Illustration: Samantha Moya

The secret life of a Ryerson dance student

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Dance culture has led to students at Ryerson’s School of Performance feeling like they must look a certain way in order to succeed, impacting their mental and physical health.
Madeline Cornacchia writes what students say Ryerson could do to make that problem go away

When she was about to enter Grade 8, Mabel* remembers losing weight. A significant amount; enough to worry her friends, whose mothers approached Mabel’s. She didn’t thin out on purpose—she figured it was a result of her maturing and beginning puberty. But she noticed a change in the way people treated her with her new figure. As a young dancer with the ideal look, she was offered more solos, was included in special group pieces, and won awards at competitions. She couldn’t help but wonder: “Was it because I was skinny?” Suddenly, different choreographers took notice of her, and it was around that time she began to get more serious about dance. “I didn’t lose the weight on purpose, but once I had lost it, I wanted to keep it that way.”

   To dedicate your life to an art is never easy, especially an art as physically and emotionally demanding as dance. Ryerson’s Dance program, part of the School of Performance, presents a unique university experience compared to the school’s more academic programs. Dance culture has led to students feeling like they must look a certain way in order to succeed, which can negatively impact their mental and physical well-being.

Most dancers begin taking classes as toddlers, where they are subject to the traditional ideals of what a ballerina should look like. In order to join a competitive team, most styles of dance require learning the fundamentals of dance through ballet. In the 20th century, Russian choreographer George Balanchine popularized the iconic ballet dancer look—long arms and legs, incredibly narrow hips and highly arched feet. This celebrated childlike body type, Mabel says, can cause young dancers to equate growing up with “getting fat.” Over time, as concerns about body image among dancers became more prominent, the emphasis on this traditional appearance started to dwindle and is slowly burning out.

 

Mabel then feels like she has to push herself harder and do extra workouts herself, whether or not she really wants to

 

Mabel feels contemporary dancers have a different culture than ballet dancers—the impulse to starve, as is commonly associated with ballet, isn’t as strong. But there is still a pressure to maintain an extremely muscular, toned body by fixating on eating healthy foods and going to the gym every day, despite their overactive schedules. This pressure is heightened when her peers are more competitive—for example, when one mentions they went to the gym for an extra workout after class. Mabel then feels like she has to push herself harder and do extra workouts herself, whether or not she really wants to.  

Ryerson dancers might have some of the most strenuous schedules on campus. A typical day for a fourth-year dance student can last up to 11 hours, with a scattering of 15-to-30-minute breaks throughout. Now, approaching the end of the semester, upper-year students are in the studio late into the evening rehearsing for their upcoming show, Ryerson Dances—the program’s yearly showcase for third- and fourth-year students. On top of this, fourth-years are already beginning to choreograph their own routines for next semester’s showcase, Choreographic Works—an annual performance that is entirely student-choreographed. They can be in the studio rehearsing until 10 or 11 p.m. Auditions begin in January, but despite preparing early for next semester’s show, there is no guarantee their dances will be included.

Their hectic schedules leave little room for enjoying full meals, a good night’s sleep, a part-time job or a social life. Spending so many hours a day together created a bond among this year’s 21-student graduating class who understand each other’s day-to-day experience. But that connection doesn’t completely hinder the weight of the pressures they face.

***

Shaina Gibson faced a silent struggle during her first two and a half years in the dance program. She was her own worst critic, often comparing her growth as a dancer to that of her classmates. Leading up to performances, she was particularly hard on herself and wouldn’t eat well. She says she never felt that this pressure was put onto her by other people, but instead came from within. “I was always pushing myself to seem a certain way for other people watching.”

Halfway through Gibson’s third year, she asked herself: “Who am I doing this for?” The answer had to be her. She realized she needed to take a step back, outside of Ryerson, outside of her classes in the basement of the Student Learning Centre, to put things into perspective. She realized the things that worried her wouldn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. That’s when she began to let go and apply herself in a different way, not allowing the pressure of who was watching her to affect the way she moved. She had been focusing her efforts on impressing her teachers in her first two years at school, but she reminded herself that they would be gone from her daily life in four years and decided to focus on impressing herself instead. “Everyone is so different that you can’t compare yourself to someone else, because there’s no way any of us will ever look the same.”

Vicki St. Denys, the director of the dance program, feels that there isn’t an emphasis on body image in the program. She says mirrors give a one-dimensional perspective of the movement, meaning dancers can only see one side of their bodies, so she incorporates exercises that often face away from the mirror in her classes. This allows students to feel rather than see what they are doing. In “Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection,” author and dance critic Deirdre Kelly writes, “Ballet is a visual art, and dancers are always made aware of how they look, practicing before mirrors all day long, a habit that makes them hyper-aware of their bodies and also hypercritical.” When was the last time you looked in a mirror for two hours straight? For most dancers, it’s a daily occurrence.

 

She realized the things that worried her wouldn’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things

 

“What you see in the mirror is not telling you the truth,” says Tanya Evidente, an associate professor of dance and ballet teacher at Ryerson. She often reminds her dancers that when they look in the mirror, they are not actually doing the movement as instructed. A ballerina’s gaze is meant to elongate the movement, with the line of her chin following that of her fingers, reaching outward. Focusing on the image in the mirror breaks that line and distracts the dancer from being present in what they’re feeling.

Gibson added that dance companies appear to seek a more diverse range of dancers in their shows. As a person of colour, she says she doesn’t feel limited to opportunities she gets because of how the industry has changed. But there is an element of privilege to acknowledge when considering the pursuit of dance as a career. Historically, ballet has been dominated by white dancers and is therefore considered a sophisticated sport.

Fall for Dance North, a not-for-profit international dance festival in Toronto, is an example of increased diversity in dance, Gibson says. Their mandate is to reflect Toronto’s multiculturalism. “That show is incredible because it has companies from all over the world that are so diverse [and] it’s so exciting to see something other than North American contemporary dance.”

It can also cost thousands of dollars each year to take competitive dance classes as a teen and receive proper training. Tuition for Ryerson’s program ranges from around $7,600 to $8,400 per year for domestic students and can be up to $26,600 for international students. Ryerson is one of eight universities and colleges across Canada that offers a dance program.

This and the precarious work dancers face after years of training excludes people who grow up under a certain income. If a dancer does not secure a permanent position in a dance company after graduation, they might have to spend time auditioning for singular shows and projects, not knowing where their next paycheck will come from.

***

During her first year in Ryerson’s dance program, Mabel remembers losing weight. A significant amount; enough to worry her instructors, who approached her to ask what was going on. Once again, she didn’t lose the weight on purpose; this time it was the result of several layers of stress in both her personal and academic life. Her instructors recommended she see a counsellor at Ryerson, so she did. “I did find it helpful [but] I don’t think I would’ve changed my ways just because I went to the counselling.” She felt a bigger shift when she made changes in her personal life, like entering a healthier relationship and moving apartments. “I can talk about my feelings all I want, [my counsellor] could listen to them all she wanted, she could give me advice, but I have to be willing to take it.”

Students still face challenges surrounding body image and reaching limits of physical exhaustion to achieve their ideal figure. As a result, some students told The Eyeopener that Ryerson could improve its health resources, specifically by having personnel who understand the unique challenges that they face. If changes aren’t made, students are subject to potential issues like lowered self-esteem or the development of eating disorders—things that are still prevalent today.

Both Mabel and Gibson think Ryerson dancers could benefit from having a dance-specific counsellor, one who is well-versed in the experiences of dancers and can relate in that way. “Sometimes I feel like when I talk to counsellors, they understand, but I don’t think they fully know, because they’ve never done it,” says Mabel. “They’ve never been in that class being yelled at, being so naked and vulnerable.” She knows her teachers are available to talk but thinks having that degree of separation from a counsellor can lead to a more open conversation.

Another way Mabel thinks the program could improve its health resources is if the instructors receive training to detect the signs of mental illness early on, before they become extreme. “Even when they noticed my weight loss, it was like 25 pounds in, not 10 pounds in,” she said.

 

Ryerson could improve its health resources, specifically by having personnel who understand the unique challenges that they face

 

St. Denys, who has worked at Ryerson for over two decades, said she noticed a big shift within the last five years in terms of the number of students who approach teachers looking for help. “We work very closely with our students over their four years, so we know them as individuals, they know us as people, human beings, not as a distant professor at the front of a very large lecture hall, which is a different relationship,” she says. She adds the program used to have a particular person who dealt well with dancers, who understood their specific challenges and needs. Now, however, they have access to someone who acts as a link between students and counsellors, who can help set them up, get them into an appointment very quickly, or just talk to the student and assess if something needs to happen right away. This system has been in place for two years, and St. Denys thinks it is a positive change that FCAD has made.

“As dancers, we are very sensitive to what’s around us,” Evidente says. “All of us [teachers] are very attentive to maybe a shift in energy, in mood, and I usually tend to go up to the student and say ‘Hey, is everything OK?’ and the ball is in their court whether they want to come and talk.”

However, St. Denys notes that sometimes students can hide their feelings well and it is not always possible to detect every sign when something is wrong.

Though their schedules become more intense in each year of the program due to added rehearsals and performances, it seems to be during the lower years that dancers experience most of these issues concerning body image and self-confidence. It is a period of transition from everything they were taught about dance growing up to what the university expects of them, which can prove to be challenging for many first-year dancers.  

 
Sometimes students can hide their feelings well and it is not always possible to detect every sign when something is wrong

 

Evidente acknowledges that dancers also face the typical challenges that come with adjusting to university life in first year. Suddenly, academic requirements are more difficult, responsibilities become more real and parents are often no longer within arm’s reach. All things considered, it is natural for students to feel overwhelmed during this period.

But it can be hard to leave personal problems at the door, which only contributes to the challenges faced in the dance world. “I think Ryerson added onto [the problem],” Mabel says, “but it didn’t create it.”

***

Mabel takes to the studio, alone, to release her tensions. She revels in moving her body organically to her favourite song, Want Me by Affelaye. Though there is a degree of passion needed to pursue dance, some of that passion can be overshadowed when constantly dancing for other people—be it teachers, choreographers or classmates. For Mabel, escaping the class mindset means returning to the feeling of dancing for one’s self.

Why then, with all its hardships, injuries and inconsistencies do dancers continue to pursue careers in this art? It’s because when Mabel is onstage, none of that matters. “The high highs are really friggin’ high … that’s why we endure all the shit that we have to go through. There’s no better feeling in this entire world than standing there, being applauded by an audience for something that you did,” she says with a smile.

*Name changed to protect anonymity

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