Nutrition education has become standard practice in pre-professional dance schools and college programs, but by the time students get this instruction, their attitudes and preferences about food have already been established. However, studio owners and teachers of young children have the opportunity to contribute to the long-term health of students through introducing good eating habits earlier on.
Maria DeConti, owner of Dance Step in Berlin, Connecticut, believes that children are never too young to be taught how to live a healthy life. “When you tell a small child that eating carrots and celery and lettuce is going to make them a better dancer, they’re going to try foods that they may not have,” she says. Ally Wagner, a registered dietitian who works with Cincinnati Ballet dancers and students at Dance Etc., agrees. She says that the time she spends with younger students is far more productive, because they don’t have set preconceptions about what to eat to look “dancer thin.” But how can studio owners successfully integrate nutrition education into dance lessons?
Anne Kramer, owner of Dance Etc. in Milford, Ohio, says that holding weekly or monthly nutrition workshops has been the most successful approach. “No one makes life changes with just one class. Children need a lot of message repetition,” she says. And keeping the information engaging for young students is paramount to their retention.
At Dance Etc. Wagner kept her summer workshop as hands-on as possible by taking the kids to the grocery store, having a “Fear Factor Friday” (where the kids tried healthy foods that scared them, such as soy milk and hummus) and creating a “Jeopardy!”-like game where the kids competed against each other. (For game details, see sidebar on page 50.)
DeConti often hires Rebecca Dietzel, a biochemist who serves as the nutrition consultant for the National Ballet of Canada, to speak to her young students and dispel the negative attitudes they tend to develop about healthy foods. “With the youngest ones, I give them some guidelines,” says Dietzel. “The first is to eat real food. Then we talk a lot about what this actually means.” She explains the difference between whole and processed foods, giving examples of healthy snacks—an apple, for instance, rather than an energy bar, because the apple’s sugar is natural, while the sugar in a bar is added.
Although hiring a nutritionist is ideal, it is not practical for every studio. DeConti weaves nutrition into the fabric of her class curriculum. For her older students, she reads excerpts from health-related articles while they stretch before class, and she has the young ones make collages of healthy foods from magazine pictures. Teachers at the school drink only water and eat wholesome snacks in the hope that students will learn by example, especially if they are picking up poor eating habits at home.
“We as teachers struggle with what the parents feed their kids at home,” says Missy Lay Zimmer, co-owner of Planet Dance Cincinnati. “You need to educate the family, too, because no matter what is done in the studio, if they’re going home to chicken-fried steak every day, we’re not going to meet our goals.” Students at Planet Dance are given handouts after seminars to take home, and parents are encouraged to attend. At Dance Etc. parents accompany their children to the grocery store with Wagner, where they are shown healthier alternatives to what they normally take home to eat.
Most importantly, make sure you’re getting the right message across. For a long time, dance nutrition has been defined by a skinny-means-healthy mentality. Zimmer is thankful to see the dance world changing to make room for a variety of body types, which encourages healthier dancers. “We’re constantly promoting individuality and athleticism, as opposed to being so thin,” she says. A healthy dancer should view food as fuel and focus on meeting their body’s nutritional needs, rather than counting calories.
In each of these schools where nutrition programs have been introduced, the studio owners have witnessed improvements in their students’ energy levels and dance performances. For one of Kramer’s teenaged students, the nutrition education has even proved to be life-changing. “At just 15 years old, she had always been one of our heavy dancers and was made fun of about her weight,” says Kramer. “Because of what she learned about healthy eating practices, she has lost about 25 pounds. Her family has also made dietary changes, and they have all thanked me for bringing this change into their lives. I couldn’t be happier for them.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Photo by and courtesy of Missy Lay-Zimmer