Ballet Saved by Fattening Up Ballerinas

I am definitely not a fan of the headline of this Huffington Post article, “How Fattening Up Will Save Ballet,” but the content is worth a read. It’s by author Deirdre Kelly, whose new book bears the equally controversial title: “Ballerina: Sex, Scandal, and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection.”

Oy. Talk about stirring things up.

Big Takeaway

The basic takeaway of the article is that ballerinas are being “allowed” to be at healthier weights than they used to be, and that this will “save” ballet. She points out that medical experts have long stated the dangers of ballet’s required extreme thinness (true). She also notes that companies today place more emphasis on injury prevention and dancer health than they did in the past (also true). However, that emphasis does not rule out their desire for thin dancers, as displayed onstage.

Kelly writes, “Ballerinas today are again embracing the breasts and hips which first made them objects of desire way back in the day. They are turning their backs on the radical cosmetic surgeries and punitive dieting that stripped them of their identities as full-fledged women in the modern era.”

But is it True?

While I admire Kelly’s desire to highlight the female dancers today who break the hyper-thin mold of the classical ballerina, I am not sure I see the broad changes in the field that she sees. Thinness is still a requirement and a pressure that young students and professionals alike experience with shocking regularity.

And I’m not so sure our companies present such a wide variety of body types that aspiring dancers feel there is room for their diversity. When companies make that rare exception, dancers often get singled out for not fitting the mold. (Recall: NYCB principal Jenifer Ringer criticized in the New York Times just two years ago… see here.)

And Her Point?

Kelly goes on to say that she wrote the book to restore dignity to the ballerina- dignity that was lost in the years when dancers had to submit to extreme thinness. “[Ballet] is where the ballerina is in control of her body in determining her own destiny.”

I both agree and disagree with this statement and will share my personal thoughts later. First, what do you think?

An Apple a Day, the Tim Hortons Way

If this is your idea of “an apple a day,” Mr. Tim Hortons or my dear readers, I strongly urge you to reconsider.

For starters, the “apple” is in the bagel somewhere, which means it’s not really an apple. It might be more like apple puree or apple juice, or maybe even, an apple-flavored something. That’s not the same as an apple.

An apple is a fruit. It grows on a tree. It tastes delicious all by itself. It is full of vitamins and nutrients such as 5% of your recommended daily allowance of potassium and 14% of your daily vitamin C. It also gives you 17% of your daily fiber needs.

I’m not so sure we can say the same for your bagel, Mr. Horton. In fact, ‘et’s just take a look at what’s in there.

Tim Horton’s – Carmel Apple Bagel

Calories 340 Sodium 520 mg
Total Fat 4 g Potassium 0 mg
Saturated 1 g Total Carbs 68 g
Polyunsaturated 0 g Dietary Fiber 3 g
Monounsaturated 0 g Sugars 17 g
Trans 0 g Protein 9 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Vitamin A 0% Calcium 6%
Vitamin C 0% Iron 20%

I have bold-faced the two red flags.

  • There is over 20% of your recommended daily allowance of sodium, or salt, in this single bagel. That’s a problem.
  • There are 17 grams of sugar as well. The World Health Organization recommends that teenagers eat no more than 24 grams per day of added sugar. That’s 6 teaspoons. In this bagel, you’re already over halfway there.

The big takeaway here is that this is not a healthy breakfast choice. It’s not even a healthy snack. It’s just a hot mess. I would classify it as dessert, for sure.

It’s always worth remembering that companies are trying to sell you their products. End of discussion. They will make it sound “healthy” if that’s what it takes. They will make it sound “fun” if that’s what it takes. And they will make it “seasonal” to lure you in.

Needless to say, your daily fruits and veggies should be whole foods. They should grow on a tree or out of the earth. Don’t accept fake substitutes for the real thing!

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.

 

Grains & Greens Lunch: Meal Plan

Whole grains* are a staple for many dancers: the complex carbs, fiber and protein combine to give you long-lasting energy. They’re also versatile and can be mixed with all kinds of veggies, greens and beans for a healthy meal.

Today, we’ll combine grains with leafy greens, which is the number one missing food in the American diet. This meal travels well in a Tupperware and is good hot or cold, so I’m putting it in the “lunch” category. Of course, it would also make a yummy dinner…

Recipe: Grains

  • Add a cup (or 2) of rice to a pot of boiling water.
  • Wait for water to boil again, then turn it down to a steady simmer on medium heat and cook until grains are tender.
  • Then strain them in a strainer. (Most grains have cooking directions on the bag/box; if they don’t just google it to double check.)

Recipe: Greens

While the grains are cooking, prepare the greens.

  • Wash and chop the greens (or rip with your hands)
  • For kale and collard greens, add them to a large frying pan that has about 2 cups of boiling water in it. Cover and let cook down for 5 minutes. When greens are still bright green, but reduced, remove from heat and strain.
  • For spinach, add to an inch of boiling water or a bit of olive oil; let wilt. Remove and strain.

**Some suggestions for leafy greens:fresh spinach, kale, collard greens, and Swiss chard. These four are full of calcium, fiber, vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Recipe: Mix

Now you are ready to mix the grains and greens. Keep your proportions 1 part grains to 2 parts greens. Depending on oils and spices, you can make the dish taste any way you like. You’ll not need much oil- just a drizzle. Here are some suggestions:

  • Mediterranean: olive oil, pine nuts (optional), salt and pepper
  • Middle-eastern: sesame oil, sesame seeds (optional), salt and pepper
  • Asian: peanut oil, bit of soy sauce or tamari

And voila! A healthy, hearty meal that will sate your appetite and give back in the form of energy and nutrients. If you prefer more complex tastes, stay tuned for ways to jazz up these simple dishes. However you serve it, this is going to make your body a lot happier than that rice cake you usually eat. I promise.

* Whole grains are grains in their original, unaltered form, like brown rice, farro, or quinoa. Not like white rice or “quick cook” anything.

Breakfast Ideas: Steel Cut Oats

Breakfast is one of the most important meals of the day for a dancer because it usually happens before your first technique class of the day. Just like you can’t drive a car very far without gas in it, you can’t expect much from your body if it hasn’t been filled with nutrients since the night before.

Finding good breakfast options that give you energy without making you feel sluggish or overly full can be challenging. If you haven’t found what works for you, start experimenting! This is one of my go-to favorites.

Steel Cut Oats

Steel Cut Oats get absorbed slower by the body because the oats have not be refined or heavily processed, like “quick-cook” oatmeal. Slow-absorption foods means longer-lasting energy for you. So, even though steel cut oats take longer to prepare than their quick cook counterparts, I suggest you give them a try.

I like McCann’s and  Bob’s Red Mill, which you can find in any large grocery store. Trader Joe’s carries them as well.

Recipe

  • Boil 4 cups water in a saucepan.
  • Add 1 cup steel cut oats.
  • Bring to a boil.
  • Lower heat and give it a stir.
  • Set timer for 25 minutes.
  • Oats are finished when water is mostly absorbed and oats are a springy, creamy texture.

Add-ins

And here comes the fun part: add-ins to oatmeal can and should be delicious so that you enjoy eating it. Mix and match some of these:

  • Berries: strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, etc. If you can’t get them fresh, try Trader Joe’s frozen berries- take out only what you need for each morning. They will thaw when mixed into the hot oats.
  • Nuts: almonds, walnuts
  • Spices: Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom
  • Sweetener: if you need it, try a Tablespoon of maple syrup or honey.

This will make about 3-4 servings. Make it at night and reheat in the mornings for breakfast. What’s easier than that?

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 1

Three years ago, I started to practice yoga. It was something I had always meant to do, but somehow never got around to it. After I was diagnosed with arthritis in my feet and it became too painful to do ballet classes for fun, it seemed like a good time to give yoga a try.

Now I cannot imagine NOT practicing yoga. It has changed my body, my strength, and the inner workings of my mind in ways that I could not have imagined. I’m going to share some of the lessons I have learned from practicing yoga that you might find applicable to your ballet training. Let me also say that if I had practiced yoga as a dancer, I think it would have helped me enormously. If only I had known…! *

First Lesson: Yoga is a Practice.

You might have noticed that I used that word a lot above: I practice yoga; I have a yoga practice. It took me a while to stop saying “I do yoga” or even “I take yoga.” “Practice” just sounded weird to me, but now I get it. Doing and taking aren’t the right words for yoga: we come to the studio and we practice. Which suggests a few things that are worth considering as a dancer:

  • We don’t expect perfection. The word practice gives us permission to work for something other than perfection. We don’t expect someone who is practicing piano to be perfect. Same thing here. In some ways, we almost expect mistakes, right? After all, we’re just practicing! What a relief both mentally and physically.
  • It’s a process. Practice implies a process: we are where we are, but we’re working to get better. It’s not about being able to do the poses, it’s about the daily process of getting there. I find this relieves pressure; if I don’t get it today, maybe tomorrow will be better.
  • Progress is ongoing. I have yet to hear a yoga teacher compare one day’s success with another day’s failure. In fact, they never say the word “can’t”- instead, they say things like, “Move into full lotus, if you can access it today.” Or “Just do headstand prep if your headstand isn’t available today…” Isn’t that a great concept? That some days, certain things just aren’t available? They’re not gone forever, you didn’t lose them, they’re just not always available on demand. It’s a much more gentle approach to progress than perhaps we allow ourselves in dance. I remember the frustration of feeling like I had lost my pirohuettes to the left- the agony! It was truly devastating.

I think this approach could have some major benefits for dancers. I also think the idea of having access to different areas of technique at different times is much more realistic than what we’re used to. Why not demand a little less in terms of outcomes and focus a little more on the process of our training? It might relieve some of that internal pressure we put on ourselves to be the perfect dancer every day.

 

* Or if only I had listened to my mother who suggested yoga on many occasions to me, but for some reason, I never listened. Argh!

 

 

Nursing Your Sweet Tooth: Amazing Graphic

 

Wow. We consume so much sugar that it is astounding. Check out this great graphic by Online Nursing Programs and have your eyes opened to the truth about sugar and how it affects your health. You may need to Zoom In once the webpage opens by putting your mouse over the graphic and clicking once.

Tomato and Green Bean Salad

This simple salad is a delicious summer treat, when tomatoes and green beans are fresh and aplenty. Also, when it comes to salads, many of us are stuck on lettuce, which, despite all of its wonderful qualities, can get boring after awhile.

It’s also light and travels well, which is good for in between rehearsals and classes.

In this recipe, quickly blanched green beans take the place of lettuce, and are paired with sweet red tomatoes (cherry, grape, beefsteak or heirloom all work).

Recipe

  • To blanch the beans, drop them into a pot with two inches of boiling water. Leave them until they just turn bright green. Remove from water and drain. Beans should be cooked but still snappy and bright.
  • Chop tomatoes. Use a variety that you like.
  • Toss green beans with finely chopped shallot, fresh basil, olive oil, and lemon juice to taste. (Note: lemon juice will discolor the green beans when stored, so only use as much as you are going to eat. Or, substitute vinegar for the lemon juice.)
  • Grind black pepper over the top and salt to taste.

This salad is even better the second day when it’s had a chance to marinate.

Variations

Once you’ve got this recipe down, you can try some variations on the produce just to make it more interesting. Farmers have been cultivating older varieties of both tomatoes and string beans of late, so you can now find them in interesting colors that can really enliven the look of your meal. Give them a try!

  • Cherry, yellow, orange, or heirloom tomatoes
  • Yellow or purple string beans
  • Shaved parmigiano cheese, small mozzarella balls, or crumbled feta cheese

And of course, it’s good for you! Tomatoes (a fruit) and green beans (a vegetable) are whole foods- unaltered and natural- full of vitamins and minerals your body needs.

Devour with joy!

Just how much sugar is in that drink?

There’s a lot of talk about sugar these days. It’s in the news and in films. We’re learning how sugar, not fat, is to blame for so many health issues. We’re hearing about how much we should and shouldn’t eat every day and when we’re supposed to cut ourselves off completely.

I found this PDF on sweet drinks from the Harvard School of Public Health.  It’s an easy way to see how much sugar is in one serving of each drink.

The red, yellow and green color-coding system is a simple way to learn what you should avoid and what is good for you.

Surprise!

You might be surprised by some of the reds, like 100% fruit juice and Vitamin water, clocking in at 10 and 5 teaspoons of sugar per serving. Yikes! Even sports drinks are coded with a red spoon. That means you should drink them sparingly; think of them more as dessert instead of a harmless beverage.

Recommendations

What are the recommended drinks?

  • Water is number 1!

Plain, natural, and unflavored water. If you tend to like flavored drinks, it can take a while to reorient yourself towards water, but it’s a process that is well worth the trouble. This is what your body craves and needs more than any other liquid.

  • Next up is seltzer water with a splash of flavor.*

You can buy this ready made, like Poland Spring with vanilla, or you can make this at home. Making your own gives you more control over what goes into your flavored seltzer. Cut up berries or lemons to have on hand for your water.

*Beware of “zero calorie” flavored seltzers: a lot of them have chemical sugars in place of natural juice.

  • And finally, homemade herbal and regular teas.

Remember that loading up homemade teas with sugar can land you in the place you’re trying to avoid, so use sparingly.

This graphic is a great resource, but only if you look at it regularly! If you’re someone who gravitates towards sweetened beverages, try printing it out and hanging it on your fridge as a reminder.

How Sweet Is It? Grams & Teaspoons of Sugar in 12 oz. Drinks

 

Cheating: Why We Do It & Costs

We have all had days when we felt ourselves cutting corners and “cheating” here and there…it happens, right? You fudge your turnout a bit by rolling your arches a little; you manage to get up to speed in allegro by not pointing your feet all the way.

Sometimes this seems to work just fine, and we let ourselves “get away” with it. But let’s just stop and think about what’s really going on when we cheat or practice mindlessly.

The Cost of Cheating: Poor Muscle Memory

First off, in dance, much of our training comes down to muscle memory. The repetitive nature of daily class and practice is to train the body in the technique so that it knows what to do when we perform.

After a certain level of training, no one goes onstage thinking about every technical feat they are about to do- they just take a deep breath and do it. They trust their bodies to perform as they have been taught.

When we practice mindlessly, we undercut our ability to create proper muscle memory. And once we learn something incorrectly, it can take a really long time to unlearn it and reprogram the body properly. So practicing mindlessly isn’t just a bad idea, it’s a Terrible Idea, which interferes with your progress in a real way.

Mindfulness and Muscle Memory

We can avoid this trap by practicing mindfully. What that means is being 100% present when you are dancing, even if it’s just another class or rehearsal. Every step is an opportunity to program your instrument the right way.

Usually, we get distracted by our minds, not our bodies. We let our minds wander forward to what’s coming up in the class or later in the day, or back to what’s already happened. We can also get distracted by things or people around us.

Sometimes, we have an out-of-body experience when our minds start thinking about something completely disconnected from what we’re doing, like what we’ll have for dinner and what movie we want to see over the weekend.

When the mind starts to wander, we are no longer connected to what we’re doing. Try some of these simple techniques to bring your focus back into your body.

Tips to Increase Mindfulness

  • Focus on the breath.

When you breathe mindfully, it is very difficult to let the mind wander. If you can count the breath while practicing, try counting your exhales 1 to 5, and then starting over again. Once you count past 5, you know your mind has wandered. If counting the breath throws you off, just stay mindful of your breathing as you practice; when you lose your sense of it, go back to it. Feel the inhales and the exhales and don’t lose track of that rhythm.

  • Repeat a cue word(s).

Like mindful breathing, saying a cue word on the exhale can keep you in your body. Lately I’ve been using “My mind is on the breath” during yoga when I start to wander. A directive can be helpful too, like “Get in the body.”

  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Sometimes we get so comfortable with what we’re doing that we are lulled into passivity, and we start to go through the motions. Mixing up the routine, like letting go of the barre on difficult combinations, or changing your place in the center, can be enough of a shift to get you back into your body.

Pace Yourself

Sometimes it isn’t possible to be 100% present, particularly when we are overtired, which is why it’s important to know how to pace yourself. Pacing is a crucial aspect of mindfulness and injury prevention, but it’s a big enough topic that we’ll talk about that in another post- keep your eyes peeled!

Until then, start to notice how often you practice mindlessly.

Ask yourself, what is it costing you to not practice mindfully?

Give yourself at least one good reason to make mindfulness part of your routine. Then try some of these techniques to bring yourself back into your body and be fully present.

Feel free to let me know how it goes in the comments section.