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?

Lessons From Yoga for Dancers: Lesson 3

Lessons From Yoga – Lesson 3

Lesson 3: Letting Go Does NOT Equal Laziness.

I still remember dancing days when I could turn like a top, and then days when nothing I did could make those pirohuettes happen. I also remember my response to those dark days: total frustration. I actually remember the sensation that would rise through my body and into my head: hot, red, angry and confused. Then, I would pull myself together and apply my well-engrained dancer’s work ethic: I would practice over and over again, pushing through the problem in the hopes of arriving at a solution.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work. In fact, in retrospect, I’m pretty sure it didn’t do me much good, most of the time. So why did I stick to that plan? I think it’s because dancers have a hard time letting go; it feels totally foreign, and often we confuse it with being lazy or giving up. I was never good at letting to go, particularly when it came to my technique.

And this is where Lesson 3 from Yoga comes in…

…much of yoga requires relaxation and deep breathing (which cannot be done when tense and straining). Success is achieved when the breath initiates the movement, and when we accept our bodies and abilities in that moment. And sometimes, things don’t work, just like in dance.

But unlike dance, yoga instructors have a different approach: they recognize that one day is not always like the next: there are variations in what our bodies can tackle and that is okay. It’s not a sign of devolving ability, or lack of dedication or discipline. Just, some days, you can do a head stand or a triple pirohuette, and some days you can’t. *

So yoga instructors say things like, “Go into lotus, if it is available to you today.” If you can’t make lotus that day, you can sit cross-legged, and no one seems to mind.

It has taken me a long time to stop minding and to just let go when I can’t achieve something I did yesterday. In that moment, when I let go and surrender to breathing, I grow in a different way. I accept that I am human, that my body is slightly different every day, and that my real challenge is in letting go, not in pushing hard.

This is an important lesson for dancers who are taught to be perfect every day and to really beat themselves up for variations in the abilities. Sometimes relaxing can help. Give it a try.

 

* This reminds me of a performance of Don Quixote I saw last spring at ABT where Gillian Murphy danced Kitri. Murphy is an exceptional turner who regularly wows audiences with her multiples, but that night, she was off. Rather than feeling disappointed, I was actually excited to see her dance on an off-night (which was still incredible) because it gave me the opportunity to see her work through her body’s issues. Of course, she was fantastic and if you didn’t know she was a turner, you never would have guessed she wasn’t on.

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.

Back-On-Track Winter Green Salad

Back-On-Track Winter Green Salad

I am the first to admit that eating a cold green salad in the heart of winter can be a challenge if your body craves warm and hearty foods like mine does. That said, greens are always in order, no matter the season, so it’s time to get creative.

This recipe calls for arugula, a bitter, dry green which pairs well with olive oil and parmigiano cheese. A lot of brands carry arugula in those plastic boxes, already washed. This is one of those “cheats” that I support- anything that gets your meal to you faster without compromising your health!

The recipe also calls for fennel, a bulbous, white, crunchy vegetable that grows in the ground. If you’ve never had fennel before, give it a try; it tastes a bit like licorice, and is crisp and fresh-tasting. In fact, in Italy, a slice of fennel is often served at the end of a meal to refresh your palate before moving on to dessert.

It’s also healthy, delivering 17% of your recommended daily amount of Vitamin C and 10% of your Potassium.

If you like shopping at your local farmer’s market, which I highly recommend, this salad makes use of ingredients you can find in late fall. If you’re a supermarket-goer, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding arugula or fennel year-round.

Ingredients

  • Fresh arugula, one bunch
  • Half of a fennel bulb, sliced into slivers
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings (You can shave your cheese with a mandolin or the wide section on your grater.)

Mix these ingredients, then toss with olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.

The peppery, bitterness of the arugula is nicely offset by the parmigiano cheese, which also adds saltiness. I think the freshness of the fennel is what makes this salad so healthy-tasting. It’s also light, which is great for in between classes or rehearsals, and late at night when you need something but don’t want to fill yourself too much.

Cook Once ... Eat All Week

Cook Once and Eat All Week

This post was originally published on Beyond the Gold– NY International Ballet Competition’s blog. It’s on how you can cook and eat homemade meals all week without spending your life in the kitchen. It’s easier than you might think….!

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I happen to love the phrase, “Cook once, eat twice.” But in my kitchen, it’s cook once, eat four or five times. I love to eat well, but I am not willing to spend a lot of time cooking during the week unless it’s a family event. So, here are some of my tips for cooking/prepping once and eating many times- these are very simple ideas, but I hope they get you thinking!

I usually pick a day when I cook three or four main ingredients and then have them in the fridge as building blocks for the week. My trick is that I cook them in the simplest way possible, usually steaming for veggies and greens and basic prep (without flavoring) for beans and grains. That way, every time I eat, I can add different flavors to create a whole new dish.

For example: Ingredients:

  • Kale: steamed
  • Wild Rice: boiled
  • Cannellini beans: soaked for 24 hours, then boiled until soft.

Meals

Warm or cold

  • Mix kale, wild rice and cannellini beans
  • Toss with tahini, splash of lemon, ground black pepper, salt

Cold

  • Slice up and add cherry tomatoes, avocado, pine nuts (toast them if you like)
  • Add cold kale
  • Toss with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper

Cold

  • Cannellini beans and wild rice
  • Add feta, cucumber, kalamata olives, tomatoes
  • Toss with olive oil, vinegar, fresh oregano/basil, salt and pepper

Warm

  • Saute cannellini beans and wild rice with sesame oil, salt and pepper
  • As a side, sauté the kale in sesame oil with some sesame seeds

In addition to these simple ideas, you now have a green, a grain and a protein, all ready to be eaten in any other creative way you want.

Some other staples that are great to cook ahead of time and keep on hand as building blocks are:

  • Quinoa (good cold, hot and as a breakfast cereal)
  • Brown Rice
  • Kasha (Buckwheat)
  • Steamed broccoli
  • Roasted red peppers
  • Chard
  • Kale
  • All beans: so good hot or cold and very easy to dress up in different flavors

 

 

 

 

Sleep Like Your Success Depends on It

Sleep Like Your Success Depends on It

Did you know that, on average, teenagers need 9.25 hours of sleep every night to function at their highest level?

Only 15% get 8.5 hours, while the rest are way under that. (And I have yet to meet a dancer in high school who sleeps more than 7 hours a night…)

Sleep impacts metabolism

A recent study from the University of Chicago shows that proper sleep may have a positive effect on glucose and insulin levels, namely it helps maintain cells’ sensitivity to insulin. Conversely, the less sleep you get, the less sensitive your cells are to insulin. Because insulin regulates how the body processes sugars and stores fat, it’s important that we not lose that sensitivity through lack of sleep.

So, not getting enough sleep can actually hurt us metabolically. “People think they can function cognitively on little sleep, but our study proves they are not tolerating the metabolic consequences,” said Dr. Matthew Brady of the University of Chicago, author of the study.

Tips to get to bed earlier

So now you have yet another reason to get to bed earlier! Here are 2 tips for doing just that:

  1. Turn off your electronic devices early. Incoming texts, social media, and one more episode of your favorite TV show all keep the brain active and alert. It can take between 30 and 60 minutes for the brain to get into sleep mode after any of these activities.
  2. If you must use electronics before bed, try turning on the “night mode” in the display and brightness settings: this subtracts the blue light from the display, making it easier for your brain to calm down when it’s time to sleep.
  3. Do some deep breathing or a body-scan when you get into bed. Mindful breathing calms the heart rate and quiets the mind, both of which will prepare you for bed.

Check out these resources for more info: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2012/10/16/lack-of-sleep-linked-to-weight-gain/ https://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=1379773

Meal Plan: Simple, Smooth Rice Bowl

Meal Plan: Simple, Smooth Rice Bowl

Brown rice is a great staple to include in your dancing diet for a number of reasons.

  • It’s a whole grain, meaning it has all of its bran layer intact, so it’s full of vital nutrients.
  • Brown rice has more vitamin B than any other grain; it also contains iron, vitamin E, and amino acids, among other nutrients.
  • It’s high in fiber (good for you) and made up of 80% complex carbohydrates, so it burns slower than white rice, giving you longer-lasting energy.

I like to cook up a big pot of brown rice on Sundays and then have it for the week to mix with different veggies, greens, and beans. This is a super simple rice bowl recipe that you can make in 10 minutes or less after the rice is cooked:

  • After chopping and rinsing the broccoli,  steam for 5 minutes in a steamer, or boil in water; drain. Place in bowl.
  • Slice half of an avocado (healthy fats make you feel satisfied and give you sustaining energy)
  • Add 3/4- 1 cup brown rice.
  • Toss with a squirt of lemon juice, a drizzle of olive oil (omega-3 fatty acids), and salt and pepper.

This is a light lunch between classes and rehearsals as well as a tasty, easy-to-throw-together dinner. And of course, once you’ve got the huge pot of rice, you can get creative about ways to spice it up.

To get you started here are some simple recipes to try mixing with your rice.

  • Black beans and sweet corn kernels with chopped fresh tomatoes and avocado;
  • Sautéed kale with sesame seeds and sesame oil;
  • A can of tuna fish, black olives and capers.

The combinations are endless and so easy to do once you have your base. Dig in!

*New Note: as of 2012, brown rice has been found to have higher than normal levels of arsenic in it, thanks to the soil and water in which it has been grown. Read this Consumer Reports article for the full story.

I know, right, another toxic thing to have to worry about! You can still eat brown rice. The report recommends brown basmati from California, India, or Pakistan. “It has about a third less inorganic arsenic than other brown rices.” They recommend no more than 3 servings per week.

So maybe make a slightly smaller pot or consider trying some of the whole grains that are naturally lower in arsenic like quinoa, millet, and white basmati.

Variety is (more than) the Spice of Life

Dancers are probably known more for being creatures of habit than variety. Why wouldn’t we be? Our art form demands it. We do roughly the same exercises in the same order every day, and work on the same things over and over again.

As creatures of habit and repetition, it’s natural that we would carry that thinking into our diets. How many of us eat the same thing for breakfast every day? Why? Because it’s fast, easy, and we can predict our body’s reaction to it.

If this describes you, you’re not alone. When you have a strong, clean diet of whole foods, habit is not necessarily a bad thing. But we can all benefit from adding some variety to our diet and here’s why.

Kiwis and Oranges

Think about kiwis and oranges for a minute: not only do they look and taste differently, but they also have different nutritional make-ups. We think that oranges are high in the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin C at 139%, but kiwis are even higher at a whopping 273%!

Kiwis are also high in vitamin K (89%) and potassium (16%), while oranges give us thiamin (12%) and calcium (8%). But neither fruit gives us much Vitamin B6 or potassium. For that, you’re better off eating bananas. So, while you might be an orange lover and be getting your daily allotment of fruit from oranges, look at what you’re missing out on by not eating other types of fruit.

The same comparisons can be done for whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, and greens like kale and lettuce. If you get stuck on one, you’re missing out on vital vitamins and minerals that your body needs.

Simple tips to get out of your food rut

When you grocery shop, aim to get at least three kinds of each food group.

  • Proteins: choose from both animal and vegetable sources, like eggs, salmon and black beans. If you’re a vegetarian, try yogurt and tempeh in place of the animal products.
  • Whole grains: try different ones for breakfast (steel cut oats), lunch (quinoa), and dinner (wild rice).
  • Vegetables: go for color! For example, dark leafy greens like spinach, red peppers, and carrots, or beets, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
  • Fruits: go for different colors and textures: blueberries, oranges and kiwis, or bananas, apples and strawberries.
  • Healthy fats: walnuts, avocados, and olive oil.

Your dancing body needs a wide variety of nutrients, and keeping track of what those are and where to get them can be a big job. But experimenting with the abundant choices of available whole foods is easy and fun, not to mention more exciting for your taste buds.

So the next time you are shopping or eating out, try breaking out of your food rut and trying a few things outside of your comfort zone. If you want to do some research on what nutrients are found in your favorites foods (and the new ones you’re investigating), check out http://nutritiondata.self.com/.

 

Lucious Beets & Kale for Lunch

There are a ton of beets in my local farmer’s market lately so this is what I’m whipping up for lunch today.

Start by grabbing your vegetable scrubber. (I like this one by Oxo.) It’s a special brush for scrubbing vegetables, which although it seems like a frill you can live without, it does make the job of cleaning vegetables much faster and easier. I use it on all veggies whose skin I want to eat. (After all, the skin is often the best part and full of nutrients.) Consider it a small investment with a big return.

Recipe for Kale & Beet Salad

  • 2 bunches of beets: I used one bunch of golden and one bunch of red beets
  • 2 bunches of Tuscan/dinosaur kale

I like to cut the beet greens off first and clean/store them for later use in smoothies. Then scrub beets and put into pot of boiling water for 15-25 mins, depending on size of beets. Cook until you can pierce straight through them easily with a fork.

In the meantime, rinse and chop your kale leaves. Bring 2 cups of water to boil in a large skillet. Drop the kale leaves in and cover with tight-fitting lid. Cook for 4-6 minutes till greens are wilted but still bright in color.

Drain beets and greens. Set greens in a large bowl. Chop beets and toss with the greens and a vinaigrette of your choice. I like olive oil and balsamic vinegar with some salt and pepper – easy peasy.

Tuck in and enjoy.

Beyond Nutrition

There are reasons beyond nutrition for adding beets to your diet. Just two of these tubers have 528mg of potassium (more than a single banana!), which is an important mineral for heart health and muscle cramps. Beets get their bright color from betalains, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. That’s good news for your inflamed tendons.