Dancing with darkness

Floor Nagelhout –

For half her life, Anne danced at one of the best dance academies in Europe. It was like a dream come true for her – until her passion slowly turned into a nightmare. 

Anne was only 10 years old when she was accepted at one of the best dance academies in the Netherlands. She trained every weekend from eight in the morning until seven in the evening. At the age of 18, she enrolled in the most advanced programme within the same academy. Anne lived a mentally and physically demanding life – all in order to achieve one goal: becoming the very best. 

Anne is now 23 and has stopped dancing. She looks back at her time in the tough world of dancing, where so much is expected from the dancers: “You have to be strong, fit and flexible,” she says. Something she has suffered from a lot is the body image pro-dancers have to fulfill. “The hardest part is that your body is supposed to be as thin as possible. While people outside the dance world often think you are too thin, at the dance school you are often considered too heavy.” This is something that is very confusing for a young girl according to Anne. “Tips on the best ways to lose weight were handed out among students,” she says. Girls regularly left class crying because a teacher had commented that they were “on the heavy side,” she recalls. The realization that this was not normal came to Anne only when she had discussed it with friends who did not dance.

Ruined passion

At the academy where Anne danced, there was an unhealthy competition within the class. According to her, all the clichés you see in pro-dance movies are true at this academy. “If you got a popular role in a show, you were either ignored, or scissors were used to ruin your show clothes by fellow classmates.” This considered, it is only logical that the passion fades away when you take it to a professional level, Anne says. She adds:. “Many children who are talented in sports dream of reaching the top. As a child you’re not aware of the fact that there is a big chance that your passion will disappear if you train to become a pro.” Marion Voges, physiotherapist and former dancer, confirms this. Many former top-athletes whom she treats also claim to have lost the desire to practice their sport again after they stop. They describe that they had lost their passion years before they actually stopped and just had kept on because of the pressure.


Hard on the mind, hard on the body

At Anne’s dance academy, she would start the day with strength and cardio training, after which she would have several dance classes. Anne’s school was located in a building that was partly underground. “There were days when I didn’t see the light of day. I would go in at eight in the morning and come out again at nine in the evening.” Injuries were often severe and there was a culture of not speaking out about them according to Anne. “People often went through their pain instead of recovering. I have seen many people ruin their bodies which forced them to eventually stop dancing.” 

Physiotherapist Marion explains that professional sports can pose many physical and mental risks. According to Marion, a child’s body is not built to train to this extent. You’re not allowed to do hard strength training before the age of 18, says Marion. “In the world of pro-sports you often see that girls do not grow beyond a certain length, and do not develop breasts in the same way they otherwise would. Boys often have disproportionate muscle ratios.” According to Marion, this is why many top athletes have to stop before the age of 26 – their bodies simply cannot cope anymore. 

Anne, who stopped dancing two years ago, agrees with this. Her body ran out of physical capacity because she trained so hard that her muscles developed malfunctions. Still , she remains strict with herself. “Fortunately, young people nowadays strive to have a healthy physique. But when I see someone very muscular, a little voice in my head still says that person is fat. I really have a wrong ideal body image and it will always remain.” 

Kid need to be kids

Marion also wonders whether it is mentally healthy for a child to be so involved in sport. “You live in a world that is all about performing. That can be very pressuring for a child.” In addition, the child grows to lack many social skills, because it does not grow up in a normal environment, she describes. “A child should be allowed to just be a child,” according to Marion. “They need to play, experience parties, solve problems in the real world and not stay locked in within the four walls of a sports room.” Anne knows how tough the aftermath of pro-dancing can be. “Many ex-dancers, including myself, have sought help. Nowadays I still have nightmares or panic attacks related to my past in dancing.”

Purpose and partying

It was hard for Anne to find her purpose after quitting dancing. “People always looked up to me and now I feel like I’m nothing anymore,” she described. “I worked my whole life towards a goal and when I stopped, I entered a world I knew nothing about.” After quitting, Anne partied a lot and went to loads of other social activities – because she had missed out on so many before. “Fortunately, I found myself again. But it took me over two years to find new goals and build a healthy life.” Anne hopes that one day, she’ll be able to step into a dance school again, regain her passion and look at herself in the mirror with love.