The "Bad" Foods Dancers Should Stop Avoiding

Pizza can be an excellent recovery meal after a hard day of class and rehearsal. Photo by Thinkstock

Raise your hand if you've ever walked out of the studio with just one thought on your mind: a big, juicy cheeseburger. But raise your other hand if instead of getting that burger, you opted for a hearty salad or stir-fry.

While dancers need to fuel their bodies with nutrient-dense meals and snacks, plenty of foods get an unfair bad rap. "The diet culture in this country vilifies various food groups as being bad while championing others as good," says Kelly Hogan, MS, RD, CDN, clinical nutrition and wellness manager at the Dubin Breast Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "But black-and-white thinking like that has no place when it comes to food."


Some foods have less nutrition than others, admits Hogan, but if you're eating what you crave and honoring your hunger and fullness cues, she says you'll probably get the variety of nutrients your body needs. Here are seven foods that can have a place on your plate—guilt-free.

Pizza

Pizza can be very satisfying. Photo by Brenan Greene/Unsplash

Why people think it's bad: It's greasy, doughy and loaded with cheese. Add pepperoni and it typically becomes a high-fat calorie bomb.

Why they're wrong: Pizza offers a variety of nutrients. "It can be super-satisfying because it contains fat, protein and complex carbohydrates," says Hogan. And toppings can actually add nutrition, she says. "I love adding spinach, broccoli, tomato and mushrooms." All those nutrients can make pizza great for recovery.

Butter

Adding butter can help our bodies better absorb nutrients in vegetables. Photo by Thinkstock


Why people think it's bad:
Added fats like butter and oils are often seen as empty calories that contribute to unwanted weight gain. "For years, we've been told that saturated fats in butter contribute to heart disease," says registered dietitian Kim Hoban, RDN, CDN, CPT.

Why they're wrong: "This is still a controversial topic, but I believe a little bit of butter in a dancer's diet can go a long way in actually helping their health," says Hoban. Adding butter to bitter vegetables can make them taste better, making you more likely to eat them. Plus, the fats in butter can sometimes help our bodies better absorb the nutrients in the vegetables. Hoban doesn't suggest eating too much butter right before dancing, since fat is digested slowly and can leave you feeling sluggish. But small amounts can have their place during regular mealtimes.

Pasta


Pasta can be a great source of complex carbs. Photo by Brooke Lark/Unsplash


Why people think it's bad:
Many people have grown to associate carbohydrates with weight gain because of the popularity of high-protein, low-carb diets. Plus, as more people go gluten-free, pasta is seen as off-limits.

Why they're wrong: Whole-wheat pasta is a great source of complex carbohydrates, which fuel dancers for long workouts and help them recover, says Hogan. She suggests throwing in colorful veggies and lean protein for a well-rounded, satisfying meal.

Cereal

Cereal can provide quick fuel. Photo by Thinkstock


Why people think it's bad:
It's processed, often high in sugar, and it doesn't boast many nutritional benefits.

Why they're wrong: It can be a great option for athletes who are constantly on the go, says Hoban. "Cereals provide quick fuel in the form of simple carbohydrates." While sugary options like Cap'n Crunch aren't your best bets, less processed varieties can make for easily digestible snacks. Pair some with yogurt or milk to add protein.

Peanut Butter


Peanut butter can help repair muscles. Photo by Thinkstock


Why people think it's bad:
Nut butters are feared for being high in fat, and therefore high in calories.

Why they're wrong: Nuts and nut butters are great sources of plant-based unsaturated fats, which have anti-inflammatory properties and can help repair the oxidative damage that occurs in muscles during long, hard hours of dancing, says Hogan. Because of their protein and fiber, nut butters make a satiating snack or breakfast accompaniment, says Hogan. "Plus, adding a tablespoon of peanut butter to morning oatmeal just tastes amazing."

Full-Fat Dairy


Dancers need dietary fat. Photo by Noemi Jimenez/Unsplash


Why people think it's bad:
Dancers often choose nonfat and low-fat dairy products in an attempt to consume fewer calories.

Why they're wrong: "Less isn't always better, especially when it comes to adequately fueling an active lifestyle," says Hoban. Dancers need dietary fat for a variety of things, such as brain health and the transportation of vitamins throughout the body. Some of dairy's best nutrients, like calcium and vitamin D, need fat to be properly absorbed. Plus, when fat is decreased in food, it's often replaced with sugar or other additives, adds Hoban. Eating full-fat dairy products will leave you more satisfied, and you'll get longer-lasting energy.


Egg Yolks

Egg yolks have great nutrients for dancers. Photo by Thinkstock


Why people think they're bad:
Egg yolks are high in fat and cholesterol, so many people assume they raise cholesterol levels in the blood. Dancers sometimes choose egg whites to get protein for fewer calories.

Why they're wrong: Dietary cholesterol actually has little effect on our blood cholesterol, says Hogan. "And yolks contain so many great nutrients that are important for dancers: choline, vitamin B-12, vitamin D, vitamin A and iron, to name a few." She suggests incorporating them into any meal: "Eat them as an omelet with veggies, scrambled with potatoes or, my favorite, poached on top of avocado toast."

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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