Eat More, Do More

Eat More, Do More

A dancer-friend of mine once told me that she wished someone had imparted this piece of wisdom to her when she was training: rather than eating less (as many dancers seem to do), and feeling that she had to conserve her energy and be careful about not overdoing it, wouldn’t it have made more sense to eat more and do more? Yes! In fact, that is the way to go. The question is, what to eat and do more of?

When most of us think about eating more, we often think this means eating everything. We hear “eat more” and think, “Yes! I AM going to have dessert after lunch…AND dinner! And throw in that bag of chips!”

That’s not what I mean though. What I mean is to eat more whole foods, more REAL foods: more greens and veggies, more whole grains, more fruits, more beans. As athletes, dancers need adequate fuel, and that fuel cannot be substandard in quality. If you were taking a road trip across the country, would you fill your car with the dirtiest, cheapest gas you could find? You could, but you wouldn’t get very far and your car would be in a sad state after a few hours.

It’s a crude metaphor, but the same is true for your dancing body: if you fill it with processed foods, sugar, simple carbs, and/or junk food, you’re not going to much out of it. Most dancers I have worked with tend to eat very little actual food. Instead, they exist on snack foods: pretzels, nuts, rice cakes- nibbles of finger food rather than the real deal. And they usually think that they have good energy and strength; they don’t even know what they’re missing. Once we get them on a diet of whole foods, there are some pretty exciting changes like increased energy and power reserves they never experienced before.

Once you have adequate fuel, you’ll know you can do more- you’ll feel stronger and more energetic. You’ll have the fuel for the cross training which is so critical to improving. (What kind of cross training to do depends on your body, what kind of dancing you’re doing, and previous injuries you’ve sustained. Check out this post from a few weeks ago about fitness and this link to a Dance Spirit article on cross training.)

You’ll also have energy to get through your day. It used to surprise me to hear young dancers talk about how tired they were all of the time- then I realized how little they were eating and it made perfect sense. Of course you slow down when there is no fuel in the system: your body is conserving energy. And with low/no fuel, your dancing suffers. But with a full tank of whole foods that is regularly replenished, your body will be capable of amazing things. How else do we explain marathon runners, mountain climbers, and cyclists? Are we saying that dancers aren’t capable of that level of exertion? I think not. I think most dancers can do a lot more than they think- the trouble is, without adequate fuel, you’ll never know what you’re capable of.

Dancer, Yes. Physically Fit? Maybe.

Dancer, Yes. Physically Fit? Maybe.

Don’t assume you are physically fit just because you’re a dancer. Find out! Schedule an appointment with an athletic trainer or physical therapist, explaining that you want to test your fitness and strength levels, as well as get some ideas for improvement.

Chances are, your endurance is not what it could be. That’s because most forms of dance are anaerobic; you will need to cross train in order to build your stamina. Also, depending on what kind of dance you do, some muscle groups get a lot of attention, while others are left alone; a fitness test can show you where you need work. Working even for 1 or 2 sessions with a trainer can open your eyes to the wide variety of activities that you could do to cross-train your body into better physical fitness. Strengthening of your overall fitness will help you in the dance studio in ways you probably don’t even know about; it can improve your…

  •  Agility: ability to change direction quickly and powerfully
  • Strength: how much force can you generate for a specific muscle group or movement
  • Coordination: from simple to complex movements, getting all your parts in the right place at the right time
  • Stamina: get your heart and lungs to keep up with the pace of your allegro
  • Muscular endurance: when your lungs feel great but your muscles give out or shake= lack of muscular endurance

If you haven’t cross-trained before or need some tips, Dance Spirit Magazine has a great article out this month: The Dos and Don’ts of Cross-training. Give it a peek, contact a trainer or PT, and then make a plan to improve your physical fitness. You will feel the difference, I promise.

Tell me how you’ve improved your physical fitness; did your dancing improve as a result?

Speed Walking for Strength

Dancers often think that building strength requires hours on the gym lifting weights. Not so! Did you know that speed walking on a treadmill can strengthen the tendons, ligaments and tiny muscle fibers in your feet, ankles, calves and shins? It’s true! Despite its rigors, dance class doesn’t strengthen every part of your body. And for ballet dancers, who are working in turnout almost exclusively, dance class doesn’t build balance in your legs or hips.

But there’s at least one easy solution: go for a walk! All gyms have treadmills now, so get on up there and give this a try. Here are some tips to remember when speed walking:

  1. Wear sneakers. When you start a repetitive exercise, make sure you are protecting your feet, shins and back by wearing cushiony sneakers made for exercise. This is not the time for flip flops.
  2. Be sure to walk with your feet and legs in parallel. (You may have to watch your feet for a few weeks until this becomes natural. Stay with it. It’s worth doing this properly.)
  3. Keep your pelvis in a neutral position. Don’t tip it forward or backward. Try using your abdominal muscles to pull your pelvis under if it’s too far back; if it’s tipped forward, you’ll know because your torso will be behind your pelvis.
  4. Bend your arms at the elbow when increasing your speed- it helps! (Try not to hold onto the treadmill- it changes how you naturally balance your body as well as your stride.)
  5. Try to work up to a speed of 4.5: this will work your heart and lungs as well as your legs.

If you can get outside to speed walk (or if you don’t like the gym), that’s good too. You can breathe some fresh air and commune with nature while building strength. Just be sure to wear sneakers with good cushioning to protect your joints- this is even more important if walking on concrete. If you can find a track or grass to walk on, instead of concrete, the impact on your joints will be less intense.

Nutrition at the Birmingham Royal Ballet: a Mixed Bag

 

This article about the nutrition of dancers with Birmingham Royal Ballet principal dancers Victoria Marr and Matthew Lawrence, got me thinking. If you haven’t read it, take a peek.  Here’s what it’s got me thinking about…

1. Two-thumbs-up for the shift away from telling “heavier” dancers to stop eating, and instead directing them to company resources like nutritionists.

Even better that “things have gone to the nth degree with nutrition” (Marr) and dancers are even getting their bone density tested. (A wellness advocate’s dream…)

2. Two thumbs down for the ever-rigid ballet aesthetic which turns away beautiful dancers if they “don’t have the right shape.”

“You still have to be quite skinny and you have to have long, lean muscle. There’s no getting away from that. Ballet is all about aesthetics,” says Marr. I know this, but it still pains me.

3. Two half-sies thumbs for both interviewees eating whatever they like, according to the article. It’s great that they do not feel constrained, but it’s a little sad that they confess to eating “rubbish,” including “Kit-Kat bars” and “chips.”

On the one hand, they are professional adults who can eat whatever they want, but with so much access to nutrition and care, how did they end up with such low-quality snacks? I’m all for splurging, but aim high and go for the good stuff. (Like…Mast Brothers chocolate, for example. Why waste your calories on junk?)

4. Two palms up in the “huh?” gesture for Marr’s conflicting comments on food amounts: on the one hand, she says there is a “preconceived idea that dancers have to keep their food intake down in order to keep quite skinny,” which she claims is untrue, but then she confirms it by saying, “I don’t need to eat inordinate amounts of food to get the energy I need. You don’t really. It’s a myth.”

So, dancers don’t have to eat “inordinate amounts” of food to get the energy they need?

Problems: 1) “inordinate” is too subjective: what does that mean, exactly? and 2) everyone is different.

While Marr may not need to eat a lot, that generalization shouldn’t be applied to all dancers. Furthermore, many dancers do lower their overall caloric intake in order to achieve the proper look. By the time they become professionals, they are so used to eating that way it may feel totally normal. It doesn’t change the fact that compared to an average person, dancers eat considerably less food.

5. And, finally, two thumbs up for proper screening. That neither Marr nor Lawrence have faced issues around their weight at BRB made me think about the selection process. Most companies have a rigorous screening process wherein dancers who do not fit the aesthetic of the company are not usually hired. I used to think this was terrible, but I have come around to understanding the potential good of this practice.

If a company has a strict aesthetic, then I think it’s correct that they screen and hire appropriately. Is there anything more disheartening than landing the much-coveted contract, only to be told you must lose weight?

Until the ballet aesthetic changes worldwide, dancers should not be hired at one weight on the condition that they drop to another before they are considered stage-worthy. Surely, this practice leads to a greater number of physical and psychological problems.

Ultimately, I like to think the ballet world will be forced to alter its aesthetic to accept more “normal”-sized dancers. But until then, it seems imperative to not put dancers in the position of having to lose weight in order to keep their jobs, which is why being particular about the aesthetic right out of the gate seems like a better choice to me.

But enough of what I thought. What was your impression of the article?

Prepping for Summer Intensives

Where are you headed this summer and how will you prepare?

Dance Wellness Editor Jan Dunn, on the website 4dancers.org, has written a great post on how to prepare your body for summer intensive programs.

While it might seem early to start thinking about summer programs, it’s not. Like most things, successful preparation is a process and begins early. I recommend you read the whole post here, but in the meantime, here are some points she addresses:

  • Aerobic Conditioning: dancers who are aerobically fit have fewer injuries than those who aren’t. It’s never too early to get started on this.
  • Work on muscle balance: for ballet dancers, that means working in parallel as opposed to turnout; you can use Pilates, Gyrotonics, the gym.

You know the drill, you’ve done the exercises, you’ve read the articles, now go find a teacher and get started! Almost all dancers cross train nowadays, so if you aren’t, it’s definitely time to get on that.

  • Climate change: if you’re going somewhere hotter, colder, more humid, or at a higher altitude, it will affect your dancing, so be prepared.

Ask the school how dancers prepare for those changes or google the climate. For example, a quick google search of “how athletes adapt to high altitudes” reveals a number of handy articles with basic tips for the transition.

My advice

A piece of my own advice for dancers who are doing company auditions is to do some summer intensive auditions as well, especially with companies you’d like to dance for. For example, if your dream company is Boston Ballet, go ahead and do their summer program audition as well as the company audition. If you don’t get a company contract, but get accepted to the summer, it might be an option to consider.

Once you’re at the summer program, make sure the artistic director sees you by setting up a meeting with him or her and expressing your interest in dancing with the company. You can ask him/her to come watch you in class to see if you’d be a good fit for the company. It might sound crazy as a strategy for landing a company contract but it has worked for some dancers, including me!

Above all, think ahead. There’s no harm in thinking strategically about your future, even if so much of the decision-making is out of your hands.

Grace Under Stress: Your Average Dancer

 

A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well. 

Among the many things dancers are gifted at, hiding stress is one of them. How many times have you been nervous or scared, and someone has said to you afterwards that you looked relaxed and nonplussed? This still happens to me now, years after my dance career ended, and I attribute it to my dance training.

Unlike athletes, dancers can’t show exertion or pain on their faces. Remember the Olympics last summer? The fierce determination, the anguish in the faces of the athletes- it really struck me that as an observer, I could almost read their minds because of how much showed on their faces.

Dance isn’t like that: dancers are trained to minimize natural expressions of pain or exertion so that they do not distract the audience from the art form. Keeping stress under the radar does not, however, mean that dancers handle it effectively. I have found that most dancers either ignore their stress, hoping it will go away on its own, or they are completely consumed by it.

Here are some tips for dealing with your stress so that you can respond like the diamond pictures above: clear-minded and beautiful!

  1. First, start paying attention to it: how does it manifest in your body? (i.e. no appetite, shaking, extremely tense muscles, dry mouth?) How does it manifest in your mind? (i.e. replaying mistakes in your head, self-criticism, obsessively checking things like your hair or your text messages?) Often, just noticing what is happening to us is a strong step towards managing the stress and preventing it in the future.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re stressed to practice self-care. Think of one thing that calms you down when you feel stressed, and add it to your daily routine to stop stress before it starts.
  3. Breathe. Deep, mindful breathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and slow down the release of stress hormones. Try counting your inhales and exhales, “inhale 1, exhale 2; inhale 3, exhale 4.” Count up to 10, and then start over. Doing this 2-3 times should help you feel calmer and more in control.

Understand that everyone experiences anxiety and those who come out the other end looking shiny and bright probably spent some time “in the wings” dealing with it. So, the real secret to handling stress is to not keep it a secret: acknowledge that you will have stress at some point, and make a plan to deal with it that involves prevention as well as treating the symptoms.

Unleash Your Personality onto the Stage

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching the Pina Bausch company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, dance at BAM. The performance was fun, strange, disturbing, and delightful. But what touched me most were the strong personalities of the dancers onstage, particularly the women.

Joan Acocella’s review of the performance noted as much, that the dancers’ demeanor was “comfortable, unleashed. They want to be onstage.” Their diverse looks and personalities kept my eyes glued to the stage, even in moments when I felt the choreography was thin or discordant. It almost didn’t matter as long as I could keep watching them communicate with us.

I cannot remember the last ballet performance I saw where true personalities shined brighter than the choreography. It makes me wonder why that is. Why is it that ballet dancers often show glimpses of who they are onstage, but those moments are fleeting- almost like we’ve been let in on a little secret and then- poof, it’s gone. The person disappears behind the ballerina, the danseur, or the choreography.

What about unleashing who you are and letting that fill the space? What about letting the dancing be a vehicle for your full-fledged personality? It’s definitely not necessary to cover up who we are in order to be ballet dancers. The truly great dancers of the past were great in part because they unleashed their personalities on the audience and we wanted more: Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Maya Plisetskaya, to name the obvious ones.

It has been my experience that students wait to get onstage before they work on their stage persona. This is much too late. Who you are must come through the technique- it is not separate or distinct from what your body is doing.

YOU are the vehicle for both who you are and the dancing itself; YOU are the reason people will buy tickets to your performances and will love watching you.

I would love to hear from some of you: how do you think about this challenge? Do you find it difficult to express the full range of your personality in your dancing?

Mindful Breathing Relieves Performance Anxiety

Those of you who have taken a yoga class or meditated know the positive effects of mindful breathing. An article in the Pacific Standard Magazine confirms those effects, reporting on a recent study out of the University of Sydney. The study shows that 30 minutes of mindful breath before performance steadies the heart rate and calms down the nervous system.

The Study

Psychologists Andrew Kemp and Ruth Wells lead a research team that experimented on a group of 46 musicians and singers. After being hooked up to a device that measured changes in their heart rates, the musicians were asked to perform a difficult piece and their heart rates and anxiety levels were measured.

Then, the musicians were divided into three groups.

  • The first group performed a slow, deliberate breathing exercise for 30 minutes
  • The second group did the same and stayed hooked up to the device to see the results of their breathing
  • The third group just relaxed on their own without special breathing instructions.

The musicians then performed a second, equally difficult piece of music.

The Results

The results showed that the musicians who felt anxious during the first performance experienced lower anxiety after doing the breathing exercises- much lower than those who simple relaxed.

The researchers suggest that slow, mindful breathing helped the musicians regulate their physiological stress levels. That is, it helped regulate their shaking hands, sweating palms, and butterflies in the stomach – all physical traits of anxiety.

It seems that emphasizing the exhale during slow breathing also helps. Our heart rate can increase with inhalation, and decrease with exhalation. So focusing on a long, slow exhale helps decrease the heart rate and thus lowers the amount of anxiety that we feel before a performance.

The Takeaway

So, remember those breathing exercises you learned in yoga or wellness class? Start using them! They are an easy, effective way to calm the mind and the body before class, rehearsal, auditions, and of course, performance. Remember that it takes a little time to master, so start practicing now to become a master by the time you really need it.

 

Inside-Out Process-Oriented Attention

An inside-out approach can change the way you think about your distractions.

A common concern among dance students is that they lack focus and concentration. Many students claim they get easily distracted, either when learning a new combination or doing the exercise.

Those distractions can take many forms. Some I’ve heard about are voices coming from outside the studio, having the artistic director suddenly walk into the studio, or letting your mind wander when watching your peers do the steps.

It happens to all of us, and as long as it’s rare, it shouldn’t worry you too much.  But if you find that you are consistently distracted when you would like to be focused, then you might want to consider reframing your approach.

Outside-In

The outside-in approach to focusing means that your attention is directed outwards, away from you. That means that you are highly influenced by what is going on around you.

You might be hyper-attuned to what other people are thinking when they watch you dance. Maybe you want approval from your teachers and peers, so you actively notice whether they are watching you or not while you’re dancing. Your attention is not on what you’re doing, but on what’s happening outside of you.

It can be very easy to get distracted or to lose focus when your attention is directed outwards.

Inside-Out

The opposite, recommended approach, is to work inside-out. Inside-out means that your attention is focused on what you are doing in the present- right now. You are focused on the process of learning the combination, taking the correction, or doing the steps. Being process-oriented means being in the moment, rather than outside of it.

When you are process-oriented, it is amazing what can happen around you that you are totally oblivious to. For example, can you recall a performance or audition when you were “in the zone”? Maybe someone told you there was a crying child in the audience, or a problem with the sets, but you never noticed. That’s focusing from the inside out.

As an exercise, try to notice what distracts you and how often. Sometimes just recognizing it is a big eye-opener. Stay tuned for tips on how to be more present and get that inside-out approach.

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 2.

This is a continued post. Part 1 is here.

Lesson 2: There are no corrections in yoga.

Lots of Corrections

Getting corrected by the teacher is hugely important in ballet: dancers look to the instructor constantly for feedback. Students rarely complain about getting too many corrections, and in fact, they usually correlate being corrected with being a good dancer- isn’t that strange?

One of my students put it perfectly: she said, if you get corrected, then there’s hope that you’re worth correcting!

No Corrections

Well, imagine my surprise when I started taking yoga classes 3 years ago and the yoga teacher didn’t correct me; she didn’t correct anyone really. I was shocked.

Over the next few months, I experienced varying emotions:

  • surprise (How was I supposed to fix things without corrections?)
  • anger (It’s your JOB to help me!)
  • curiosity (Wait, she isn’t correcting anyone, and no one seems to mind…)

I started to notice that the other yoga students were not looking around at each other, or waiting for corrections. Everyone was focused inwards and negotiating the poses mostly on their own. The instructor would intervene if someone was in danger of hurting themselves, but otherwise, she would let us figure it out.

She kept describing the ideal position to be in and how it should feel, and then she gave us all the time and space we needed to negotiate it.

A-Ha!

After getting over my initial shock, I had an A-Ha moment one day. I realized that if I had a good or bad practice, the only one affected was me. The motivation to practice, the quality of the experience, and its outcome were all up to me.

The best way to describe this realization is Liberating and Terrifying. Liberating because no one was judging me, which made me feel light and free. Terrifying because I had never worked purely for myself before.

I realized that as a dancer, I always had one eye on the teacher or artistic director, ready to gauge their reaction to my every move. With no one watching, where would the impetus to work hard and improve come from?

Adjusting

It has taken some time to get used to this new arrangement, but I have found motivation to have a good practice every time I go to the yoga studio. Having to work without cheating, even though no one is watching or correcting me, has changed my relationship to my practice and to myself.

The biggest lesson I have learned is to work honestly. Gone are the days of seeing what I want to see in the mirror, and consequently being happy with my work. Now it is all about how it feels: am I doing the pose correctly? Is it coming from an honest place? Am I making my best effort or just going through the motions?

Having only myself to answer to, rather than a teacher or director, has made my yoga practice a lesson in truth. And that is a lesson I could have used many years ago.