How two fad diets affect your dancing body
Fueling your body for dance is essential, but deciding what to eat isn’t always easy. And with new diets surfacing every month, it can be hard to know what to believe: low-carb, low-fat, no gluten, no dairy? What’s the best approach?
We delved into two hot diet trends—paleolithic and gluten-free—and consulted experts to find out how they really stack up for dancers. There’s something to take away from both of these diets. Learn the facts to create a meal plan of whole, nutrient-rich foods that will never go out of style.
The Paleo Diet
What it is: The paleolithic diet is the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet du jour. It aims to mimic the nutritional habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived before the advent of agriculture. Advocates for paleo point to data indicating hunter-gatherers were larger and more physically fit than their farming descendants. The diet eliminates processed foods as well as grains (the diet is largely gluten-free), legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, salt and refined vegetable oils. Instead, practitioners eat grass-fed meats, fish and seafood, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and oils.
The good stuff: The paleo diet promotes eating whole, unprocessed foods. This cuts out snacks like cookies, cereal, chips and granola bars, which contain added sugars, salts and often chemical flavoring and colors. Because paleo eating is so restrictive, most unhealthy temptations are eliminated. “The junk is gone,” says Roberta Anding, a sports nutritionist who has worked with Houston Ballet. Paleo replaces many of our quick snacks and indulgences with fresh fruits and vegetables.
The problems: For dancers, the dramatic reduction in carbohydrates is a concern. “Carbohydrate is the fuel of exercising muscle,” says Anding. Without grains, legumes or potatoes, the paleo diet relies on fruits and vegetables to fill the carbohydrate gap—a difficult task.
And don’t think a protein-heavy plate can make up for the carb deficit. The body metabolizes and uses protein to build new muscle and produce hormones and enzymes, whereas carbohydrates are metabolized into energy much more readily, says Emily Harrison, a registered dietitian with Atlanta Ballet. “The body considers amino acids from protein to be special things,” she says. “Especially when you are young and growing, your body doesn’t want to burn protein.” If dancers don’t get enough carbohydrates, they can feel fatigued during class.
Harrison also explains that many people on the paleo diet consume more protein than they need: as many as 100 to 200 grams daily, when the requirement is far less (though it varies per person). High-protein diets can also increase risk of dehydration.
The takeaway: Cut out empty calories and processed foods for a more wholesome menu, but don’t let your protein-to-carbohydrate ratio swing too much in the protein direction. You need those nutrients for fuel.
What it is: It has its own menus at restaurants and a separate aisle in the grocery store. Going gluten-free has never been more popular. Gluten is the name for the proteins found in wheat and other grains like barley and rye. It is what gives bread its doughy texture. Eliminating gluten seems straightforward at first: no bread, pasta, cereal, etc. But gluten is used as a binding agent in lots of foods and may be found in unexpected places like your salad dressing or veggie burger.
The good stuff: For people with the autoimmune disorder celiac disease, going gluten-free can be lifesaving. Harrison says that 1 to 2 percent of the population is affected by celiac disease, which causes intestinal damage and can lead to nutrient deficiencies. Other people experience slightly less serious non-celiac gluten intolerance. They don’t suffer intestinal damage, but they may have foggy thinking, fatigue, joint pain or dermatitis when they consume gluten. Finally, Harrison says there is also wheat intolerance, whose sufferers are still able to eat barley and rye.
If you often feel sick after meals and suspect you fit into one of these categories, Anding suggests eliminating gluten for a week or two and seeing how you feel. If you don’t feel rapid improvement, it’s likely something else is causing your symptoms. In either case, you should make an appointment with a doctor to investigate the cause.
As for the rest of the population, varying your carbohydrates is more important than eliminating anything. “We do live in a wheat-heavy society,” says Heidi Skolnik, a certified dietitian who consults with the School of American Ballet. “It’s great to diversify where we get our carbohydrates.” There’s nothing wrong with eating whole grains, but it’s great to add sweet potatoes and quinoa, too, because each food offers different nutrients.
The problems: “It’s not a healthier way of eating unless you have gluten intolerance or celiac disease,” says Anding. Yes, restricting gluten may lead to weight loss if, for example, you’ve been eating a muffin every morning. But that’s because you’ve cut back your 500-calorie breakfast, not because you’ve eliminated gluten. Furthermore, Anding says eating gluten-free can risk introducing processed food back into your diet. “Everything you buy that’s gluten-free—tortillas, cookies, cereal, doughnuts—is all highly processed to get the gluten out,” she says. Eating naturally gluten-free whole grains like brown rice and corn is a better approach, but those options are not inherently healthier than gluten-based grains like wheat and barley.
Perhaps the greatest consequence of the gluten-free fad is the repercussions it can have for people who have a medical need to eliminate it. “It makes it harder for people with celiac to be taken seriously,” says Harrison. “When you ask the waiter at a restaurant if something has gluten, you know he’s thinking you’re one of those crazy people who is just on a diet.”
The takeaway: If you have celiac disease, gluten-free eating is a must. If you don’t, eat a diverse diet of whole, natural, unprocessed food, and don’t bother buying packaged gluten-free products. There is nothing inherently healthy about them, and most are highly
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and writes frequently for Dance Magazine and Dance Teacher.
One of the best ways you can help dancers prepare for success during long days of classes or rehearsals is to make sure they are properly fueling their bodies. This is especially important when students are out of town at conventions or competitions and need to plan their meals and snacks ahead of time.
Consider having a conversation with students and their parents about the importance of having healthy snacks and meal options available. “Dancers can’t wait until they’re at the convention and then decide what they want to eat when they are hungry or have a 10-minute break,” says Emily Cook Harrison, a registered dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet. “It’s all about planning ahead.”
Every dancer has different dietary needs and can find, through trial and error, which foods help them perform their best during full days of dance. But younger dancers will need your help to pick foods that provide energy and focus. DT spoke with three established pros who know what it’s like to be in motion from dawn ’til dusk. Here, they share what they eat before the workout begins, plus snacks that keep them going after lunch (without slowing them down) and their favorite recovery foods for after the dancing is done. Harrison comments on their choices.
Ida Saki, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet
Breakfast: Saki starts her day with a focus on protein, because she found that cereal or a bagel didn’t stave off hunger long enough for the amount of athleticism required as a professional dancer. “I’m a big fan of having one egg, a whole bunch of egg whites, and cooking it all with a pan full of vegetables,” she says. “Or I’ll make a smoothie with kale or spinach or whatever vegetables are in the fridge with peanut butter, a banana or berries.” She also adds chia seeds or ground flaxseed to her smoothies, which can provide an energy boost.
Snacks: Saki loves to have almonds for an afternoon snack because they have protein and are easy to pack in her dance bag. She sometimes opts for a banana with peanut butter.
Recovery food: “I always like to have a ginormous salad with chicken and maybe a little bit of fruit, because it’s the easiest thing to make when you’re tired and hungry,” Saki says, adding that she listens to her body’s cravings. “If I’m really craving a burger, I get a burger.”
Advice she would give to her younger self: “Don’t grab the first thing you see. It really does affect your day,” she says. “Be curious about the food you eat and be aware of how much it affects your mood, your day and your dancing.”
What the dietitian says: “It sounds like she is getting plenty of protein, but don’t forget that carbohydrates are the preferred source of fuel for any athletic activity. Whole grains like quinoa, rice, millet, buckwheat and oats are powerhouses of low-glycemic carbs, B vitamins and minerals.”
Emily McTernan, The Beatles LOVE with Cirque du Soleil
Breakfast: McTernan’s breakfast always includes some kind of protein. “I feel it gives me the energy to get through a two-show day,” she says. “I really love multigrain toast with a bit of peanut butter and half a grapefruit, and if I have the time, I enjoy scrambled egg whites.”
Snacks: Avocado with a drizzle of salsa or a Greek yogurt with berries hit the mark before a show. Between shows, McTernan may snack on raw veggies—carrots and cucumbers, usually—although she also has almonds, an apple or dried cranberries.
Recovery food: McTernan’s go-to recovery meal is salmon and sautéed spinach. She also likes blueberries and red/yellow peppers and has found sour cherry juice helpful when she needs to combat soreness.
Advice she would give to her younger self: “As a teen I was so caught up with what others around me were doing and eating,” McTernan says. “Just because my friends were vegan, gluten-free or dairy-free didn’t mean I needed to be. I’ve learned as a professional dancer you have to make habits and eat the way your body needs you to. It’s all about moderation—if my body needs a lean piece of steak and dark chocolate, that’s what I’m going to eat.”
What the dietitian says: “Her breakfast is excellent, with a nice mix of protein, whole grains and fruit. She brings snacks of fruits and veggies with her for smart choices for energy foods during breaks.”
Breakfast: Klock has a green smoothie because it allows her to eat a lot of vegetables in the morning. “It’s surprising what tastes good,” she says. She often combines frozen mango, half a frozen banana, raw honey, kale and chia seeds or flaxseeds.
Snacks: “All snacks are not created equal. Quality is important,” Klock says. She likes raw cashews or almonds, and if she needs a burst of energy, she’ll have dried fruit. When the company is on tour, she might have a vegan energy bar called Heart Thrive, which she buys in bulk online.
Recovery food: Right after a show, Klock eats a banana. “My body needs that potassium right after working hard,” she says.
Advice she would give to her younger self: “There is a difference between feeding your body when it’s hungry and fueling yourself to perform well,” she says. “Eat real, nonprocessed food, instead of what is easiest. You might have to work a little harder, but it makes a difference.”
What the dietitian says: “She is getting lots of superfoods and excellent plant-based proteins. She’s right that our tastes change over time. When you feed yourself healthy food, your body learns to crave that instead of overly processed convenience junk.” DT
Pack-Ahead Snack Ideas
- For a burst of energy on the go, eat a handful of mini pretzels or whole-grain crackers, a small bag of grapes or carrot sticks, a banana or a box of raisins.
- For an easy lunch, make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-grain bread. Peanut butter is a great source of healthy protein, and it doesn’t even need to be refrigerated.
- For a convenient recovery food between classes or performances, try a prepackaged 8-ounce serving of vanilla or chocolate soy milk or shelf-stable regular milk.
- The day before, make a green or fruit smoothie, put it into mini mason jars and then freeze it. Put one in a cooler the next day for breakfast on-the-go or lunch. Kids love it because it’s like eating a sorbet.
- If you shop for energy bars, keep in mind that many have as much sugar as a candy bar. Look for brands that have less than 7–15 grams of sugar and about 8 grams of protein.
Source: Emily Cook Harrison, a registered dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition who works with dancers at Atlanta Ballet
Photos from top: by Sharen Bradford, Renata de Almeida, both courtesy of Cedar Lake; by Gordan Vukovic, courtesy of Cirque du Soleil; Quinn Wharton, courtesy of Hubbard Street
Alleviate unnecessary inflammation to feel and dance your best.
When Arthur Stashak injured his foot at 16, he did everything he could to get his training back on track. Then a student at Canada’s National Ballet School, he took anatomist Rebecca Dietzel’s advice and tried an anti-inflammatory diet. The results were convincing. “I noticed changes around two weeks after I started,” he says. “I had more energy. My body felt great, and my muscles became a lot more defined.”
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to an injury—it protects wounds from infection. Most dancers are familiar with this type of inflammation from acute injuries like Stashak’s or chronic conditions like tendonitis or bursitis. Also, intensive dancing creates many undetectable micro-tears in muscle tissue and tendons, causing dancers’ overall inflammation levels to rise.
But there’s another factor that can contribute to systemic, or body-wide, inflammation: diet. Dietzel, also a biochemist, says eating certain foods can signal the body’s inflammatory response, sending agents of inflammation rushing through the bloodstream. Stress and lack of sleep also contribute to this reaction.
While it has no immediate symptoms, studies have linked systemic inflammation to many common diseases and overall poor health. Dietzel says, generally speaking, “the more you can control your inflammation, the healthier and happier you will be.” So while you may not be able to limit your hours of heavy dancing (or the stress of your job), small dietary changes can make a noticable difference in your physical condition.
Feed Your Need for “Real” Food
Being on a blood sugar roller-coaster not only makes you feel lousy, it also contributes to systemic inflammation. Starting a day with high-glycemic carbs, like bagels or Frosted Flakes, causes glucose levels to spike and then plummet. And spending hours dancing without a snack isn’t healthy, either. The easiest way to regulate blood sugar levels, says Dietzel, is to eat real, whole foods. “Eliminate processed food wherever possible,” she says, like bread, pasta, cookies and crackers. Replacing a bagel with a breakfast of cream of buckwheat, pecans and blueberries will go a long way to keeping blood sugar stable throughout the day.
Balance Essential Fats
While omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are both important dietary components, many sources of omega-6 cause inflammation, while omega-3s tend to be anti-inflammatory. A healthy diet’s ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be between 2:1 and 4:1. But for most Americans, the ratio hovers around 15:1 or higher. Try cutting back on vegetable oils and partially hydrogenated oils, as well as other sources of omega-6, including wheat as well as corn, soy and peanut products.
Just decreasing your omega-6 intake is not enough to balance the ratio—you’ll want to eat more omega-3s. These fatty acids are found in oily, coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel and herring; dark, leafy greens; walnuts; almonds and almond oil; and pumpkin seeds and pumpkin oil. Dietzel says a simple switch from peanut to almond butter can make a difference in inflammation significant enough to feel.
Spice Up Your Life
When Stashak was injured, he drank gallons of fresh ginger tea. Occasionally, he’d even chew chunks of the pure root. “It is disgusting and makes you cry,” he warns, but Dietzel confirms fresh ginger is strongly anti-inflammatory. She recommends slicing off a piece of root long-ways and boiling it in water. You can sip this tea—hot or cold—all day. And it must be straight from the root. Dried ginger does not have the same effect. Dried turmeric, however, also helps reduce inflammation.
Experiment with Nightshades
Some naturopathic doctors claim that a category of plants known as nightshades causes inflammation, because they contain alkaloids like solanine, which can be poisonous in large doses. Dietzel says the effects of nightshades—which include eggplant, peppers, potatoes and tomatoes—vary from person to person. Surprisingly, some nightshades can offer anti-inflammatory benefits. Stashak gave up tomatoes, but others may find the fruit’s lycopene content helps lower inflammation. Dietzel says eliminating nightshades for three weeks is enough time to tell if it makes a difference.
Make It Work for You
Three years after his injury, Stashak, now an advanced student at the Hamburg Ballet School, maintains a basic anti-inflammatory diet, with allowances for treats like ice cream on weekends. If he’s injured, he tightens the regimen, eliminating all pro-inflammatory foods and mainlining ginger root. Dietzel emphasizes that the diet need not be an all-or-nothing commitment. Any changes you make have an impact, especially if you’re already a healthy eater. But in her experience, once people notice the effects, nobody goes back. “There are some weeks where I may be a little more relaxed on the diet,” says Stashak. “But gradually I realize the effects on my body and my dancing, so I get back on track.” DT
Anti-Inflammatory Menu A day’s worth of anatomist/biochemist Rebecca Dietzel’s favorite anti-inflammatory foods
Breakfast Unprocessed hot cereal, like steel-cut oats or cream of buckwheat with berries and chopped nuts or almond butter.
Lunch Black bean soup with carrots, cilantro, lime and sweet potatoes.
Snack Fresh fruits and walnuts or pumpkin seeds. Eat nuts and seeds raw or toasted at home at 325 degrees for best omega-3 absorption.
Dinner Baked salmon with brown basmati rice and your choice of dark, leafy greens.
Sports drinks are designed to provide electrolyte replacement and energy for athletes. When dancers are working hard, these drinks—as well as natural alternatives like coconut water and fruit juice—can offer a boost. But each beverage is formulated differently, and the endless options can leave a dancer scratching her head by a vending machine. DT spoke to nutrition experts to learn how sports drinks can help dancers and what ingredients they should look for when choosing one to meet their needs.
When dancers sweat, their bodies lose water and electrolytes: primarily sodium and potassium. Electrolytes aid muscle and nerve function and maintain the water balance inside and outside of cells, and the blood’s pH balance. Basically, your body won’t function correctly without them.
Because dance is mostly non-aerobic—meaning you exert yourself in short bursts and then rest—dancers don’t tend to sweat as intensely as marathon runners. But if students are working hard in the studio for more than an hour without stopping, Karyn Baiorunos, nutritionist at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, says they may want to replace electrolytes. She suggests sipping a drink that contains potassium and roughly 100 mg per 8 oz serving of sodium. Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade work well.
Young students who move into a more intensive level may have trouble getting through class. Baiorunos says this is often because their muscles aren’t quite developed for the increased amount of work. In these cases, the right drink can give them a boost.
The energy promised by most sports drinks comes from sugar. Baiorunos recommends a drink with no more than 14 grams per serving—the magic number for increased energy. “That’s the ideal absorption,” she says. “If you go higher than that amount of sugar, the body can’t absorb it, and you end up with a stomach ache.” Skip the diet or sugar-free sports drinks that offer increased energy. Some contain caffeine, which Baiorunos does not recommend.
Sharon Wehner, principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, prefers the natural option of coconut water, which she usually mixes with water to reduce her sugar intake. Fruit juice is another natural source of sugar, and it can be diluted with water.
Whatever a student chooses, they should sip it rather than guzzle it down. “It’s giving your body a steady flow of some sugar so you can continue with class,” Baiorunos says.
A Healthy Balance
Sports drinks, even natural options like juice or coconut water, shouldn’t be a dancer’s go-to beverage during the day, Baiorunos warns, since too much of one electrolyte can put the others out of balance. “Whatever drink you choose, don’t do it all day long, unless it’s just plain water,” she says. Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant to Pacific Northwest Ballet, notes that there are sometimes multiple servings in a bottle. Just one serving over the course of a class should be plenty to reap the benefits.
In Wehner’s 18 years dancing with Colorado Ballet, she has learned to resist passing fads and to make her own decisions about what is best for her body. “If I drink this, what am I getting?” she says. “Why am I putting this in my body, other than because my friend drinks it?”
Ultimately, the most important thing is for dancers to be hydrated. “The rule of thumb is a half a cup of fluid for every 15 minutes of dancing,” Baiorunos says. She suggests encouraging students to sip on a water bottle before, during and after class. Swistak points out that while sports drinks aren’t going to hurt you, they don’t have any magic in them either. “Some of it’s the placebo effect,” she says. “If it doesn’t hurt you and you think it’s helping, then go ahead.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer living in Pittsburgh.
When Ballet West performed The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center last year, they couldn’t fly every Academy student who played a party girl or soldier from Utah to Washington, DC. So the company arranged for auditions in DC and left the staging to a local ballet mistress. They soon discovered one girl had a peanut allergy and required an EpiPen, an autoinjector used to control a life-threatening allergic reaction, on-site. “The ballet mistress called,” says Ballet West Academy’s Cati Snarr, “and said, ‘I refuse to do this. I don’t even want this kid in my cast.’”
Though you don’t regularly provide meals, food allergies are a studio-wide concern: For kids with allergies, fun activities like birthday treats, bake sales and snacks between classes and at recitals can quickly turn into a near-fatal emergency. A recent study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 20 students have a food allergy. With allergies on the rise, it’s important to establish policies to prevent an emergency and prepare a response plan should one occur.
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner, who is chair of the medical advisory team at the Kids With Food Allergies Foundation, says it should be standard practice to ask about medical conditions on enrollment forms. If a parent indicates a child has an allergy, ask them to draft an emergency care plan with their doctor, including specific reaction symptoms, as well as emergency contact information. Momentum Music & Dance Academy in Burien, Washington, asked board member and parent Melanie Carver, whose son is allergic to peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, sesame, bananas and wheat, to help create studio allergy strategies. She helped come up with a plan in which each teacher is given a binder with information about the 35–40 students who have food allergies, outlining emergency information and treatment.
If a dancer experiences a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, their life will depend on getting a dose of epinephrine, a hormone that regulates the body under shock. Giving an EpiPen shot sounds intimidating, but the device isn’t difficult to use as long as you’re familiar with its mechanics. Pistiner says it’s important that teachers learn how to handle each child’s autoinjector—each functions differently depending on the brand—to ensure the dosage enters the body correctly. (See sidebar for information on what to do in an emergency.) Autoinjectors should be kept in a secure but easy-to-access location, never locked up.
It’s also important to carefully consider what snacks you sell and serve at parties or recitals, as well as how they’re managed. At The Dance Club in Orem, Utah, co-owner Allison Thornton says the studio snack bar keeps a list of students’ food allergies with their photos—some are too young to decipher if allergens are in a processed food. The method helps staff double-check before they sell a snack.
Spreading the word to parents will help control what foods come into the studio. Even a batch of homemade cookies that doesn’t have nuts but touched a surface with traces of peanut butter “can cause a severe reaction,” says Pistiner. Restricting food to certain areas of the building and posting signs remind visitors of this policy. To further avoid cross-contact, ask students to wash their hands with soap and warm water before class. (Note that hand-sanitizing gels do not remove food proteins from your hands.) And make wiping down the barres part of your regular cleaning routine.
Pistiner urges teachers not to single out students with allergies in class or to other parents. “Sometimes kids with food allergies can feel responsible for unpopular classroom policies,” he points out. “I think people forget how it feels to be a kid sometimes.”
In the instance of the young Nutcracker dancer, Ballet West suggested that her mother attend rehearsals so that everyone felt comfortable. Before each performance the mother handed Snarr the child’s EpiPen, which she kept backstage until the curtain went down. And while she never had to use it, Snarr says the experience made her think about the policies in place at Ballet West Academy. “Now I have a far greater interest in making sure an allergy doesn’t keep a kid from performing a role.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She frequently contributes to Dance Magazine and Pointe.
In Case of an Emergency
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner says severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, vary, but may include hives, swelling, itching, vomiting, cramping, coughing, wheezing, voice changes, sneezing and itchy eyes. “The longer a person waits before getting appropriate treatment,” says Pistiner, “the more difficult the reaction can be to treat.”
+ Consult the student’s emergency care plan and use their EpiPen. The injection should be administered to the outer thigh. Do not, under any circumstances, give the shot through a vein.
+ Ask someone to call 911 immediately, then the student’s parents, as you help the student.
+ While waiting for help to arrive, lay the student flat and elevate their feet. If they’re nauseous, vomiting or having trouble breathing, lay them on their side.
Photo by and courtesy of Caitland Corbridge; ©iStock.com
How poor body image can impact your work
Thinking about stepping into a dance studio to teach ballet makes me panic, even though I have a dozen years of experience. Being trapped in a mirrored room and seeing how out of shape I am, compared to when I was a dancer myself, makes me feel claustrophobic. I assume my students will judge my figure. It is so paralyzing that I haven’t been able to teach in four years.
The obsession with my body started as a teen in ballet class and stayed with me through college. After graduating, I happily balanced teaching ballet while working as a newspaper editor. Years later, though, while earning my dance education MA at New York University, I found myself in a divorce. The stress was overwhelming. Food quickly became the one part of my life where I felt I had control.
Dr. Linda Hamilton, wellness consultant for New York City Ballet and Dance Magazine advice columnist, says I’m not alone. Though most of us associate eating disorders with students and professionals, unresolved body issues and controlled eating patterns from pre-professional training can follow you into adulthood. “You are still the same person,” says Hamilton. “And under extremely stressful situations, old habits come back.”
At the height of my ED, I felt completely out of control. I wouldn’t eat all day, and by dinner, I would overeat. As a result, my weight ballooned. I refused to be in photos and had regular panic attacks at dance—suddenly feeling terrified and out of control, and not being able to breathe.
Other eating disorder symptoms, says Hamilton, include adopting rigid eating rituals (such as cutting food into tiny pieces, cooking elaborate meals for others but refusing to eat them, not eating in public, excluding even healthy foods to avoid fat), persistently worrying or complaining about being fat, frequently checking the mirror for perceived flaws, compulsively eating large amounts of sweet or high-fat foods and using weight-loss drugs, dietary supplements or herbal products in excess.
Adult eating disorders often take years of recovery, but it’s never too late to seek help (though the earlier you do, the easier they are to overcome). The most effective treatment is psychotherapy or psychological counseling, coupled with careful attention to medical and nutritional needs. “Dance teachers need more attention than they get,” says Hamilton. “You’re a role model, and if you are not able to approach eating in a healthy way or if you think you’re never thin enough, it’s going to come across to your students. We don’t need to pass this on from one generation to the next.”
A close friend’s suggestion helped me begin my recovery process. Six weeks of counseling at The Women’s Therapy Centre Institute in New York City evolved into an evaluation at The Renfrew Center, an institution that helps women overcome eating disorders, where I was diagnosed with EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified)—given to those who have significant concerns about eating and body image, but don’t necessarily meet the criteria for anorexia or bulimia. I spent seven weeks in their intensive outpatient program, where I learned how to eat balanced meals and recognize hunger and fullness cues, developed new coping skills and participated in a monitored group meal. The four hours a day, three days a week commitment meant adjusting my work schedule and paring down my life, including my writing for Dance Teacher.
I’m now in my second year of recovery. While I have to make a conscious effort to use the tools I learned during treatment every single day, I am happy and healthy, and I look forward to teaching technique class again. DT
Hannah Maria Hayes lives in NYC. She frequently contributes to Dance Teacher and Dance Magazine.
For more information about food, weight and body-image issues, contact The Renfrew Center Foundation (renfrew.org) or the National Eating Disorders Association (nationaleatingdisorders.org).
©iStockphoto.com; photo courtesy of Hannah Maria Hayes
Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Christina Spigner has always suffered from foot cramps. But the problem was especially troublesome during the company’s 13-show run of Ballet Imperial, a hallmark of Balanchine’s demanding choreography. “We’re onstage for such a long time and not just standing and posing, but doing a lot physically,” says Spigner. “My feet would cramp up and it was painful. That’s a hard thing to recover from onstage.”
The sharp pain of muscle cramps can compromise a dancer’s work. Though the annoyance sometimes stems from unavoidable fatigue, it’s often the body’s way of flagging a nutrition deficiency. While completely eliminating muscle spasms may not be possible, there are many simple ways to help prevent and treat their pain and frequency.
Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, points out that muscles function by repeatedly contracting and relaxing, engaging and releasing. “When the muscle gets tired, it won’t work as well as when it was fresh,” she says. “It may have a delayed ability to release after it has contracted,” causing a cramp. Spasms are sometimes inevitable, regardless of how well a dancer takes care of her body.
When a muscle cramps up, it may mean the dancer is dehydrated. Because we are predominantly made of fluid, water intake affects all the chemical processes in our bodies, including proper muscle function. Allison Wagner Eble, a registered dietitian who works with the Cincinnati Ballet, says the body’s ability to perform can decline as much as 10 percent with just 1 percent of fluid loss.
The average person should drink 64 ounces of water daily, but dancers need more, depending on how active they are and how hot the studio is—Wagner Eble suggests 16 ounces, two hours before class, and half a cup every 15–20 minutes throughout. “Do not wait until you feel thirsty to drink water, because if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated,” she says. When gulping glasses of water gets boring, Spigner reaches for Emergen-C, coconut water and hot tea.
But sometimes water isn’t enough. When dancers sweat, they’re also losing electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are necessary for proper muscle function. If a student is drinking enough water and is still having issues with cramping, Wagner Eble suggests they add a sports drink to their routine. (Scroll down for other electrolyte-packed snacks and beverages)
Relax the Muscle
Stretching out a cramp will help release the muscle. Richardson says dancers often avoid putting weight on a leg in spasm, but taking a walk around the room is one of the best ways to transition the muscle from its contracted position to a stretched one. A self-massage with the hands or a foam roller helps as well. Know, though, that a cramp shouldn’t be stretched out if it is a reaction to an injury, like an overstretched or torn muscle. If the contour of the muscle has changed and it lacks strength, or the skin becomes red, swollen or hot, apply ice and send the dancer to a doctor.
Because Spigner is prone to cramping, she’s learned how best to prevent it—a hot Epsom salt bath after a long day helps reduce her muscle fatigue. Now and then, though, a cramp still catches her off guard in the middle of a performance. Her secret for dealing? “It really helps to breathe anytime you’re dancing and you feel like you’re getting exhausted,” she says. “It calms my nervous system so those overstimulated muscles relax.” DT
“The best time to eat is 30–45 minutes after exercise, because that’s when the body is at its prime time to uptake all the nutrients,” says Allison Wagner Eble, Cincinnati Ballet’s registered dietitian. Here are some of her favorite snacks that pack an electrolyte punch.
|Potassium||bananas, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, kiwi and yogurt|
|Magnesium||whole grains, apricots, avocados and bananas|
|Sodium||salted pretzels or nuts, V8 juice and saltines|
|Calcium||broccoli, yogurt and cheese|
Try this: On her breaks, Miami City Ballet’s Christina Spigner snacks on a homemade trail mix of pumpkin seeds, lightly salted almonds, sunflower seeds and dried apricots to replenish electrolytes and boost her energy. For a post-exercise snack, try a glass of chocolate milk, because it gives the body calcium, sodium, potassium, proteins, carbohydrates and sugar.
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Dance Magazine and Pointe.
The dangers of calorie-free sweeteners
The cracking sound of diet soda cans opening has become common during dance breaks at the studio. Calorie-free sports drinks have taken the place of water bottles, and lunch boxes are filled with low-calorie yogurt, Jell-O and juice. Blue, pink and yellow packets of sweeteners have become a staple.
Artificial sweeteners make dancers feel like they can have it all—a shortcut to satisfying cravings and maintaining energy without guilt. But these products are shrouded in controversy. Medical professionals are raising questions pointing to weight gain, dehydration and nutrient deficiency. What is most confusing about these products is that determining their safety isn’t exactly black and white. Health professionals are wary of the risks associated with these often chemically created products, yet they carry the stamp of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Allison Wagner, a registered dietician who works with the Cincinnati Ballet, finds some fake sugars more alarming than others because of what they’re made from and how the body processes them. For instance, aspartame, commonly found in diet soda, is created by chemically combining two acids. “The body breaks aspartame down into formaldehyde. Do you really want that in your body?” asks Wagner. (See “Sugar Substitute Breakdown” on this page.)
But the greatest and clearest danger of low-cal or calorie-free sugar substitutes is the effect they have on dancers’ nutrition practices. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, has examined data suggesting artificial sweeteners may increase sugar cravings and result in poor food choices. This can cause weight gain, since it’s common for dieters to overeat once they’re exposed to the foods they have been limiting. And by not adding real sugar into coffee or tea, they may assume that they have been saving large quantities of calories, though skipping it saves next to nothing. A sugar packet holds just 15.
Leslie Bonci, a sports dietetics specialist for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Pittsburgh Steelers, says that dancers get into trouble when caffeinated, sugar-free drinks and snacks start to replace high-energy foods. Worse is when they take the place of water, promoting dehydration, since these soft drinks often cause dancers to drink less of the replenishing fluids they need in their daily diet. Plus, soda can cause calcium deficiency. “Phosphoric acid in soda leeches calcium from your bones,” says Wagner.
A studio environment should promote healthy habits to help students succeed. “It saddens me when I work with these kids on a regular basis and then find out that they were given soda or candy at a recent dance competition for energy,” says Wagner. She feels strongly that these items should not be found anywhere in a dance environment, including studio vending machines or snack areas, and especially in the place that has the greatest influence on young dancers—the hands of a faculty member. DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Pointe and Dance Magazine.
Sugar Substitute Breakdown
Some claim to be natural, but many are chemical creations. You should know what is going into your body.
Found in: Sweet’N Low, TaB soda
Ingredients: Made from a compound of toluene, which can be found in petroleum
Found in: Equal Classic, Diet Coke, Trident gum
Ingredients: Created by chemically combining two amino acids—aspartic acid and phenylalanine
Found in: Splenda, Swiss Miss, low-calorie baked goods
Ingredients: Made through the chemical modification of real sugar
Found in: Truvia, SweetLeaf, vitaminwater Zero
Ingredients: The sweetening agent comes from the leaves of the stevia plant—an herb in the chrysanthemum family.
Ditch artificial sugars with the help of these naturally low-calorie alternatives, suggested by Cincinnati Ballet dietician Allison Wagner and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dietetic specialist Leslie Bonci.
When craving sweets:
- A frozen banana dipped in dark chocolate
- Baked apples with oatmeal and cinnamon
- Sweet fruits such as apples, bananas, strawberries and pears
For an energy boost:
- 1/4 cup fresh or dried fruit
- 1 ounce almonds or pistachios
Instead of soda:
Fill a glass with seltzer water and infuse it with your favorite fruits: lemon, lime, oranges and strawberries are flavorful. So are mint leaves. Slice and let them sit in the drink for a few minutes. Experiment until you find your favorite combination.