Health & Body

Dancing on Empty: the Consequences of Underfueling


Dancers constantly strive to perform with maximum energy—often with minimum weight gain. So it's no surprise if they sometimes run out of fuel. But if undereating occurs along with missed periods and low bone density, the combined effect can spell trouble. Known as the female athlete triad, it can lead to poor performance and bone injuries, like fractures.

Not consuming enough calories can leave your students with too little energy to support healthy bones. Unfortunately, the problem gets worse every year. "It's like a bone bank," says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, surgical director, women's musculoskeletal health, at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "If you're not building your bone density, that's a problem, because you're losing it after age 20 to 25."

In one of Matzkin's studies, having all three symptoms led to a 50 percent increase in injury risk. Female athletes who missed periods (amenorrhea) were three times as likely to suffer bone or joint damage. In the long-term, amenorrhea can cause bone diseases like early osteoporosis.

When a dancer comes to her with an injury, Matzkin says she considers the root cause. "When I see a stress fracture, I ask: 'Is it a real stress fracture?'" The underlying reason may be low energy availability leading to amenorrhea, then poor bone density and finally a fatigue break.

But the problem is not limited to underweight dancers. "That's the biggest misconception," says Matzkin. "You don't have to be anorexic or bulimic." Triad disorders can affect people of all body shapes, sizes and types.

Telltale Signs

So how can teachers recognize it? Awareness is essential, says Matzkin. "Talk to dancers about how important it is to eat well in order to dance strong." If students are underperforming, she suggests asking them or a parent about menstrual irregularities.

Amenorrhea is defined in two ways: skipping periods or not having started to menstruate at a normal age. Nobody likes to deal with having her period, but "it's a sign of health," says Matzkin.

Some dancers use oral contraceptives to replace lost estrogen and build bone mass. But it's important to achieve a regular cycle without them to know if you're balancing your energy needs.

"Dancers need to get enough energy to perform and not have their body take it away from somewhere else," says Matzkin. This doesn't always mean gaining weight. Teachers should refer students to a nutritionist for individual advice on adjusting their energy intake.

"Early prevention can often help avoid the consequences that are not reversible later in life," says Matzkin. The more you can recognize the triad, the better off your students will be down the road. "If it's detected, then it can be prevented," she adds.

Teaching Tips
A 2019 Dancewave training. Photo by Effy Grey, courtesy Dancewave

By now, most dance educators hopefully understand that they have a responsibility to address racism in the studio. But knowing that you need to be actively cultivating racial equity isn't the same thing as knowing how to do so.

Of course, there's no easy answer, and no perfect approach. As social justice advocate David King emphasized at a recent interactive webinar, "Cultivating Racial Equity in the Classroom," this work is never-ending. The event, hosted by Dancewave (which just launched a new racial-equity curriculum) was a good starting point, though, and offered some helpful takeaways for dance educators committed to racial justice.

Keep reading... Show less
Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

Keep reading... Show less
Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.