I have found that talking honestly about health, nutrition and yes weight can be a scary topic for any dance teacher. I also have found that it is my responsibility as a dance educator to talk about all of these things and when I don’t, that’s what makes all of it so taboo. I’ll explain how I finally came to this decision after years of teaching, but first…..
The truth of the matter is that if your child wants to become a dancer or is even toying with the idea, they need to know certain things. Weight is an important factor when it comes to getting a job in this field as well as the role they want in Nutcracker. Most professional dancers weigh about 10% below the normal range. This is important for several reasons.
- It’s esthetically pleasing. Dance is all about the lines of the body and it’s important for the audience to see those lines.
- Most dancers need to be lifted and partnered and it’s the dancer’s responsibility to their partner to be at a weight that is easy to maneuver.
- It will lengthen their career because extra weight is extra stress on the joints and tendons, especially when you’re talking pointe work.
- It will allow the dancer to have higher extension, higher jumps and stellar stamina which are essential to the profession. Simply because their body weighs less; it takes less effort to move.
Yet many dance teachers fear discussing the all too important issues of weight and nutrition with their students for one major reason; we are afraid of it resulting in eating disorders. This is NOT what we want for any of our dancers so we become negligent and don’t talk about it at all.
What made me change my mind and forced me to address these issues? It happened years ago when a young dancer came to me and asked the question, ‘Miss Erin, why didn’t I get Sugar Plum? I’m not complaining, I just want to know what I need to do to be considered for the part next year. And, quite frankly, I did my best and think I did better in the audition than many of the other girls. It has to be something I’m not doing, right?’ I knew how much courage it took this child to come to me and ask that question and looking into her tear-filled eyes, I knew she really wanted to know. I took a deep breath and told her the truth, that she was absolutely right. She had given the best audition, but her weight was what caused us not to cast her. I explained that the men we hire are professionals and we couldn’t ask them to put their own careers at risk lifting a dancer that was too much for them. Then something strange happened. She said, ‘I’m so relieved! So, it had nothing to do with my dancing, just my weight? Well, I can fix that, can you help me?’ Here I was terrified that I might scar this child for life by being honest with her and I realized that I could help her change her life for the better, what an amazing opportunity!
The sad thing is this still wasn’t enough for me to change the way I interacted with my dancers. I still didn’t talk about weight; I was still afraid. The turning point for me, the message I got a few weeks ago from the student above. She had graduated and stopped dancing and I hadn’t heard from her in many years, when out of the blue, I got the nicest thank you letter. In it she told me, ‘Miss Erin you made my technique better than it ever could have been. And more importantly you encouraged me to be a much healthier person. I still refer to the diet for dancers book you gave me.’ So, that’s it. I finally realized that I didn’t scar her, that talking openly and honestly about all the things she needed to work on empowered her.
Anyway, that’s my new goal as a dance educator, to give my dancers all the keys they need for success. I need to teach them about technique, proper training and body placement, but I also need to teach them about feeding their bodies properly, the importance of getting enough sleep, dance etiquette…nothing can be taboo or off limits, so here we go. (Remember, I’m not a nutritionist, but this is what I have found works for me and what I’d like to see my dancers fuel themselves with to get the best results from their bodies.)
Every dancer should follow a healthy diet and it is never too soon to talk honestly about nutrition with your dancer. The body performs at its best when filled with the proper fuel. Dancing requires lots of energy, so dancers must consume enough calories to keep up with physical demands. A dancer’s diet should consist of a balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, and adequate fluids.
*Carbohydrates should compose 50-65% of a dancer’s diet. Many people forget that fruits and veggies fall into this category and most of the carbs that a dancer eats should come from these foods. We should eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Eat the rainbow with yellow and orange peppers, lots of leafy greens and lettuces, berries, apples, tomatoes, go crazy! You can also supplement with whole grains which fill you up and sustain energy longer. I recommend eating only whole wheat bread and pastas and quinoa. Stay away from white bread and pastas, they are more processed and the good stuff has been stripped away. Whole grain cereals like shredded wheat and oatmeal are good sources of carbs. Also, baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are a great source of carbohydrates, but also have a lot of potassium to help with muscle cramps and sourness. (Note: There are many people that are developing gluten allergies due to the genetically engineered wheat being used these days. Make sure your dancer doesn’t suffer from this before feeding them any breads or pastas)
*Proteins should comprise 12-15% of a dancer’s diet and are essential for building and repairing muscle. Good sources of protein include lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, tofu and low fat dairy products like skim milk and part-skim cheeses. Nuts and seeds are so important and they are packed with good fats, see below.
*Fats should comprise 20-30% of a dancer’s diet, but we’re talking about healthy fats here. Many dancers think high fat contents will make them fat, but if you choose the right fats, it gives you energy. We recommend olives, olive oil, butter (never margarine), avocadoes, eggs, nuts, seeds and seafood like salmon.
*Fluids regulate the body’s temperature, maintain circulation and remove wastes. Water is the most important fluid and should be drunk before, during and after classes and rehearsals. Most dancers drink only water, but many swear by teas and use sparkling water for something different. Choose fruit juices with no added sugar and quite frankly, it’s better to just eat the fruit rather than drinking its juice since then you get the great fiber that goes with it. Avoid all sodas; yes that includes the diet variety. Young dancers have no need for sugary sports drinks either.