Eating to Boost Your (Teaching) Performance

Photo by ©iStockphoto.com/Luis Albuquerque

Energy Enhancers

Eat breakfast. This may seem like the oldest piece of nutrition advice, but it's also one of the hardest to follow. Skipping this meal really does make it hard to keep energy levels high during a full day of teaching. Breakfast should consist of carbs, protein and fiber. Traditional oatmeal (there's not much fiber in instant), yogurt and an orange (juice has little fiber) would be a healthy option. If you're not hungry in the morning, eat dinner earlier the night before, and if you wake up ravenous, you probably didn't get enough sleep. “Less than six hours of sleep a night makes your body release hormones that make you hungrier in the morning," says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who works with performers, and co-author of The Dancer's Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition.


Consume a meal or snack between classes, or every four to five hours. “You want a couple of quality carbohydrates with a protein. That's going to induce the most stable blood sugars that can prolong your energy," says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. “Say good-bye to sugary and white-bread products. You'll be less cranky and less reactive. Good carbs would be whole grains, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, quinoa and couscous." Easily transportable, balanced snacks include low-fat cottage cheese and almonds, trail mix with dried fruit and walnuts, yogurt and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on a whole-wheat bagel and string cheese with whole-grain crackers.

Avoid fat-free and low-fat processed foods—they can actually hinder the ability to stabilize your energy level. “Anything that says low fat means high sugar," says Hamilton, “and when you consume too much sugar, there's a release of insulin, then there's a drop, so you're going to be hungry and tired. This can also set you up for bingeing."

Hydration is also important, especially when constantly moving. “Many people think that they're tired and hungry when in fact they're dehydrated," says Bauer, who recommends drinking 9 to 13 cups of fluid a day. Water (obviously), seltzer, tea and even coffee (see below) are fine choices, but limit so-called energy drinks and vitamin-enhanced water. “They are expensive and you can overload on some of the vitamins in there," says Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant for Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Memory Boosters

If you teach 15 classes a week and have trouble remembering what combination you gave to which group, your lack of memory most likely stems from having too much going on. However, a drop in blood sugar could also be the culprit. “If you're in a semi-starved state after you've skipped a meal, then you can become less focused," says Swistak.

Certain diet choices can help. Red foods, such as apples, cherries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries and beets, have been linked to improved memory, as well as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. “These are integrated into the structure of your brain cells and help on all levels of brain development, including memory and focus, mood and cognitive function," says Bauer. “If you can't get enough fish and you don't mind popping large pills, supplements are a good second choice."

Disease Preventers

Eating a varied diet does more than keep your taste buds happy—it can help ward off chronic diseases. Your job as a dance teacher keeps your muscles toned, but ironically, always being on the go means you may be at risk for diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's. This is because your body requires an extraordinary amount of oxygen, which can cause cells to produce body-damaging oxidants called free radicals.

Luckily, fruits, vegetables, beans and grains contain the antioxidants needed to neutralize these harmful radicals; however, each individual food source has only some of the thousands of needed antioxidants. “Research and government guidelines recommend 9 to 13 raw fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors to be in your diet every day," says Toni Branner, co-author of The Care & Feeding of a Dancer. “Each color has different nutrients."

Taking in as many nutrients as possible doesn't have to be complicated. Branner suggests packing dried fruit and raw almonds in your purse or work bag, always eating berries on your cereal, ordering sides of veggies or beans in restaurants and including at least five different colors in your salads. While research has shown that the best way to receive necessary nutrients is through actual food, Swistak says taking a multivitamin can add a little piece of insurance.

Mood Lifters

If your busy schedule occasionally leads to snacking on junk food or eating fast-food meals, gaining pounds isn't the only concern. Not making time to properly nourish your body signifies that you've taken on more responsibility than you can handle, which can result in depression or burnout. Try to slow down and have at least one meal a day by yourself outside (or near a window), while listening to music. “Taking regular 15-minute breaks can help prevent burnout," says Hamilton, “and research has shown that looking at trees and listening to music can help regulate moods."

Eating foods high in vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, broccoli, papaya, mango, bell peppers and kiwis, can help keep stress levels down, too. Because this vitamin isn't stored in the body, you need to consume a helping each day. Aim for around 1,500 milligrams—any more can cause cramping and even kidney stones.

Staying strong, healthy and sound means choosing the right foods to eat, and knowing when to consume the right things is equally essential. Most importantly, pay close attention to your blood sugar level. If you notice a drop (you'll become cranky or a little irritable), make it a priority to refuel.

Photo by ©iStockphoto.com/Vassiliy Mikhailin

Have your coffee and drink it, too—with milk, of course.

If drinking coffee helps jumpstart your day, there's good news. You can have your java (in limited amounts) and still be doing the body good. “We used to think that caffeine was counterproductive to healthy bones and was dehydrating, but the latest research shows that you have to drink more than 575 milligrams for it to do harm," says Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist who works with dancers. That's about three cups of coffee a day—but not grandes from Starbucks, which are equivalent to three cups each.

“Research has also shown that coffee helps to hydrate your system, because the water that goes into that cup of coffee goes toward your daily fluid allotment," says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. “When you get a cup of coffee, the caffeine hits its peak within 20 minutes and stays there for about an hour, after which it begins to die down. It can linger in your system for anywhere from three to eight hours."

A risk for coffee drinkers isn't so much getting shaky or nervous (if these symptoms happen to you, ease up on your daily ration), it's that they tend to get less calcium than their non-caffeine-drinking counterparts. “Let's say you're a coffee drinker and you're not drinking milk or taking supplements. Then you're possibly going to be deficient in calcium, so I just say drink milk with your coffee," says Hamilton.


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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