By Kathleen Rea (Former National Ballet of Canada Company Dancer)
From a young age I loved to dance. On Saturday mornings before my parents woke up, I danced in my living room like a wild swan in a magical kingdom. At ten, I was accepted into the National Ballet School of Canada training program. I attended school nine hours a day, working towards transcending the limitations of the body through discipline and control.
My attraction to ballet did not just evolve out of my love of dance, but from a desire to gain control over my life. When my parents divorced, life was chaotic. The strict rules of ballet instantly resonated with me because they provided a set of ideals to reach for — a magical recipe that promised to make everything right. But my world of perfect pliés and pretty pirouettes left little room for the wild swan girl.
In puberty I developed curves that were considered too fat for the ballet world. The message that “thin was better” did not just come from my ballet teachers, but from female role models, billboards, magazines and movies. I was a child soldier walking through a body-image minefield.
I decided to diet my curves away, as the accolades in ballet went to girls who looked deathly thin. But my calculated “career move” soon became my nightmare. I became borderline anorexic and then bulimic. After dieting intensely for days, a famished “creature” would seize control, and an intense desire to eat would overcome my willpower.
In a trance-like state, I would binge on cakes, ice cream, and greasy foods. Emerging from my daze, I would try to erase the calories by making myself throw up. By the time I joined the National Ballet Company of Canada, I was binging and purging up to eight times a day.
My required performance weight was 105 pounds, and at 5’6” that was bone thin. My ballet mistress told me that I needed to be thinner than the other girls because of my “larger” breasts (my cup size was B!). Life under such pressure was hard, but being part of an elite dance community with extravagant productions and performances throughout the world was enthralling.
We were lavished with praise by those who saw us as the epitome of control and discipline. I was a part of the corps de ballet, a perfect conformity of women moving and breathing as one. We bonded like a proud army, sharing the experience of bleeding toes, muscle fatigue, injury, exhaustion, and hunger. After hours of practice, there were moments of transcendence in which we achieved an ethereal unity of movement.
The rewards seemed worth the hardships — until I hit rock bottom. After being told I might lose a role unless I dropped more weight, I successfully starved myself for a week. And then my willpower failed. I spent most of the night eating loaves of bread with butter and quarts of ice cream, and then forcing myself to throw up. But I knew that it wouldn’t matter how hard I tried to purge the calories; they had already made their way to my thighs.
I lay on the bathroom floor holding a sharp knife against my thigh, fighting the urge to cut off the fat. I lay like that on the cold tiles until morning. Preparing for work, I curled my hair into a tight bun and paused, looking into my sunken eyes. I could see in them that I was dying — a soul death that would eventually result in a physical death if I stayed on the path I was on.
I found an eating disorder therapist and began the recovery process. He suggested I work on softening my steady stream of self-critique. This critique was not really my voice, but a repetition of messages I received as a dancer. If I was going to recover, I had to find my own voice.
The thought of speaking my truth set off internal alarm bells because it went against my “perfect girl” conditioning. My therapist suggested that I scream into a pillow to get out all the frustration that had built up for years. I tried to do this for months, but always stopped short, my voice stuck in my throat. Then one day, after much encouragement, I finally screamed an animalistic “NO!” that respected all the no’s I had swallowed for so many years.
I spoke with the National Ballet Company, telling them I was in recovery from an eating disorder and might gain weight, but I would try to get back to my performance weight as soon as possible. Shortly after this, the company went on tour to Washington DC.
After we returned, the artistic director told me I had been far too fat to appear onstage, but due to so many dancers being injured, they were forced to keep me in the performance lineup. As a result, he informed me, I had embarrassed the nation of Canada on the international stage! Five weeks later, they fired me. I felt shame that my body size was an embarrassment and grief at the loss of my dream, but there was also a sense of relief. I was free.
The first thing I did with my newly acquired freedom was to stop dieting. Yet my obsessive thoughts about food still ran though my head continuously. There was a safety in these thoughts; they protected me from the inherent risks of truly engaging in life. I decided that every time my presence slipped away into diet la-la land, I would wipe the obsessive thought away and think of something more productive. Gradually, there was more and more of myself available to focus on life.
A few months after leaving the ballet, I choreographed a solo dance inspired by my recovery from bulimia. To do so, I had to overcome the disease’s tendency for secretive behaviour. I designed an empty mirror frame that I danced on, through, and around wearing pointe shoes glued to clunky bathroom scales.
During the creative process, I discovered a new internal strength: a creative drive that superseded the “perfect me.” The plan for the ending involved me stripping down naked in near darkness and running off stage. On opening night, I took off my clothes as planned, but the lights got brighter, revealing my naked body to everyone watching.
Angry, I asked my lighting designer what had happened. He explained it wasn’t right for the piece to end with me in hiding, so he changed the lights. My ballet friends came to see the show and broke down crying as they watched. It was not just my story; it was also their story. I forgave my lighting designer when I read the following review: “In the final hymn of freedom… Rea revealed her beautiful naked body, more lush than the world of ballet would allow, and made her run to a new life.”
And what is my new life? I have come to appreciate my body and to follow its cues. I eat when hungry and stop when full. I have made it my life’s work to help others express their life stories through the arts, and in so doing be healed by the connection to self and to others this brings. And most importantly I have returned to my “wild swan” dances.