You can’t take your mind off the looming mortgage payment or the pile of credit card bills sitting on your desk; and despite your best efforts, that perfect ending you crafted for the advanced tap class’ recital number just isn’t coming together. If those thoughts sound familiar, you are not alone.
While it’s normal to worry, stressing over life’s uncertainties can be both mentally and physically hazardous. Research shows that stress can increase one’s susceptibility to a number of ailments, including heart problems, insomnia, headaches, diarrhea, nausea, anxiety, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.
But there is no textbook method to dealing with stress. The key is to find what works best for you and stick to it. But beware of those actions that appear to relieve stress, like drinking, overeating, smoking and withdrawing from everyday life—they will ultimately cause more harm than good. Take note of these simple remedies that can help you handle stressful situations in a positive and healthy manner.
One easy technique that can relieve anxiety is controlled breathing. “If you place both hands in front of you and clench your fists, it becomes harder to breathe,” explains Dr. Linda Hamilton, a clinical psychologist and author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition. “Stress has this same response, which you can break by closing your eyes and taking five deep breaths.”
Some stresses, though, are too heavy to resolve with simple breathing. It’s best to tackle the more pressing issues after physically clearing your mind by exercising. A study conducted by the Technical University of Munich proved the long-contested fact that aerobic exercise signals the brain to release endorphins—the chemical known to refresh the mind and produce feelings of euphoria. Find a physical activity outside of the studio that makes you feel good. Try playing tennis or volleyball, or find a new type of dance, and commit to doing it a couple of times a week.
Peace of Mind
There’s a reason why Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret sold 5.3 million copies in the United States alone: The mind is an incredibly powerful tool, and just like over-stressing can cause physical sickness, being optimistic in worrisome times can do the exact opposite.
Maintaining a positive attitude isn’t always an easy task, but it’s crucial to focus energy on your strengths rather than on shortcomings. “The fact is, most dancers are perfectionists who tend to set unrealistic goals,” says Hamilton. Positive self-talk is a technique athletes use to help approach off-days in a more realistic manner. But it’s not just about teaching people to repeat self-affirmations. Instead, think about what you might say to your best friend if posed with the same situation. “It helps to bring a more objective view to a bad day,” says Hamilton. Of course, this strategy isn’t going to solve all problems overnight, but it will give you a fresh perspective. As poet Maya Angelou once said, “If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
You Are Not Alone
You can get by with a little help from your friends. Set aside time to spend with close loved ones. If you feel comfortable, confide in them the struggles you’re facing. Chances are, they have experienced a similar dilemma; listen carefully to how they overcame that point in time. Speak to a professional if you have trouble sharing such personal information. Sometimes an unbiased perspective is what one needs to help them understand the bigger picture, says Hamilton. Bottling up feelings might work for now, but it’s only a matter of time before those emotions take a toll on your health.
Rest Does the Soul Good
According to Hamilton, the adult body needs at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night to recharge. With increasingly demanding work schedules, family obligations and personal commitments, disconnecting from life for that long can be difficult. Even dozing for a few hours will help strengthen the immune system and clear your mind.
If you become restless when trying to fall asleep, take a moment to jot down your thoughts. Transferring worries onto paper will contain the mounting stress until the morning. Revisit the issues after resting, and you’ll be much better equipped to manage them.
You Are What You Eat
A healthy diet rich in fresh fruits, whole grains, protein, vegetables and legumes has been proven to boost the immune system, increase energy and improve mental clarity. While this isn’t groundbreaking news, healthy eating is often the first thing to go when times get tough. So watch the food you consume, as it may have more of an impact on your well-being than you realize.
Enjoy the right foods at the right time, and never eat when you’re not hungry. Cut out large servings of caffeine as well as foods high in fat and sugar—they’ll leave you feeling anxious, jittery and drained. Instead, try healthy alternatives like soy or green tea ice cream if you’re craving something sweet.
Let It Be
Regardless of how well we try to avoid them, unexpected and sometimes unwelcome circumstances occur. “It’s an unavoidable part of life,” says Hamilton. “But it’s not all bad. Short-term stress can actually help motivate you to perform better. If you were always complacent, think of how boring life would be. The problem occurs when the stress becomes chronic and long-term.”
Dwelling on the things we cannot control deprives us of enjoying the good things in our lives. Make a list or keep a journal that details all you’re grateful for—your family, students, health or even a favorite book—and use it as a helpful reminder during any rough patches.
There will always be bills to pay, career demands, heartbreak and loss to endure. But if it weren’t for those things, we’d never understand or appreciate all that life has to offer. So let life’s troubles be, and when you find yourself feeling stressed, start with a couple of deep breaths to reconfigure your path.
NYC-based freelance writer Tatiana Munoz holds an MA in journalism from Syracuse University.
When a hectic teaching schedule left Katie Teuchtler feeling drained, the assistant dance professor at Ohio Wesleyan University sought a way to recharge her batteries. “I was working nonstop and really needed something to restore my body and my energy, to quiet my mind for a little bit,” she says.
That is when Teuchtler discovered the power of yoga. Not only was it a practical way to decompress, but it also proved to be a great means of cross-training, as she noticed a vast improvement in her strength and form.
Realizing her students could benefit from her discovery, Teuchtler began incorporating yoga into her modern courses, and it was a hit. “They would tell me it helped so much with their dancing and with the everyday stresses of being college students,” she says.
Teuchtler even believes the two disciplines may actually have an extensive history together, noting the similarities in technique, which makes it easier for dancers to learn the exercises. “Take, for example, the motions involved when moving from third position to passé,” she notes. “When the toes touch the sides of the knee, it looks very much like the tree pose.”
Debbie Winchell, owner of Cricket’s Performing Arts in Manheim, Pennsylvania, slowly integrated yoga into her classes after success with an offering at last year’s summer camp. The 10-year-old campers participated in a daily 45-minute cool-down exercise that consisted of simple moves like the tree and eagle poses and the half-moon stretch. “The kids enjoyed the routine so much,” she says. “If I ever skipped it, they would specifically ask for it.”
The following fall, Winchell added her first full-length yoga class, and attendance has continued to grow. “I’ve watched my students, especially the really tiny ones, improve their balance, flexibility and endurance. It’s been so good for them that starting next year, my company dancers will be required to take yoga.”
While yoga enhances a dancer’s flexibility and muscle tone—elements necessary to keep lines straight and jumps strong—the cognitive effects of regular practice are also valuable. “I was working with a 10-year-old client who was extremely stressed from both school and social pressures,” says Lisa Orkin-Passloff, a Boston-based occupational therapist and yoga instructor. “I taught her the child’s pose and encouraged her to do it whenever she felt anxious. I can’t tell you how much it has helped her focus and relax.”
When it comes to learning yoga, is age an issue? Elizabeth Wivell, a New York City–based certified children’s yoga instructor, believes practicing the ancient art allows children as young as age 2 to learn kinesthetically while developing basic motor skills, coordination, spatial relation and depth perception. “It’s a great way to get kids comfortable with taking verbal and visual instructions,” she says. “Having them run through a series of poses helps sharpen their memory and sequencing abilities, which is important for dancers.”
According to Wivell, it’s not the age of the student that should be questioned, but rather the experience and knowledge of the teacher. “Children’s bodies are constantly changing and developing,” she says. “Anyone who works with them should know and understand the developmental sequences, and know which poses are appropriate and which are not.”
For example, Wivell wouldn’t recommend teaching a class of 2-year-olds inversion poses (any position where the heart is located below the hips, like shoulder stands and headstands), because these can cause serious injury if done incorrectly. She suggests handling students on a case-by-case basis, as their skill levels will differ, and that instructors working with small children receive a yoga certification. (For more information on certification, see page 160.)
If you lack the resources to become a licensed practitioner, strongly consider attending programs and workshops to both safeguard the well-being of your dancers and avoid liability issues. If you opt out of accreditation altogether, another (sometimes less expensive) alternative is hiring an experienced yoga instructor to teach classes at your studio. Wivell advises finding someone who has extensive training, especially with children and athletes, to ensure that all dancers gain lasting mental and physical advantages from yoga. DT
NYC–based freelance writer Tatiana Muñoz holds an MA in journalism from Syracuse University.
NYC-based freelance writer Tatiana Munoz holds an MA in journalism from Syracuse University.
There’s no question about it: The media is saturated with images of the underweight, malnourished and downright frail. You can’t walk by a newsstand or turn on the television without being exposed to the weight worries of Hollywood stars and super-thin models.
It’s enough to make even the most confident person feel vulnerable and self-conscious. But now imagine what it’s like to witness this alarming trend while you’re still young, impressionable and confused. The consequences for children are proving catastrophic.
More than seven million women and one million men suffer from eating disorders in the U.S., according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. If that weren’t frightening enough, 86 percent of sufferers report onset of the disease before their 20th birthday, meaning the young students in your classes are at a heightened risk.
Athletes who compete in aesthetic sports are especially susceptible to eating disorders. “Sports like dance and gymnastics put more emphasis on the body—specifically, on lean bodies,” says Nancy Clark, sports nutritionist and author of Sports Nutrition Guidebook. “It’s the idea that the thinner you are, the better you’ll be and the further you’ll excel in your sport.”
According to a 2002 study of 425 female college athletes conducted by registered dietician Katherine Beals, 55 percent said they felt pressured to maintain a certain weight. While most respondents acknowledged they put the pressure on themselves, a good number reported feeling pressure from coaches and teammates.
So how can you help your students shine on the dance floor without burning out backstage? “Like it or not, strong and lean physiques are part of the art of the sport,” says Molly Morgan, a registered dietician and owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions. But Morgan is quick to add that the root of an eating disorder runs much deeper than what happens in dance class. “What causes an eating disorder is an extremely complex combination of factors. I would never say a dance coach is the cause of disordered eating,” she says. “I do, however, think [a coach] can have a negative impact on the athlete.”
Your students look to you for guidance and direction, so take utmost care in what you say and, more important, how you say it. If you notice a student has gained weight, don’t be too quick to confront her. It’s important to remember that teenage bodies are constantly growing and changing. They are likely to hit a growth spurt and readjust before it ever becomes problematic.
Should you notice that a dancer’s weight gain is leading to long-term performance issues, talk to the entire troupe about good nutrition and healthy eating, without mentioning counting calories or setting weight goals. Singling out one student might make her feel like she is being attacked or pressured to drop the weight quickly, explains Dr. Laird Birmingham, director of The Eating Disorders Program at The University of British Columbia.
But one of the most important things you can do to prevent eating disorders among dancers is to approach the subject as you would a new routine: Lead by example. Just as you would demonstrate new dance steps, practice healthy eating habits and maintain a positive body image of yourself.
According to Clark, the seeds of eating disorders are planted early. If a child grows up listening to parents who constantly complain about their weight or teachers who are always dieting, they are likely to pick up the habit. Instead, let them see you eating and making healthy choices. “Make eating politically correct,” advises Clark. “Talk about food in a positive light. Like a car needs gas, your body needs fuel in order to stay strong and healthy. Demonstrate that food is fuel, not the enemy.”