Heidi Guenther was thin, even for a ballerina. Colleagues gently suggested she gain weight.
But the 22-year-old Boston Ballet dancer had reportedly been told by a superior last year to shed pounds - a tacit threat to her position in the company.
Last week, Guenther dropped dead; an eating disorder is the suspected cause.
The death has cast a spotlight on the pressure critics say classical dancers are often under to stay thin.
“People are under pressure to maintain a body weight that is ideal from the standpoint of ballet aesthetics, but not at all ideal from the standpoint of health,” said Richard Bachrach, a doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and president of the Center for Dance Medicine.
Dancers who come to his practice often are so thin, Bachrach said, “you look at them and you say, ‘My God, buy the poor girl a meal.”’
Margot Lehman, past president of the American Dance Guild, acknowledged that dancers need a uniform body type. “If you don’t maintain that body type, you’re probably out on your ear,” she said. “Nobody wants a little tubby.”
Guenther collapsed and died June 30 while riding in a car with her family on the way to Disneyland in California. She was on seasonal leave from the ballet.
The cause of Guenther’s death was under investigation. Medical professionals say women with eating disorders often die of heart rhythm abnormalities that often cannot be detected in autopsies.
Devon Carney, principal dancer and director of the Boston Ballet’s summer program, said Guenther, at 5-foot-3 and 100 pounds, was “exceptionally thin.”
“Not being a trained professional, I did my best as a friend to let her know that,” Carney said.
A spokeswoman for the Boston Ballet could neither confirm nor deny published reports that AnnaMarie Holmes, then the company’s assistant artistic director, urged Guenther last year to lose weight. Holmes was traveling Thursday and could not be reached by The Associated Press.
Bruce Marks, artistic director emeritus, said the report “may be true. I don’t know. We often tell dancers that they’d look a little better if they lost a little weight.”
But Marks cited a written review given to Guenther in January, which said: “Be careful not to get too thin … Please do not lose any more weight.”
When asked if he was eating properly, Guenther “always claimed she was,” said Dierdre Myles, ballet mistress and one of the five people who prepared the January evaluation. “We had no proof that she was suffering from an eating disorder.”
The Guenther family said Thursday through a friend, Cathy Fischer, that Heidi Guenther seemed to be eating normally since her return home in May. She had been complaining for months about a pounding in her chest.
A native of Los Osos, Calif., Guenther trained on a full scholarship with the San Francisco Ballet and spent summers training at the School of the American Ballet and Houston Ballet School. Guenther danced with the San Francisco Ballet from 1987 through 1994, when she joined Boston Ballet II, an apprentice company of 14 young dancers.
She was promoted to the corps de ballet last September and performed in “Abdallah,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Nutcracker.”
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