How Irish Dancing fed my eating disorder

A personal account of the hobby that helped and harmed me in equal measure.

One of the photos I captured during my time taking dance portraits. (© Danielle Stillman, 2016)

In the summer of 2000, in a vacant rental bungalow, I was thirteen and taking my first steps in the dance class that would change my life. I’d never really participated in any sort of organized physical activity. I was a Girl Scout and spent a lot of time at the library as a bookish kid. I spent one weekend sailing, got horribly sunburned, and never went back. I did horseback riding, but besides the exhausting days we’d pull grooming and tacking forty horses, that didn’t really take a lot of athleticism. I took swimming lessons, but mostly just to learn for survival, and never joined the swim team. I would have never stepped foot in a ballet class because I wasn’t graceful or pretty enough. But this? Dancing to traditional fiddle tunes that spoke to me so deeply it gave me goosebumps, and the prospect of getting shoes to batter the hell out of the floor? This was different.

I didn’t know it, but the arc of my life would be curved from that day forward. That first little trophy was emblazoned with the group name “Heights Highland Riverdancers”, which I learned later was completely the wrong terminology and about equivalent to saying “Neighborhood Jazz Dance Swanlakers”. I fell deeper into dance culture until listening to hours of accordion music on the weekend, curly wigs, socks glued to shins, spray-tanned legs, and expensive dresses encrusted in Swarovski crystals were completely normal to me. Even now, my boyfriend has to remind me that knowing how to pronounce the names “Aoife”, “Caoimhe,” and “Eoghan” or cackling at Irish language puns is not a superpower that most Americans possess. That first class sparked an obsession in me that defined most of my years after that point— and that obsession had consequences, both positive and negative.

In a lot of ways, Irish dancing has been a constructive force in my life and I’ve had some pretty unique experiences because of it. Because of my love for Irish culture, I turned that into a degree in Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas and had the opportunity to take Irish as my foreign language from visiting Fulbright scholars. I traveled all over the United States to train and compete, from Hartford to Houston and everywhere else in between. I attended the 2014 Irish Dancing World Championships in London as a spectator and started a small side business doing dance-related photography. I talked about Irish dancing with Alex Trebek when I appeared on Jeopardy in 2016. I once danced with the athletic trainer for Manchester United when the team randomly stopped in at a pub in Houston. I’ve made friends from all over the world, including one who made me a bridesmaid.

I’m just that pale. Deal with it. (© Ron Shuller’s Creative Images)

On a more personal note, Irish dancing did so much for me emotionally. Dancing reconnected me with my sister. We’ve always been close, but once we were spending most of our weekends together in the studio and road tripping to places like New Orleans and Kansas City around once a month, we became best friends. When I lost my job, I cobbled together an income by nannying, tutoring and doing photography, mostly for families I knew through the school. It also helped me through my divorce — throwing myself into training became the best kind of escape and some of the most positive feelings I had about dance are contained within that era. When Harvey hit the Houston area and destroyed my entire extended family’s homes, including mine and my grandma’s, it was my incredible dance teacher who stepped up and let me stay with her as remodeling progressed at a snail’s pace. My dance friends both helped me move everything into storage as I divorced and knocked out drywall at my parents’ house.

And there’s a tendency inside the community to stop there: to only focus on the positive aspects, to defend the odd little activity that used to belong solely to church basements and gym floors, to resist criticism of our insular world of wigs, fake tan and glittering dresses. But things are changing — Irish dancing had its second Black world champion this past year; a Mexican has won the Senior Men’s competition at the Southern regionals for the past four years, and for the past two the entire Top 3 have been mexicanos. (I myself am Latinx, the daughter and granddaughter of tejanos from Texas, and have zero traceable Irish ancestry.) People of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage have been well-represented on the podium. There are registered schools in such far-flung places as Israel, Argentina, South Africa and Taiwan. Irish dancing has global reach. It’s no longer the provincial pastime that was a cultural heritage activity, and it’s time to drop the defensiveness and start talking about some of the less shiny parts.

There were two epochs of my life in dance. When I danced competitively the first time around, it was during high school and college. I had an average body as a middle schooler, but I remember one vacation photo of me upsetting me to the point of tears. I was hunched over sitting on a stone wall and the picture was taken from the side. I had some incredibly normal tummy rolls because, duh, I was bending over, but I looked at that and thought I was hideous. That moment spurred me on to start restricting my food intake, and dance provided me with a motivation to continue.

During that time, I mainly ate two things: spring mix with salad dressing that I’d skimmed the oil off of, and canned soup. Sometimes that was only 600 calories a day, while I was dancing for four hours on Sundays and then twice during the week. My weight dropped like a rock, but I was just being healthy and active, right?

As I became thinner and thinner, I can only remember one adult expressing concern directly to my face. It was at a crowded reception for a homeschool high school graduation and I remember her catching me alone and telling me if there was anything I needed to talk about, she was always available to listen. I didn’t really know how to respond. I think I nodded and said okay, but I just didn’t have the knowledge to grasp that I was knee deep in an ED. At that time, education was lacking and there were really only two stripes of eating disorder: anorexia, where you didn’t eat ANYTHING, or bulimia, which was binging and purging. I wasn’t doing either of those, therefore I didn’t have a problem. I couldn’t have an eating disorder because I wanted to be strong and healthy enough for dance, and eating disorders were only for people who were worried about their appearance!

Proto-Dani does a dancing. The higher the socks, the closer to God???

By 2005, I’d qualified for preliminary championships, but before I was able to dance in one, I transferred schools. I was looking for more competitive success and struggled to adapt to a newer, more modern style. As college dragged on and I was faced with more adult responsibilities, dance ended up falling by the wayside. I danced at my (then-)last competition in Dallas in March 2006. But the eating disorder was just getting started. After all those years of restricting, I began to binge. At first I gained the “freshman 15”, which to be realistic, was probably just my body regulating itself and going up to a healthier weight for an adult woman. But my dancing dress no longer fit. I wasn’t a size 0 any more. I was terrified. Being thin was an integral part of my identity. (I was even invited to be a part of a “skinny bitches” Facebook group when I was a freshman, which at the time was flattering but I had only a vague sense of how horribly mean it was.)

By the time I returned to dance, I’d graduated from college, was living on my own, and I’d gained weight. A lot of it. Although I’ve heard people praise Irish dancing for not favoring a certain body type, they’re really only comparing it to the arbitrary aesthetic demands of ballet — you still need to be thin to be elite. The fitness level and degree of difficulty had increased by leaps and bounds (no pun intended) just in the five years I’d been gone. Irish dancing had morphed from a fun hobby to a nearly full-time pursuit for some participants. Most, if not all, top dancers cross-trained and followed strict diets. I heard much more self-criticism of bodies and food at the studio, which made me uncomfortable. Gosh, I thought, if they think they’re fat, what must they think about me? I had to be monstrous on a scale like that.

During the second phase of my competitive career, I felt incredibly self conscious about being so heavy in a sport that values fitness. I finally began competing in championships, which had me up against people who were still children. I felt like I had to self-tan for every competition because the kids I was competing against didn’t have cellulite or stretch marks, and I always went full glam every time I was on stage. Fat women in general feel a pressure to be extra-feminine to be treated like people in the first place, and if somebody was going to judge me for being fat, at least they wouldn’t be able to judge me for not wearing false eyelashes. (NB: I use the word “fat” as a neutral descriptor, not as a way of putting myself down. When people counter with “you’re not fat!” they’re really responding to the perceptions that fat people are lazy, slovenly and morally deficient. I am short, redheaded and fat. All those things are true; none of those words are rude to me.)

Not only was I subject to the beauty standards and demands of society in general, I was also now engaged in a sport that pressured me to be thinner if I wanted to be better. And so I found myself in a neat little cycle that so many people discover themselves in: I’d restrict my eating, my weight would go down by 10 or 15 pounds, and then eventually I’d rebound and gain more than I’d lost. Through the help of my therapist I realized that I was literally starving myself, and I was putting my body into crisis mode, which only made it hold onto the weight more. Compounding my own body’s drive to survive, I felt depressed about the weight gain, ate halfway to feel good and halfway to punish myself, and engaged in a self-destructive feedback loop. If I couldn’t be good at being thin, I might as well be good at overeating.

I generally don’t like to mention weight, since it can be triggering for some, but because people don’t have a good sense of what fat people actually look like, I am 5'2" and weighed about 200lbs in this photo.

My own experience with eating disorders is probably less common in dance than an emerging category of eating disorder: orthorexia. An insistence on “health” often masks a disorder, and although I wouldn’t diagnose anyone as a non-professional, I see a variety of eating disordered behavior: insistence on specific diets like keto or paleo, never deviating from the nutrition plan, and being overly concerned with the “purity” of foods being eaten (only organic, gluten free, dairy-free, etc). Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy focus on eating in pursuit of health. Elite athletes who compete in an individual-focused sport are already at risk for eating disorders, and athletes who show tendencies toward anxiety and perfectionism are particularly affected by orthorexia. An eating disorder doesn’t need to fit neatly in a box, either; the DSM-V also has OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder), which is my official diagnosis.

This insistence on focusing on dance to the exclusion of everything else is particularly prevalent with Irish dancing-specific fitness coaches. The sport demands complete sacrifice, they say; no parties, no nights out, no food that isn’t on the meal plan, and even missing family milestones — nothing that makes you lose focus from your competitive goals. Even in everyday life, food is constantly referred to as either “bad” or “good”, in which we assign moral choices to eating cookies or a kale salad. If balance is mentioned, it’s usually in a cursory, tossed-off way — or symbolized by occasional rest days while still training intensely. This is particularly troubling considering that studies are showing that one-sport youth athletes that train year round are getting more injured, and getting more seriously injured, than those who take long stretches of time off during the year. And avoidance of a certain “forbidden” food only makes it more likely that a person will overeat when they finally do allow themselves a treat.

Does this mean everyone involved in dance has an eating disorder, or that all nutrition or fitness programs lead to one? Of course not; it’s been incredibly helpful for many dancers. But nuance is something that’s missing from the dialogue, and this is what I believe is the real crux of the whole conversation. Nuance is missing in most of American society, if we’re being honest. Instilling that black and white thinking — that if you’re not doing something to work towards what you want, you’re not serious, disciplined or even a good person — can be incredibly damaging. It can lead to an atmosphere where disordered eating is not only encouraged, but legitimized, since it’s all in the name of reaching goals.

American society in particular suffers from the ill effects of black-and-white thinking. Our start as a nation with harsh religious practices influences our beliefs and work ethic, even today (calling you out, Puritans). If something isn’t good, it’s bad. The dichotomy of good and evil has no middle ground. The American obsession with hard work has leaked over into hobbies, since an idle brain is the devil’s playground. Over the past century, the concept of “leisure time” has been obscured and the United States is by some measures the most overworked nation on Earth. Extracurricular activities are now the key to getting into the elite school you need for the elite job that you’ll spend working yourself into the ground for, so doing something just halfway isn’t going to cut it. “Either do it right or don’t do it at all,” to quote an Irish dancer’s favorite movie. And even if you’ve had the successful competitive career, after you finish there’s also a capitalistic pressure to monetize hobbies, since doing something purely for enjoyment seems like a waste of time and resources.

As much as I’d run away from admitting this to myself, as much as I didn’t want to say the words out loud even to my therapist, getting away from Irish dancing was an integral part of my recovery. Once I wasn’t in the studio for hours every week obsessing over what my body looked like in the mirror, once I wasn’t beating myself up for simply eating because it didn’t help me “reach my goals”, I could actually start to heal. Starting and stopping dance over the last few years made me realize the recurrence of my eating disorder correlated directly with my time in class.

Where am I now? To be perfectly honest, as it stands right now, most of the time when I think about my dancing career I feel sad and angry. The best part of dance was all the friends I made, especially the out of town ones whose shared nerdery most matched mine. But the way it made me feel about my body — like I was trapped in a clumsy prison instead of being amazed by what it could do — was inescapable. When I stopped, a major source of my criticism and anxiety went away. I still have bad body image days, because I’m a human woman living in a world where thinness is prized above all, but they’re not nearly as constant as they were when I was training three times a week and being disgusted with what I saw in the mirror every time I stepped in front of it.

So where can I go from here? I’m currently in my first year of a Master’s degree in social work, with a focus on mental health and substance abuse, and I hope to do further study on religious abuse (another rich vein of black-and-white thinking) as a researcher. As far as staying in the world of Irish dancing, the only place I can think of for me isn’t really a position that exists. I bond most easily with the stats geeks, the history buffs, the ones that may not have had the major competitive success but want to think deeply about Irish dance in more unusual ways. Creating a pathway to some variety of Irish dancing sportswriting seems like a logical next step, even if my lack of competitive success makes me feel like I have nothing to offer. But nobody frets about Joe Posnanski’s baseball career stats (he has none), or Bill Simmons’ credibility as a commentator (feel free to question his loyalty to the Celtics all you want). Is there room for that kind of niche? I’m not sure, but it might be worth finding out. Being able to contemplate Irish dancing, and love it uncomplicatedly without the self-hatred that so often accompanied it, without the pressure of making it about my body, might be the way forward for me.

Over the years I’ve thought back longingly at that high school and early college body and always regarded it as the ideal — not just in terms of looks, but also based on what I believed I could accomplish now. If only I was that svelte today, I told myself countless times, I would have been a much better dancer. (Of course, there’s absolutely no way to tell whether or not I would have had more competitive success had I been thinner.) After Harvey hit, I was helping my parents pack up what remained unspoiled, and somehow, miraculously, my high school yearbooks (and Irish dancing grade exam certificates from 2003!) had survived on a high shelf. I opened the book for a laugh. What I found honestly shocked me. I was so, so unbelievably thin. I was all angles. I looked sick. The “perfect number” I’d been carrying around in my head for years, the weight that I thought I’d looked my best at, was, unsurprisingly, a lie. And instead of being depressing, there was something incredibly freeing about seeing the proof for myself.

2004 vs. 2019. Who looks happier?

Recovering from an eating disorder, I’ve had to think a lot about how harshly I categorize things in my head. Early on, I often thought to myself that if only there was a formula for recovery, some roadmap of rules of exactly what I could or couldn’t do, then I could be perfect at recovery. I have to laugh at that statement now, because rigidity is exactly what got me into this mess in the first place.

Life in recovery is living in shades of gray, and one bad body image day does not mean I’ve failed. We all get off track more times than we’d like. Teaching resilience and flexibility as a built-in part of goal-setting is equally as important as the discipline, and could go a long way toward protecting that perfectionist in class from feeling like a failure every time she “messes up”. So go ahead, take the slice of birthday cake. Eat the cucumber if you want it, too. To adapt a phrase referenced earlier: there’s no “doing it right”, so do it all.

4th generation Houstonian, cat mom, trivia maven, retired Irish dancer, mental health professional in training. MSW ‘22

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