Are You Getting the Right Nutrients?

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To perform at peak levels, dancers need to be particularly mindful of how they fuel their bodies. They need to be sure they get not just enough food, but the nutrients required to build strong bones and muscles, a sturdy immune system and supple joints. When you're always on the move, it's easy to miss out on vital nutrients. Although dietary supplements may seem like an ideal shortcut to better nutrition, experts advise that they should never be considered as a replacement for healthy, whole foods. However, if chosen carefully, they may fill in nutritional gaps when combined with a balanced diet.

We spoke with several nutritionists about supplements and dancers' dietary needs. They shared their advice about essential nutrients and where to find them.


Food First

Their number-one piece of advice was food first. Eating nutrient-rich whole foods is the surest way to fuel a healthy body. "Nature's really smart. It packages a lot of vitamins and minerals in ways that our body best absorbs them," says registered dietitian-nutritionist Rachel Fine. Several factors contribute to a nutrient's bioavailability—broadly, how much will be absorbed and used by the body—including the nutrient's chemical form, interaction between nutrients and how the food was processed and prepared before consumption.

Fine stresses the importance of well-rounded meals with a mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, supported by supplements when necessary. She often recommends dancers take calcium and vitamin D supplements, which help with developing bone mass. She also suggests taking a multivitamin, which can help round out a healthy diet.

More Than Enough

That said, when taking supplements, there are some considerations. Many supplements contain well over the daily-required amount of a nutrient. Vitamin C, for example, can come at a dose of 500 mg or 1,000 mg in a supplement, while an orange offers around 70 mg. (The recommended daily intake for a female teenager is 65 mg.) Research suggests your body will not absorb and use all of the vitamin from a supplement. Vitamins found naturally in food are more readily absorbed because of the additional nutrients and chemicals in the food interacting with them.

Some researchers have raised concerns about the risks of toxicity when consuming too much of a given vitamin, which is something to consider when taking supplements. Vitamin D toxicity (which takes months of megadoses to build up—50,000 IUs daily) can cause poor appetite, nausea and vomiting, weakness, frequent urination and possible kidney problems. Too much calcium may contribute to kidney stones in susceptible individuals and soft-tissue calcifications. DT

Knowledge Is Power—and Potency

You want supplements that contain what they say they do, and don't have extra, unknown ingredients. That doesn't mean you need to buy pricey brands. An expensive or organic label does not mean you can trust the ingredients any more than a generic brand. Instead, choose products that have been tested and approved by independent labs, like the following. Look for their labels on bottles or visit the company websites for a list of verified products.

• The United States Pharmacopeial Convention (USP)

• NSF International has a regular certification for supplements and a special one for sports products.

• ConsumerLab.com randomly tests supplements and reports their findings. They also keep a list of health warnings and recalls.

• Labdoor offers lists that rank brands of different supplements and explains what tests they conduct to determine quality.

Crucial Nutrients

There are certain nutrients a dancer should not go without. Here's where to find them and how much you should be getting.

CALCIUM is essential to bone density, especially for young dancers, who develop bone mass into their late teens and early 20s. "You're putting physical pressure on your bones," says dietitian-nutritionist Rachel Fine, who often recommends calcium supplements to dancers. "You want to make sure you're building strong bones and not risking one of the most common injuries for dancers: stress fractures." In food, calcium is available in dairy products, nuts, leafy greens and fish. Children (age 9 and up) and teens need 1,300 mg daily, and 1,000 mg for adults 19 to 50 (1,200 mg for women over 50 and men over 70). When taking a calcium supplement, it's best to take it with food, since the most commonly available form, calcium carbonate, relies on stomach acid for absorption.

VITAMIN D also contributes to bone health and is a commonly recommended supplement, since it's hard to get enough of it from food alone. Vitamin D is available in fatty fish like wild-caught mackerel, salmon and tuna, as well as in fortified milk and orange juice. And, of course, sunlight. (Fifteen minutes of sun exposure a day goes a long way.) Vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means including healthy fats in meals is a must for maximum absorption. A supplement can help dancers reach their daily requirements: 400 to 800 IUs daily.

Females need to be particularly aware of IRON, because many young women have iron deficiency or anemia. The recommended daily allowance for premenopausal women is 18 mg, 33 mg if they are vegetarians. This is because there are two types of iron: heme, from meat, and nonheme, from plants and iron-fortified foods. Heme iron is more bioavailable than nonheme, and actually aids in the absorption of nonheme iron. Vegetarians need to make up for that disadvantage by consuming significantly more iron to ensure their bodies absorb enough. (Men and postmenopausal women require just 8 mg, 14 mg for vegetarians.) Iron is found in red meat, dark leafy greens, oatmeal, black beans and lentils. To increase absorption, add a vitamin C source, like citrus fruit, to a meal.

VITAMIN C ranks high on the list of nutrients for dancers because of its benefits for joint health. It is also essential for a functional immune system. You can take a supplement, but really there's no excuse for not getting enough vitamin C, since it's in many fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, red and green bell peppers and cooked broccoli. Keep in mind, too much vitamin C can cause diarrhea.

Other beneficial nutrients for dancers include omega 3s, found in fatty fish, vegetable oils, leafy greens and nuts; phosphorus, from meat and milk; magnesium, found in rich supply in almonds and spinach; vitamin K, from spinach, broccoli and lettuce, as well as vegetable oils; and probiotics, found in yogurt with active cultures. Each is also available as a supplement.

If a dancer is unsure whether she's getting enough of a given nutrient, the website for the National Institutes of Health lists vitamin and nutrient content for lots of foods, and Fine recommends the site The World's Healthiest Foods, as well.

The following experts contributed to this article:

Rachel Fine, registered dietitian-nutritionist and founder of To the Pointe Nutrition

Dr. Susan Kleiner, owner of High Performance Nutrition in Seattle

Marie Scioscia, registered dietitian-nutritionist for The Ailey School

Heidi Skolnik, certified nutritionist and owner of Nutrition Conditioning

Andrea Marks is a freelance writer in New York City and former assistant editor of Dance Teacher.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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