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A Brunswick teenager fights her way back from an eating disorder with an unexpected ally: dancing

Next month will be the sixth anniversary of my entrance into the New England Eating Disorders Program. When I was admitted to Mercy Hospital in Portland for the program, I was 12 years old, loved to read dystopian novels and scribbled down the calorie counts of what I had eaten that day in the margins of my assignment notebooks. I denoted “healthy” low-calorie foods with a smiley face in purple gel pen. By the time I checked in to Mercy, I had stopped smiling myself.

Eliza Rudalevige on pointe in the Bowdoin Pines in Brunswick. “Releasing emotion through movement feels so good because it’s natural.” Photo by Liz Caron

The five-year anniversary of my dance journey is also coming up. I use the term “journey” instead of “experience” or some other comparatively vague noun to distinguish between when I began to dance and when dancing became part of my recovery. Before the anorexia and our family’s move to Maine from central Pennsylvania, I had been a dedicated Irish Step Dancer, starting at age eight. I was forced to give that up slowly, first by the move to a town an hour away from any viable studios, and then by my failing body.

I was still chugging calorie replacement shakes in exchange for exercise—“earning” my exercise—when I became part of the dance club at Brunswick Junior High School, run by one of the art teachers. The club was short-lived, but afterward, I begged my mother to let me try out contemporary and jazz classes at a local studio, promising that the wall-to-wall mirrors and my perfectionist attitude would not throw a boulder in the stream of my recovery. I’d only go once a week.

My mother was hesitant. My therapist was hesitant. My doctors were very hesitant. I was told that any weight loss would immediately result in the cessation of my dancing experiment. I understand why the caregivers in my life were reluctant to release me into the world of skinny legs and figure-hugging leotards. When you see the words “eating disorder” and “dancer” used in the same context, a certain image probably pops into your mind.

There’s a ballerina standing in the center of a practice studio, alone. Right off the bat, this is something of a fantasy—even soloists generally rehearse with the guidance of a ballet master or mistress—but I digress for the sake of the image and the stereotype it represents, which I want to dislodge. There are slants of evening light falling from the windows to the studio floor, indicating that our poor ballerina has been here all day with no breaks for food or rest. Her feet are stuffed into battered pointe shoes. She is bruised, elegant and painfully thin.

She begins to dance, and as she spins the camera cuts and the depth of field changes so that the only thing in focus is her angular face. Suddenly, she collapses to the smooth, wooden floor. I have seen this story told in books, television shows and movies such as Dying to Dance, Black Swan, and the questionably acted but addictive Australian TV series Dance Academy.

Approaching the sixth anniversary of her hospitalization for an eating disorder, Rudalevige has reclaimed dance. And joy. Photo by Liz Caron

I will not claim that the ballet community is not, as a whole, an extremely competitive environment, one that may foster the development of harmful behaviors. According to a 2013 study published in the European Eating Disorders Review, ballet dancers are three times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than non-dancers, particularly anorexia nervosa and EDNOS (eating disorders not otherwise specified). However, I think that ballet’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal in pop culture scares some people away from the possibility of dance as a form of therapy.

I fell in love first with contemporary dance. That’s an umbrella term often used interchangeably with the label “modern dance,” encompassing dozens of disciplines and techniques—including those of Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Lester Horton. I am still very much in love with it, with its freedom, its flexibility.

The last class I took was in the style of Ohad Naharin, the founder of the “Gaga” movement language. For the entire 90-minute session, the teacher led us through a series of exercises that fostered a connection between the body, mind, music and environment. We were given a single word as a direction and a body part with which to complete the action. We were encouraged to face away from the mirror and focus on how each movement felt in our bodies, singling out the specific muscles that contracted and stretched when we moved one arm this way, how our breathing was affected when we tried to isolate the movement of our rib cages. At one point, the entire class was bouncing enthusiastically, arms flopping like possessed muppets.

We looked ridiculous. It felt great.

Photo by Liz Caron

When dance is taken out of its role as an aesthetic exercise and into its role as a physiological one, we hit the jackpot. Dance, even the most classical of ballet, is meant to express emotion. Releasing emotion through movement feels so good because it’s natural. Soccer players pump their fists in jubilation after pounding a game-winning shot into the net. Married couples in the throes of a passionate argument clench their fists. We cry when we’re sad. Dancing is simply an extension of the physical release of emotion, given a direction and some music to wiggle to.

It’s my belief that dance as a form of therapy is particularly suited to people struggling with body dysmorphia, eating disorders or disordered eating because it turns the body into a tool for creating something rather than a finished product in its own right. A body is never a finished product. Physicality is ephemeral, which is why it is so harmful to think of the body as the end instead of as a means to the end. The body is for creating art, not for being art. It’s not wrong to have a goal of complete body positivity, but difficult to achieve since the body is always changing. And sometimes, we have to take baby steps. Dancing helped me take those baby steps.

I do admit that my dance journey, especially concerning ballet, has been, at times, a struggle. For me the room full of mirrors is still a challenge. But, when I look in the mirror during a dance class, I see my body differently than if I was looking in a dressing room or bathroom mirror. I don’t criticize my belly except in the capacity that I could use it to dance better. Dancing has helped me separate the worth of my body from how thin it might be and connect its worth instead to its strength. It has helped me to use the mirror as a tool to improve rather than as a means of mindless self-criticism.

Photo by Liz Caron

I owe much of my success to the people I have danced with. I am extremely lucky to have found myself in the company of dancers who are overwhelmingly positive, accepting and progressive. At the Bath-based Resurgence Dance Company, which I have been with for four years, our artistic director Ashley Steeves is dedicated to the idea of dance as a healing power and to the mantra “Dance is for everybody.” Our company addresses tough issues through dance by working with people who have actually experienced these issues, providing a healing and learning experience for all involved. My second year with the company, I danced a duet about surviving an eating disorder with another eating disorder survivor, choreographed by—you guessed it—an eating disorder survivor. About a month ago, we closed a show I wrote and choreographed, The Girl Who Lost Her Shadow. It’s about domestic abuse and grief. I worked closely with New Hope for Women, which offers support and counseling to battered women in several Maine counties, to ensure that the production was appropriately portraying the struggles that many around us have experienced.

I have been training in classical ballet with Elizabeth Drucker in Topsham for the past two years. I am the only girl in my class who wears a sports bra. A friend told me that a visiting dancer recently referred to me on the car ride home as “the girl with the boobs.” I am also at a place in my recovery where I can handle such things. The ballet industry may not be friendly to those with the audacity to grow breasts, but ballet itself brings me joy.

Whether or not you have ever struggled with your mental health, I suggest you go take a dance class. Best case scenario, you discover that you’re a secret dancing prodigy. Worst case scenario, you find yourself more centered, in tune with your body—and slightly sore.

Eliza Rudalevige is a senior at Brunswick High School who plans on attending Columbia University in the fall. In her free time, she loves to dance, perform in musical theater productions, and write very long-winded poetry.