Inside the Life of a Pro Dancer: Health Hardships and Sacrifices

A former National Ballet of Canada dancer says expressive arts therapy has helped her heal.

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When she was 14 years old and a professional dancer with the National Ballet of Canada, Kathleen Rea checked in at 5'6" and 105 pounds—a weight required by her company. To comply, "I spent days and days starving myself," she says, "and then I would binge-eat, because I was so hungry this famished creature would overtake me."

Rea danced with a total of 14 girls, and seven had eating disorders. She struggled with hers for 10 years, until reaching what she describes as rock-bottom. "I was dancing a 40-hour work week, and required to be almost deathly thin," she says. "I slept on the bathroom floor because I thought my bedroom was too luxurious for what I deserved, and I would also sleep with a knife, almost ready to cut the fat off my thighs." At that point, Rea was binging and purging up to eight times a day. She knew continuing in such a way would lead to death, so she decided to seek help.

[Read Best Diets for Healthy Eating.]

After entering therapy and gaining some weight, Rea's ballet company told her she had embarrassed the entire nation of Canada by looking "too fat" on stage. She was soon fired. As she adjusted to a new way of life, she knew she wanted to continue dancing in some way, so she began participating in improvisation workshops. That's when she realized the healing power of expressive arts therapy, and that dance didn't require flawless technique or the perfect body—just "an honest presence of body and soul in movement."

Today, Rea is a psychotherapist, as well as a therapeutic performance facilitator, helping people express their life stories through multidisciplinary performances. In her new book The Healing Dance, she describes her struggles as well as the way she continues to cope and remain healthy today. She highlights, for example, how the arts engage people with the world, increasing their well-being:

The senses. To fully engage in life, Rea says, we need to be able to hear, touch, taste, smell, and see ourselves and the world. Otherwise, we'll feel disconnected. Since the arts are "sense-enticing," they help draw people back toward a full-bodied experience of life.

[Read What Makes a Healthy Diet?]

Matching through the arts. We create and search for things in the world that match our internal experiences. "When we [sense] things that match our inner world, a connection is made that brings us home to ourselves," Rea says. "It's like looking in a mirror and confirming that we exist." When we watch a play that emotionally resonates or meet a friend with similar interests, we've found a match for something inside ourselves. We can find matches that either contribute to our well-being or are detrimental; if we feel like we're worthless, we may seek bad relationships or jobs that confirm this belief. Artistic expression, Rea says, is an ideal way to create matches that support one's well-being rather than harm it.

Play. You can set rules—you hide, and I'll try to find you—but you never know exactly how play will unfold. That unpredictably is good for us. "The sense of discovery that play brings is revitalizing," Rea says. "Whether it's through sports, creating art, cooking a meal without a recipe, or fooling around with friends, play is an essential, connecting, and life-giving activity regardless of age." Expressive arts therapists encourage their patients to play by engaging in unplanned art and having fun with brush strokes, words, sounds, images, and dance steps. By becoming more spontaneous, people also tend to become more comfortable. Rea describes one patient who found safety in the world of play "because it allowed him to express, in a non-direct manner, things he found too painful to talk about."

[Read Exercise for the Right Reasons.]

U.S. News chatted with Rea about the hardships and health sacrifices she dealt with as a professional dancer, how she overcame these hurdles, and her advice to other dancers—now, in the midst of Nutcracker season, and year-round as well.