I couldn’t stop: It was this love-hate, mostly hate relationship where I loved the control and needed the results.

I hit my lowest point that year. I was 17, and I was down to 96 pounds. The company took me off Nutcracker and had a chat with me. My teachers reached out to me too, and stopped giving me corrections to avoid sending the wrong message to my classmates. I didn’t understand why people couldn’t just leave me alone. I hated myself but I also hated everyone else for trying to help.

One night my mother called me. The school had been in touch with her, and she was really angry. She said that she didn’t want me to end up in a coffin. After that conversation, I remember waking up and thinking: “This isn’t worth it. I’m just going to eat.”

A Second Chance

I put on enough weight to look healthy, but anorexia doesn’t go away so easily. I became a student apprentice with Miami City Ballet, so I managed my weight very carefully. One day, I learned that I was among the dancers being let go because of financial cutbacks. I half-expected it. I went on an audition tour to Europe, and ended up being offered a job with the first company I visited, Royal Danish Ballet.

I should have had a good last summer in the U.S., but I thought I had to be perfect if I was to dance in Europe, so I began restricting my food again. My parents warned me, and yet I didn’t realize what I’d done until I moved to Copenhagen and got to the RDB’s pre-season maintenance classes. I tried to hide, but I saw the surprise in the other dancers’ eyes. I was so uncomfortably thin to look at, one of them told me afterwards that people didn’t want to get to know me out of self-preservation, because they thought that I would leave.

As soon as the season officially started, I got called in for a meeting with director Nikolaj Hübbe. He was very clear: “I really like you,” he said. “But you don’t look good, and we don’t want you to look like this. We don’t want to have to send you home.” He reminded me that the first six months of my one-year contract were a trial period, and gave me until Nutcracker to turn things around.

It scared me, because moving to Denmark was my chance to start over. I realized I was throwing away my fresh new start in Europe, my second chance, and life doesn’t hand out lots of those. I also knew that I had to make a decision: Keep living miserably or learn to love my physical self and realize that my body was the reason I could do what I love most: ballet. The frustrating thing with eating disorders is that there is no “cure.” The person with the problem has to want to change first.

I met with the company nutritionist, who devised a program with me. She was very pragmatic about it, which helped immensely—I didn’t feel like I was going to the doctor’s. We talked about the Danish food I wasn’t used to, and she would tell me how much rye bread I should eat to put on weight properly. I had to write down what I ate. She would weigh me, but the fact that it was in kilos helped: It made no sense to me; I had no reference point. And slowly, step by step, I got better.

Anorexia is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life, however, and truly getting over it is a long process. When I’m dancing now, I don’t think about it anymore, and class has been my safe place through it all. It used to feel like a competition when I was a student, but now I’m in class just for me: It’s a constant, calming routine.

Eating disorders are a very delicate subject, which people often sweep under the carpet. They don’t know what to say, but we need to talk about it. I’m extremely lucky that I didn’t get injured, or lose muscle function. It affected my dancing, however. Everything was harder; it became difficult to fully straighten my knees. I was exhausted all the time. I lost hair. I still have to take vitamins to this day.

There’s this long-standing idea in the ballet world that being in shape means being thin, and when you’re 17, you don’t realize that you’re in the best shape of your life as you are. Pop culture references like Black Swan haven’t helped. My generation also grew up idolizing the old ideal of the 1970s or 1980s, dancers like Gelsey Kirkland or Suzanne Farrell, with their willowy, waiflike bodies. But the days of living on cigarettes and Diet Coke are over—the sheer amount of dancing that dancers now must do means that health must be a priority or injuries are inevitable.

Anorexia’s an infectious disease. It may not be contagious, but it will affect everything and everyone in your life, for a long time. It ruined a lot of relationships for me. You get to dance until you’re 40, maybe, and then you probably have about another 40 years left. It’s not worth it. Weigh in your mind what you love more: dancing or being thin. Then make a choice.