Using Dance to Raise Awareness About Mental Illness

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Noor Aldayeh

It seems as though I’ve been dancing almost as long as I could talk. I can still remember the days of pink tutus and ribbon-tied tap shoes. The unmistakable smell of hairspray on show days, and the adrenaline rush that a successful performance always resulted in.

Never did I think, however, that one day dance could be just as much a part of my voice as my vocal chords. Nor did I imagine that dance would become one of the ways I could share my experience about having an eating disorder with hundreds, even thousands of people.

The dance world involves constant awareness of your body and how you look. I mean, dance is a visual art, so appearance is everything, right?

Not necessarily.

It wasn’t until I was 11 years old that I became overly aware of my body image and how much I despised the way that I looked. My body shape was always larger in comparison to the other dancers at my studios, and I always felt as though I was never near an “ideal” dancer body type. I knew that I was strong, and that part of my “larger” appearance was due to having muscle mass, but I still couldn’t shake the feelings of hatred I had towards my own body. 

My relationship with food was another issue. I was never able to not eat or eat less. Every time I tried to do something along those lines, I ended up binging and making myself feel even worse. It was through this binging that I discovered purging, which sparked the horrible cycle that resulted in bulimia. I was bulimic for the majority of three years, starting from when I was 12 until the end of last year (2016). 

During the beginning of my eating disorder I felt so alone, like no one could possibly understand what I was going through. I isolated myself from those who cared about me, and hid away my problems until they became too big to ignore.

I had no idea then that mental illnesses, especially eating disorders, were something that millions of people (including my own peers) experience every day.

That then led me to question: Why are we not talking about these issues more? Sure, our health classes mention mental illnesses, but why weren’t there more discussions on a topic that is bound to affect nearly everyone in our society in one way shape or form?

I kept all my problems to myself because I was scared. Had I not received professional help or support from my family and friends, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today. So now, I want to raise awareness about this subject in as many ways as possible.

The dance world is one in which eating disorders are incredibly common, and where thoughts of unhealthy body image run rampant. Dance can tell stories, express emotions, and most importantly inspire those who watch and/or perform. But it is not a place where only skinny, “ideal” body types can thrive. 

After my long recovery process, I started to try and raise awareness about mental illness and similar subjects through dance. It was amazing to see how something as simple as a three-minute piece could resonate with those who watched it. 

People I’d never spoken to approached me and told me about their own experiences with mental illnesses and how it’s affected their lives. It was then I realized that this was possible, that dance and art really do have the ability to raise awareness.

So today, I share my story with others through both words and dance. I hope to one day become a voice for those who don’t have one, and to help spread awareness about mental illness like eating disorders to people and communities all around the world. 

Editor’s note: Noor collaborated on a dance about body shaming to raise awareness of eating disorders. Watch the video here

Noor Aldayeh is a 16-year-old Arab American who loves talking about her passions such as social justice and mental illness awareness with others. She’s been a dancer since the age of three, and choreographs pieces to try and portray the effects that issues she finds important can have on individuals and society. During her free time she enjoys writing, making YouTube videos on her channel, photography, posting on social media, reading, listening to music, and meeting new people!