Dancer to Dancer

Starving Artist

Christina Ilisije in a recent performance of Kate Skarpetwoska's A Stray's Lullaby (by Masato Kuroda)

I wish I could say I didn’t fulfill the dancer-with-an-eating-disorder cliché, but I can’t. My struggle started when I was a dance-crazed teenager, nitpicking more than just my technique in the mirror. As a type-A gal, I thought of losing weight as a way to take control of one more element of my life. Perfection was what I was after, and I thought every pound lost would bring me closer to it. My goal was to get into good shape, and to me that didn’t mean improving my stamina or strength, but appearing more “dancerly.”

The problem reached another level when I started as a dance major at Marymount Manhattan College. The summer before my sophomore year, I enrolled in a course on nutrition. The class opened up my mind to a better, healthier diet, but I took its lessons to an extreme. I read every ingredient on nutrition labels and became tediously aware of serving sizes. I stopped listening to my body’s signs of hunger and analyzed my meals as if I were being graded. Any time I absent-mindedly snacked on trail mix, I felt consumed by guilt.

I became extremely thin—too thin by anyone’s standards. At 5' 5", I weighed about 100 pounds. Upon my return to Marymount in September, teachers took note of my deteriorating figure. “Christina, you look so thin. Don’t lose any more weight, please.” To me, this was a compliment. While it was easy for me to look at people with more severe cases of anorexia—their bones protruding harshly—and know they were sick, I was proud of my new figure. I was in denial, convinced there was nothing wrong with my body and that my pitifully constrained dinners were what a dancer should be eating. I’m scared to think how close I was to extreme anorexia—probably much closer than I realized.

Ilisije (right) at her thinnest in college (courtesy Christina Ilisije)

The most tragic part? I felt great. I felt on top of my dance game when I was truly at the bottom. Once I knew I was skinny, I took class with a liberated state of mind, riding the wave of my positive body view. Finally, when I spotted myself in arabesque in the mirror, I didn’t think, Ugh, that belly and thigh are a bit unfortunate. Instead, I was free to sail effortlessly in a promenade, focusing on luxuriating in my épaulement instead of scrutinizing my body. And as my college training continued, my technique got better, which in my mind proved my bogus equation: thinness = better dancing.

At the end of spring semester, my parents came to see me perform. After the show, they were near tears. They told me I needed to put on weight and they were going to get me help. Seeing their urgency about an issue I thought didn’t exist made me reconsider what I was doing to my body. My parents were right. It had been nearly a year since I’d started my misguided efforts to get in “dancer shape,” and I had become weak and withered. I hadn’t had a period in nine months, and I knew in my gut that my body was shutting down. Gratefully, I accepted their intervention.

I saw a therapist to help sort through the emotional turmoil and wrap my mind around the seriousness of the issue. I realized that potentially ending my dance career—because of lost bone density and an increased risk of injury, both side effects of my dangerously low body weight—frightened me almost as much as putting on weight. My therapist repeatedly reminded me to view food as a source of nourishment and emphasized the importance of fueling my bones and muscles to allow them to do what I requested of them. I was never formally diagnosed with a disorder, but I became aware that my perception of my body wasn’t aligned with reality.

I dove full force into my recovery, and when it came to food, I didn’t limit myself. I increased my portions and didn’t finish a meal until my belly felt full. Food still came with a whopping side of guilt, but I kept trying to convince myself that my new eating habits were necessary. Seeing the poundage creep onto my scrawny frame while maintaining a sense of self-pride was a challenge. Those five extra pounds made me feel like I was wearing a balloon suit.

Ilisije (front right) with friends at Marymount Manhattan College (courtesy Christina Ilisije)

Along my road to recovery, I became heavier than I’d been before I was sick. I intuitively felt I would need to go further in the opposite direction before I could balance myself and feel my healthiest. But I let this new heavier body limit my dancing because I felt no pride in it. It was a distraction that took me out of the work and into the mirror, concerned with the appearance of my movement instead of the movement itself. The honest truth is my mind hadn’t made as much of a shift as I had hoped.

But I repeatedly recited to myself, “I have to fuel my body. This is me, and I’m beautiful.” With these self-loving mantras and a lot of patience, I started to believe the asexual, prepubescent look was not all that and a bag of chips (let’s be real, it was no chips!). The clothes that once sagged on my wilted tushie had a field day with the comeback of my bubble butt. At first, I gawked in the mirror with a tinge of disgust at my new curves, but I gradually embraced that womanly figure. There was no “aha” moment. It took time before I was able to own my body and shed my mental balloon suit.

While I was in the midst of this mental battle, life threw me other tests. During a phone call with a director about an upcoming season, she asked if I planned on getting in shape for it—“You know, slimming down,” she said. I went on the defensive and told her I wasn’t willing to drop pounds and sacrifice my health. It was a proud moment, but the harsh reality was that I wasn’t in my best shape. Negotiating the fine line between healthy eating habits and obsessive ones was too sensitive an issue for me. Slowly, I faced the fact that I needed to make sure my physique was strong, lean and functioning at its best for dance jobs.

With Jason Macdonald in Parson's Swing Shift (by Masato Kuroda)

In 2010, I joined Parsons Dance. Now, for the most part, the physical work I do on a daily basis helps me achieve the necessary strength, stamina and flexibility. Other times I have to step up my game and fuel my body carefully to make sure I feel at my prime. I still consciously opt for nutritious foods. I eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’m full—for the most part. I eat chocolate, and I like it. Heck, I love it, and I may occasionally eat one too many Godiva truffles

in the confines of my apartment. Yes, there are still times when I mumble to myself, “Did you really need to eat that much?” However, these mental slip-ups are few and far between, and I have faith that one day they’ll subside into my dark past completely. And these days, when I’m coming back from an off-season and notice my figure is a little rounder, I have deeper patience with myself. I’m well aware I’m a beautiful woman and artist at a healthy, ideal-dancer-weight-for-me of about 130 pounds (a guesstimate, since I don’t step on a scale unless I’m at the doctor).

This is my challenge to other dancers who take drastic measures to change their bodies: Choose to see your beauty, and, for heaven’s sakes, use the mirror as a tool to sharpen your technique, not to see if your thighs look fat. There has to come a point when you stop worrying and let dance take over. If you want to reach your fullest capacity as an artist and a person, working to maintain a healthy relationship with food is a battle worth fighting.

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