Health & Body

How One Dancer Turned Health Coach Approaches the Issue of Weight Gain With Teens

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After returning from my first summer intensive away, I started my first diet at 13. My teacher patted my thigh and told me, "that wasn't there before."

Without any nutrition education and because I was too embarrassed to tell my mother what had happened, I started restricting food and only eating things that contained three grams of fat or less. Clearly, as a young teen, I didn't have the knowledge to safely wade through dieting tips and formulate a plan for myself.

Now as a health coach for dancers, I approach the issue of weight with a new found sensitivity–and urge dance educators to do the same.


As you walk through the hallways at your studio, it's possible you've noticed poor eating habits or sudden body changes, especially amongst teens. You're faced with the question of whether you should say something. You know excess weight could crush the dreams of even your most promising students and your goal is to do all you can to support them.

We all wish the dance world were evolving more quickly and allowing for more diverse body types, but things don't seem to be changing anytime soon. So how do you approach the question of weight without causing damage?

The topic of weight should be approached carefully. Be aware that a quick comment to a whole class or individual could lead to extreme, uninformed and dangerous dieting.

Any comments around the physical aesthetic can lead to similarly rash and extreme diets by your students. If you provide body or weight related feedback without any follow up, you can't know what sort of extremes they might go to.

To deal with the question of weight in a healthy way, don't make it about weight. Instead put the focus on them working their best and reaching their peak of performance–talk about energy, stamina and strength. Some dancer's are simply going through puberty or have gained some weight before a growth spurt. Try to stay mindful that they're still developing into adults.

Their bodies will change and there's no reason to stress out the dancer. Stress can lead to hormonal imbalances that make weight loss, or maintaining a healthy weight, even more challenging. Many dancers are perfectionists, so it's likely they're already putting a great deal of pressure on themselves.

When you think a dancer could use help in reaching her personal best body, approach the dancer and parent together and provide resources. Is lack of cross-training or muscle tone an issue? Find a former dancer who now teaches Pilates or who works as a personal trainer and refer your students to that person. Build a relationship and see if you can get discounted rates for your students.

With food, this is perhaps an even more essential piece. It is not in the budget for all dance schools to have a nutritionist, dietitian or health coach on staff, but you can certainly find someone to refer students to. It's essential that you find a nutritionist or health coach who works specifically with dancers, so they understand the unique challenges that dancers face.

These professionals should be aware of the intense physical demands of pre-professional training, as well as the aesthetic pressures put on dancers. It's important that they're supported not just in dietary choices, but also in cultivating a positive body image and relationship to food.

Avoid the temptation to share the diets or eating habits that have worked for you personally. There's no one-size-fits-all meal plan, so refer your students to experts who can help them figure out what's best for them.

Finally, be an example. Encourage healthy eating to be a family affair. Host nutrition workshops to help support the families and students. If your dancers see their peers, role models and teachers making healthy food choices, they'll be more open to the importance of making those choices for themselves.

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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