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Health – dancers’ health, death of dancer Heidi Guenther, prevention of eating disorders

Health – dancers’ health, death of dancer Heidi Guenther, prevention of eating disorders – Editorial

Richard Philp

The tragic death of a corps dancer in Boston Ballet has had considerable repercussions beyond the realm of dance. And although we still do not have the entire picture, a few more facts and some distance in terms of time make a calmer evaluation possible.

What actually happened? The first reports of the death of a promising dancer, Heidi Guenther, 22, came from the Boston Globe and fanned out to news services around the world. Things were implied in that coverage that have subsequently turned out to be inaccurate, the most damaging being the assertion that Boston Ballet’s associate director was responsible for Guenther’s developing an eating disorder and therefore was also responsible for her death. By telescoping events and reporting rumor as fact, the Globe created a Big Bad Ballet Company Starves Its Dancers story that probably did considerable damage to the community profile of the ballet at a time when the company was in a delicate period of directorial transition. Surely the Globe writer wasn’t using this tragic death to undermine the Boston company’s stability.

The Globe ran its first story, by staff writer Kate Zernike, on July 10, provocatively headlined “A Dancer’s Death Raises Questions: Boston Ballet had told women to lose weight.” Perhaps to the Globe’s surprise, the hometown story was picked up around the world with gusto. The lead claimed boldly, “A 22-year-old Boston Ballet dancer who had developed an eating disorder after the ballet told her to lose weight died unexpectedly last week while home on summer break.”

The autopsy ruled out anorexia as well as a heart condition, although I understand that the consequences of eating disorders are sometimes difficult to identify in young women. The implied connection between the “eating disorder” end a request almost three years ago by then associate director Anna-Marie Holmes that Guenther lose five pounds is a real stretch. And according to former Boston Ballet artistic director Bruce Marks, Guenther was a highly talented, personable dancer who was well liked and showed none of the personality changes associated with anorexia nervosa (although, it should be noted, denial can be a key characteristic of this eating disorder). She had been at home with her family in California for almost two months and her mother insisted that if her daughter had had an eating disorder, it was not apparent to her.

There is more to learn in this story, and we can only hope for greater accuracy in the future. Once past the heartbreak of the event itself and the resulting smear of the dance world in the press, some more positive results have begun to emerge: Schools and companies are reviewing their policies about counseling dancers on nutrition and diet. (The schools we interviewed for our news story, page 34, “Schools Active on Health Issues,” proved quite responsible, caring, and concerned, as I suspected they would.) Also as a result of Miss Guenther’s death, and gauging from the many letters received here (beginning on page 24), awareness has been raised and more people now want reliable information.

To that end, I’ve included the first part of a chapter from I Linda Hamilton’s forthcoming book. Advice for Dancers. The concluding portion, with information about safe dieting, will run in November. A clinical psychologist who danced with New York City Ballet for nineteen years, Dr. Hamilton is uniquely qualified to guide us through the definitions and issues surrounding eating disorders. (See pages 80 to 85.)

While her practice is dedicated to helping dancers and performers, Dr. Hamilton writes about a condition–obsession with thinness–that is rooted in our contemporary culture. Is it ironic that America, the fattest nation in the world (according to recent statistics), is obsessed with being thin and dieting? But we should also remember that dancers (as we learned from our health survey last year in this magazine) are healthier as a group than the general population. One of the reasons for this is their awareness both of their bodies and important health issues. What Dr. Hamilton discusses can be applied to all segments of our society, not just to dance or modeling or sports or acting.

While dance will continue to have its high standards, the health of the performers is ultimately more important than anything else. There are things we can do to help: Young people need a support system (such as mentors) that can help them deal with anxiety over self-image. They need to be given responsible guidance about nutrition and diet. Genuine talent is still a rare gift, given to few, and losing one more pound will not miraculously do for a dancer what training and talent can’t. But the issues that lead to eating disorders are complex, and making professional help available remains one of the best solutions. Teachers and company directors, if tempted to comment on weight or to threaten dancers with fines or humiliation, might think twice before doing so next tune and offer instead constructive alternatives.

The dance environment is one of the most supportive I know in the performing arts. Yes, it is small; but it is a community of like-minded people that shares many of the advantages of a tight-knit family. In my experience, dancers as a group are the most intelligent, capable people around; they have to be in order to survive the rigors of training and performing, the discipline of living such demanding, active lives.

Very few resort to maladaptive behavior to resolve conflicts. We’re too bright for that. Right?

COPYRIGHT 1997 Dance Magazine, Inc.

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