Jenna Morris-Williamson describes dancing as her happy place and could not imagine a life without it.
Starting ballet at the age of four, the long hours she spent in her childhood training in dance paid off when she was chosen to attend the New Zealand School of Dance full-time at 16.
Since then the 33-year-old has gone on to lead a successful dance career, performing internationally as a cheerleader and spending more than 14 years as a long-term dancer in Showbiz Christchurch productions.
But behind closed doors, the vivacious dancer has battled demons during her time at the dance school, triggering a long on and off battle with an eating disorder.
With eating disorders remaining a disturbingly common problem in the dance industry, Morris -Williamson is speaking out about her own journey to encourage others who are struggling to ask for help.
Her battle first began when training at the dance school based in Wellington. She recalled weighing about 55kg and being told she was too big.
“They constantly told me maybe I needed to consider a different career choice and it just breaks you down . . . I think it is a ballet mindset. It is terrible but it is what it is,” she said.
It is not the first time New Zealand full-time ballet schools have come under fire with dancers facing intense pressure to lose weight and bullying being a hot topic.
Morris-Williamson recalls other incidents of the look of disgust she received from a tutor for eating a cheese scone and one dancer eating only a prune a day.
After two years of living an unhealthy lifestyle of crash-dieting on sweet treats and Coca-Cola Morris-Williamson decided she had to come home and moved back to Christchurch.
At 19, and after getting back onto a healthy diet, Morris-Williamson discovered a new-found passion for musical theatre after auditioning for Showbiz Christchurch’s WestEnd to Broadway III.
“You didn’t have to be so worried about your weight and musical theatre made me really happy. I didn’t worry about what I was eating or what I looked like so much anymore.”
But the issue flared up again in 2015 when Morris-Williamson landed a ballet role in Showbiz Christchurch’s production of The Phantom of the Opera.
“Going back to The Phantom of the Opera completely flicked my mindset back into the way I should have been as a ballerina . . . a switch flicked in my head and I was like I am too fat.”
Over the next five months from when she finished the show to performing in Showbiz Christchurch’s second show of the year Spamalot, she found herself going in a downward spiral – losing about 12kg.
Her now husband Scott was away for about a month representing the New Zealand curling team in Kazakhstan when she dramatically lost weight.
It was then he gave her an ultimatum – to either gain weight or he would leave her.
“And that is when I thought maybe I don’t look good . . . he was the one person who brought me out of it,” she said.
While Morris-Williamson is still dancing and has recovered, she describes her battle with her body as a “long road.”
“I am still self-conscious about what I look like and I don’t think that will ever go away.”
Morris-Williamson said eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia are common problems in the dance industry, and it feels good to be able to speak about her own journey.
“You would have no idea what I was going through, it was nice to be able to talk about it with other people . . . all you need to do is speak up and say: ‘Hey, I need help’,” she said.
•Morris-Williamson will dance in Showbiz Christchurch’s concert of The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber on June 14-16. To book go to https://www.showbiz.org.nz/