- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2000

With the Olympics only two months away, the sight of tiny American gymnasts bounding over the vault or uneven bars is sure to elicit familiar complaints about the health of girl athletes.

Much less publicity has gone to ballet dancers, who train just as hard. Their balancing act of schoolwork combined with four hours a day of dance training leaves little spare time for friends or relaxation. Are young ballerinas following in the footsteps of dance greats such as Gelsey Kirkland and Margot Fonteyn making unreasonable sacrifices and facing harmful pressures?

No, says Maryland Youth Ballet Director Michelle Lees.

"Most of the kids here are doing it because they want to," she says. "It helps organize them. Ballet students are very disciplined."

Perhaps, says the American Academy of Pediatricians. The AAP's medical journal Pediatrics suggested in July that young athletes' intensive focus in a single area might damage their physical and emotional health. It recommended that pediatricians discourage specialization in a single sport before adolescence, and emphasized the increased nutritional needs of young athletes during training.

"There appears to be increasing numbers of children who specialize in a sport at an early age, train year-round for a sport, and/or compete on an 'elite' level," the report says. "To be competitive at a high level requires training regimens for children that could be considered extreme even for adults."

This view contrasts sharply with the established progression of ballet students. Typically, students enter preparatory programs between the ages of 4 and 10, advancing to dancing en pointe (on toe) at 11 or 12 at the latest. Professional dancers who start dance training after puberty are very rare.

"My mother started me really early, but then I just really fell in love with it," says 14-year-old Deirdre Griffin, a student with the Washington Ballet School. She started ballet at age 3, and "really started to get serious about it at 12."

Ballet dancers work just as hard as other professional athletes, suffering stress-related injuries, such as turned ankles and tendinitis. One major problem common in ballet is anorexia. Since lighter dancers are easier to lift, they jump higher, balance better and appear more attractive, female dancers often feel pressured to lose weight to win starring roles or to compete with other dancers.

Each of the schools contacted said that they believe the industry has become more conscious of anorexia within the past few years, and that "it doesn't seem to be as much of a problem anymore," Mrs. Lees says. "I think ballet has become more forgiving of different body types."

"Our teachers are really nice and don't pressure us," says 14-year-old Washington Ballet school student Caitlin Madzelan. "But a lot of people are really critical of how they [dancers] look."

In 1997, Boston Ballet dancer Heidi Guenther died of a heart problem at age 22. At the time of her death, Miss Guenther was 5-foot, 3-inches tall and weighed only 97 pounds. Her mother's recently filed lawsuit claims her daughter's heart murmur was caused by anorexia, a condition encouraged by the Boston Ballet and its artistic director, Anna Marie Holmes.

The suit also claims that the ballet told Miss Guenther in 1994 and 1995 that she needed to lose weight to join their prestigious Corps de Ballet troupe. The ballet company denies this, and says it had offered to find a nutritionist for Miss Guenther, and then told her she was too thin.

The struggle to achieve an acceptable level of thinness is an especially dangerous one for adolescent and teen-age ballerinas. When dancers develop eating disorders at a young age, they risk developing career-damaging bone disorders prematurely, from the lack of vitamin D, calcium or phosphorus. As many as 6.5 percent of the ballet students at a series of schools were found to be anorexic, according to one study. The more competitive the school, the more cases of anorexia.

"We only had one serious case of anorexia," says Virginia Britton, artistic director at the Alexandria Ballet, a small academy with six teachers. "This wasn't a younger student, and she had had the problem before she came in. Sometimes, big schools have a yearly average of students sent home for anorexia."

Knowing this, most top schools hire doctors and nutritionists to prevent the disease and help miniature ballerinas find a healthy balance of strength and slenderness.

"The unwritten law is that dancers are skinny. Anorexic. I don't know who set it up, but there's a line between looking skinny and looking emaciated," says Beverly Hewitt, a nurse at the Kirov Academy in the District. "Even if you are skinny, you should be healthy."

The Kirov Academy, a pre-professional dance school in Northeast, has an exercise physiologist on staff and a coordinated nutrition, physical training and wellness program incorporated into the academic curriculum. It has produced several world-class dancers, including Ashley Canterna, 15, who recently won a silver medal in the junior division of the International Ballet Competition in Varna, Bulgaria.

"Everyone is really focused on making sure the kids are healthy, from the nurse specialized in treating and preventing dancers' injuries to the chef developing meals specially for young dancers," Kirov registrar Sara McLaughlin says.

Kirov's menu typically features a balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, fruits and vegetables, along with a lot of fat-free snacks available at all times. Lunches on Fridays are called "Friday fun days," as the cafeteria serves hot dogs, hamburgers and french fries.

"They're still kids," Kirov chef director Leslie Matthews says. "They are away from their parents a lot. We try to make it as close to home as possible."

About 50 students board at the Kirov during the school year. "The kids who want to come here are really dedicated. They've made a decision with their parents to focus on dance," Miss McLaughlin says.

Most students on the pre-professional track there are committed to dancing despite the sacrifices involved. They say it is their choice to study and work toward their dreams.

But they do miss out on some of the pleasures of childhood.

"Sometimes, your friends will invite you to things, like birthday parties on Friday nights, but that's when I have ballet, so I can't go," Miss Griffin says. But "because you miss so many things with your friends outside ballet, you get really close to your friends in ballet. They love what you love."

"You get really exhausted. You hurt all over," Miss Madzelan says. "Sometimes, you wish it weren't so hard, but in the long run, it's really good."

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