Dancer to Dancer

Starving for Perfection

Sarah continued dancing throughout her struggles with eating disorders. Photo by Randy Gay.

When I was 10 years old, I only knew one thing about the professional dance world: ballerinas weren’t fat. Every day before class, I would enter the studio and study my reflection in the mirror, wondering if my tummy bulged too much. Sucking in my stomach, I’d vow that I’d become a perfect ballerina—no matter the cost. This early commitment to perfection planted the seeds for what would soon become a life-threatening battle with calories, the scale and my own reflection.

At 14, after six years of homeschooling to accommodate my rigorous training schedule at a pre-professional ballet academy, I made a rocky transition to a fine arts high school in my hometown of San Antonio, TX.

One day at the start of my second semester, after bursting into tears over the size of my thighs during a ballet class, I decided to lose weight—a lot of it. Calorie counting became my new hobby, and I added hours of walking and running to my already intense 30 hours of weekly dancing. As the school year wound down, my mom started commenting on the fact that I barely ate anymore, serving me extra portions and encouraging me to rest rather than work out. I found ways to throw away my food and make it look like I was eating during family meals. By the end of that summer, I’d dropped almost 20 pounds—a dramatic amount of weight on my petite 5-foot-2-inch frame.

At the beginning of my sophomore year, I started experiencing intense lower back pain during every dance class. An MRI revealed that when I moved into and out of an arabesque, instead of returning to normal alignment, my vertebrae remained twisted. I later learned that malnutrition likely contributed to my injury. Thankfully it wasn’t severe enough to prevent me from dancing, but it did catch the attention of my dance teachers at school. They asked about my sudden injury and unnecessary weight-loss, but they didn’t press the matter further after I assured them I was eating properly. The pain in my back alarmed me, but I didn’t dare ask for help. After all, I felt like I had everything under control. I thought if I just ate a little more it would be okay.

But it wasn’t that easy. My attempts at normal eating backfired and I began a steady routine of bingeing and starving. My weight eventually stabilized, but my mind didn’t. Over the next two years, I performed in dozens of shows, attended elite summer dance programs and joined academic honor societies. Instead of feeling pleased with my success, I obsessed over how I could be better, thinner and happier. Food became something I had to earn rather than something I needed.

Frustrated that my behavior was no longer yielding the weight-loss results I craved, I adapted new rules about what I could eat and when. My skin grew pale and dark circles hung under my eyes. Clumps of hair fell out of my bun, and though I was tired all the time, I stayed up most nights doing crunches and thinking about what I would and wouldn’t eat the next day.

I became irritable, snapping at my parents and withdrawing from friends. It became harder to maintain my usual straight A’s, as I spent classes mentally counting calories. Every muscle ached and I could barely muster the energy to tendu, let alone power through a whole class. Dancing—the one thing that had always brought me joy—was now almost too painful to do.

I’d been crash dieting for two years, but because my weight wasn’t much lower than the norm for many professional ballet dancers, most people had no idea how ill I was. Then, in April 2006, my dance teacher approached me after rehearsal and commented on my weight. She warned me that if I continued abusing my body, I might have to stop dancing forever. Her words gave me the courage to admit, reluctantly, that I had a problem. Telling my parents that I needed help was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They took me to the doctor, who diagnosed me with anorexia nervosa, and I began my journey down the difficult road of recovery.

At first, I was scared to let go of my eating disorder. It was so much a part of my identity that I didn’t know how I could function without it. I also struggled to find a therapist who was trained to treat people with eating disorders—many I visited told me to “just eat!” Eventually, I found a sports psychologist and a dietician who helped me learn to feed myself again.

About a month after I began treatment, I experienced a turning point. I booked my first professional dance job at a theme park and realized that I couldn’t perform two or three shows a day without fueling my body. I owed it to my employer and my fellow dancers—as well as myself—to get healthy. I spent the summer going to therapy and dietetic appointments in the morning, and rehearsed and performed in the afternoons and evenings. Gradually, I learned to listen to my body, enjoy food and delight in dancing.

While I’ve made a full recovery from anorexia, a few effects of my disease still linger. Back pain from that early injury still makes an arabesque more difficult than it should be. Because my disordered eating habits began when I was young, I suffered from primary amenorrhea, meaning I didn’t have a menstrual cycle until I was 18. I’m now discovering that this may affect my chances of having a child. I feel blessed to have received treatment before my disease damaged any vital organs—an effect of anorexia that can be fatal.

These problems remind me every day that our bodies are breakable gifts meant to be handled with care. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine a life that wasn’t ruled by numbers on a scale. Now that I’m free of anorexia, I’ve danced professionally in NYC, earned a college degree and married the love of my life. Perfection isn’t possible, I’ve learned, but happiness is.


Getting Better

Recovering from an eating disorder takes a lot of courage. If you want to experience a life free from your eating disorder but don’t know where to start, read these tips from Johanna S. Kandel,* a former dancer and current executive director of The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness:

Reach out for help.Having an ally will give you the encouragement you need to get better. Confide in your parents, best friend, counselor or a trustworthy teacher.

Contact an eating disorder organization for referrals to psychologists, therapists and nutritionists who can help you.The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness ( and the Eating Disorder Referral and Information Center ( are great places to start.

Call two or three professionals in your area and talk with each of them for a few minutes before committing to one.You’ll be working closely with your therapist and nutritionists throughout your recovery, so it’s important that you’re comfortable with them. If possible, choose someone who has experience treating dancers or athletes.

Relax and take a deep breath. Remember that recovery doesn’t happen overnight and it won’t be perfect. But people do recover!

*Check out Kandel’s book Life Beyond Your Eating Disorder for more insight about overcoming eating disorders.

Win It
Photos by Erin Baiano

It's time to get your pirouette on! From September 5th to September 30th, we're hosting a contest to find out who's the best turner of them all.

Put together your most impressive turning combo. Post a video online. Share your turns with us and thousands of other dancers around the world. And if our editors think you're the top turner, you'll win a fabulous prize.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

All of 18-year-old Kaylin Maggard's dreams—from scoring the title of National Senior Outstanding Dancer at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals to winning the 2017 Dance Spirit Cover Model Search—are coming true. And to anyone who knows the gorgeous contemporary dancer, that's no surprise.

From the moment the Dance Spirit staff met Kaylin, it was obvious her humility and talent would take her far. Not only did she go full-out during the photo shoot and class at Broadway Dance Center, but she was always cheering on, laughing with, and supporting her fellow CMS contestants Haley Hartsfield and Michelle Quiner. During the voting period, the social media world was abuzz with praise for her work ethic, positive attitude, and generosity.

Since her CMS trip to NYC, Kaylin's moved from her hometown of Columbia, MO, to the Big Apple for her freshman year at Juilliard, and is busy getting acquainted with the city. As for the future? She's taking it one opportunity at a time, but something tells us we'll be seeing this contemporary queen reach new heights every year.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

New York City principal Lauren Lovette has become an icon thanks to her emotional maturity and exceptional musicality. The 26-year-old quickly rose through the ranks after joining the company as an apprentice in 2009, reaching principal status in 2015. A Thousand Oaks, CA, native, Lovette started studying ballet seriously at age 11, at the Cary Ballet Conservatory in Cary, NC. After attending two summer courses at the School of American Ballet, she enrolled as a full-time student in 2006. Last year, she made her choreographic debut with For Clara, her first piece for NYCB. Catch her latest work this month during the company's fall season. —Courtney Bowers

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer to Dancer

In our "Dear Katie" series, former NYCB soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions. Have something you want to ask Katie? Email for a chance to be featured!

Dear Katie,

I know I'm not getting good enough dance training from any of my local studios. But I'm not sure I'm ready to move away to study at a big-name school, either. How do you know when you're ready to leave home to pursue your passion?


Keep reading... Show less
Your Body

Instagram star Kylie Shea has built a following of nearly 170,000 with her playful workout videos, which combine traditional fitness activities, like jumping rope or running on the treadmill, with pointe shoes and sassy choreography. Shea's effortless cool-girl-next-door vibe and solid ballet technique make her vids totally irresistible.

Now Shea's using her platform to address the body image issues that tend to plague dancers. In a poignant video, she sheds her clothes and tugs at her skin. The caption explains her relationship with her body and the pressure she feels to maintain a certain aesthetic as a dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Your Body

Physical discomfort is inevitable when you're spending tons of hours in the studio every day, but some pain shouldn't be suffered through. "Dancing through pain can make an injury worse and lead to more time away from dance," says Dr. Joel Brenner, medical director of dance medicine at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk, VA. "Failing to rest and recover when you're in serious pain could even lead to the point where you're unable to dance in the future."

That may sound scary, but there's good news: If you take precautions and listen to your body, many injuries can be stopped in their tracks. The first step? Knowing what's normal—and what's not.

Keep reading... Show less
(From left) Beatriz Stix-Brunell and Yasmin Nagdhi in a still from "Duet"

Think about it: How often do you see a ballet pas de deux for two women? Almost never, right? Sometimes, choreographers will forgo the traditional danseur-ballerina pas to make a duet for two guys, since they can lift and partner each other easily. But a dance for two ballerinas is a rare thing.

That's part of what makes "Duet," a new video by director Andrew Margetson featuring Royal Ballet beauties Yasmin Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell, so compelling.

Keep reading... Show less
Watch This
(From left) Reese Hatala and Phoenix Lil' Mini in "LULAS" (via YouTube)

What happens when Willdabeast Adams gets two of his most amazing lilBEASTS—the pint-sized Reese Hatala and Phoenix Lil' Mini, aka LULAS ("Love U Like A Sister")—to make a video set to a throwback mashup of songs? So, so much cuteness. And so, so much 🔥🔥🔥 .

Keep reading... Show less


Want to Be on Our Cover?





Get Dance Spirit in your inbox