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Over-scheduled and Stressed Out

I just got this question from a dance mom on my website: “What would you suggest for the stressed out high schooler/ dancer? My son has so much on his plate and as a family we don’t get to see each other until Friday night.”

I hear this a lot. Although the specifics differ, the dancers I work with and talk to are living highly scheduled lives. They’re running from school to dance, then eating dinner at 9:00pm and doing homework until the wee hours. It can be hard to feel on top of anything at such a pace.

How do you handle this as a dancer? As a family?

There is no simple fix, but here’s a place to start.

First, determine what you need more of. 

  • Sleep?
  • Sit-down Meals?
  • Family time?
  • Alone time?
  • Time for schoolwork?

Yes, yes, and yes! I hear you, but for purposes of getting started, try to pick only one or two things. Then take a look at your average day and week. Usually, there’s some time in there, often in between two scheduled things, that could be better used.

Here are two concrete examples:

  • Maybe on the train (or car) ride to dance class, you could either do some schoolwork or use the time for self-care, like listening to calming music or doing a breathing exercise.
  • Maybe you’re a person who does homework with your phone next to you, inviting distractions and multi-tasking. Homework can take twice as long when interrupted, so try putting your phone in another room and applying your full mind to the task at hand. Most people find that when they focus completely, they work faster and more efficiently. If that’s true for you, then you’ve just created more time in your day.

More generally though, try these things:

  • Prioritize downtime: When faced with the option of adding another thing to your schedule, resist. Make sure you’re getting some unscheduled downtime every week when you can relax and recharge (in whatever way works best for you).

This includes dancing. It’s important to take at least one day off per week from dancing. Resist the urge to do class on a Sunday!

  • Prioritize self-care: Although we all can use more self-care, dancers need it more than most. The physical, mental, and emotional demands of training alongside an academic schedule can produce faster than normal burnout.

Be sure to make time for sleep (at least 8 hours/night), resting your body (legs up, couch time), and eating healthy meals three times a day. It sounds basic, but cutting any of these corners can make you feel even more stressed.

  • Minimize social media: yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this one before. The thing is, unless you don’t own a smartphone, you probably spend a lot more time on social media than you’re aware of. Start keeping track of how many times a day you pick up your phone to check a text message or Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook. Imagine if you created mini-breaks from media to turn your attention to self-care or family-time? It’s an experiment worth trying. You might find you feel calmer and more on top of things.

I suggest adopting one of the above and committing to it for the next three weeks. See how it goes and if you feel any less stressed. Then move on to the next thing. Slowly, over time, you can build new habits for yourself and your family that offer little pockets of sanity. And hopefully, you’ll feel the difference!

 

The Incredible Edible Egg

The Incredible Egg: Nature’s Gift to You

The egg is considered by many to be nature’s most perfect food: contained inside that little shell is a perfect source of protein (all nine essential amino acids) and an explosion of nutrients. And that old myth about the yolks being bad for you? Not true. In fact, the yolk contains almost all of the vitamins and nutrients of the egg; it’s arguably the healthier part of the egg, full of carotenoids, essential fatty acids, iron, and vitamins A, D, E, and K.  Check out the table comparing yolks and whites below.

Separating whites from yolks is another one of those weird food fads that makes no sense. Nature makes this perfect little morsel of nutrition and tastiness and the only fuss we need to make is in learning how to prepare it. (For safety cooking tips, see here.)

Most people think of eggs as a breakfast food: scrambled, fried, “omeletted,” etc., but eggs don’t have to come with bacon and toast. Here are a few ideas of how to add eggs to your diet beyond breakfast.

  • Eggs (fried, scrambled, poached) over sautéed spinach or kale
  • Hard-boiled eggs: chopped in a salad, like a Nicoise
  • Egg salad in a sandwich or on healthy crackers: try making it with olive oil instead of mayo
  • Deviled eggs: try with mustard, vinegar, olive oil, curry powder and chives instead of the usual mayo.
  • Dropped into a soup: if you stir with a fork, it will ribbon through the soup as it cooks
  • Cooked or baked in tomato sauce (a Southern Italian favorite) for dinner
  • Plain hard-boiled eggs are a great snack after dance class: your body will thank you for the protein; you can prepare them the night before and store in the fridge. Easy to make, easy to eat.

 Whites vs. Yolks: Nutrients
Nutrition: Whites vs. Yolks

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.

Injured? Don't Watch Class.

Injured? Don’t Watch Class.

In theory…

When you are injured, it is often customary to be asked to sit and watch class. In theory, this is a good idea that should have practical benefits. Learning from observation and keeping your head in the game are two reasons I have heard teachers give for this request.

In practice…

In practice though, watching class when you are injured is a recipe for disaster because you are not happily absorbing corrections and gaining insight into things. Instead, you are undergoing what my students have variously called “mental torture,” “instant depression,” and “a lesson in frustration.” Does that sound overdramatic? It’s not.

The psychological impact of not being able to do something you love should not be underestimated: it is huge. A dancer who cannot use his/her body can experience a range of emotions from anger to sadness. Being reminded of what you are unable to do can have a deeply destructive effect, and that effect can impact your healing process.

We know that a large part of recovery from illness and injury is state of mind: the more positive you are, the faster you will heal. The mind-body connection is powerful, and if you spend your days in despair, it will be difficult to get back in the studio even when you’re given the medical okay.

Here are some more effective ways for you to spend your time.

  • Ask your doctor and PT what types of activities you can safely do, and then find a way to do them. When I had my fracture, I was cleared for swimming, so I joined the YMCA and swam every day. If you can ride a bike or do non-weight bearing Pilates, for example, get started right away. The sooner you start moving that body of yours, the better you’ll feel. 
  • Take class in your mind. (What? Yes, in your mind.) Mental rehearsal will keep the mind-body connection alive and receptive even when you can’t take class (or full class). Find a quiet space where you can close your eyes and visualize yourself taking class. Use recorded music if it helps. It takes a lot of concentration to do this, so you may only get through part or half of class the first few times. Try to recall recent corrections, and really allow yourself to feel as if you are dancing.
  • Get support. Dancers identify so strongly with their dancing, that when injured, they can feel lost. That feeling can become darker before it gets better. Keep tabs on how you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask for support from teachers, friends, family, and professionals: seek out a coach or therapist. Talking with people about how you feel is an important part of the healing process.
  • Learn something new. If your healing and rehab process leaves you with time on your hands, don’t spend it wishing you could dance- it will only create a negative feedback loop and you’ll feel worse. Instead, commit to learning something new; when I was injured, I did a night school class at a local university; an injured friend of mine took a cooking class. Think about what you’d like to improve in your life (healthier foods, improve your mental fitness, brush up on your Spanish skills…) and dive in.

The aim is to keep your mind active and receptive, and your energy positive, which allows you to reframe your injury as an opportunity. Sitting and watching class often has the opposite effect, so be sure to talk to your teachers about how that request affects your mental health. Then, share your plan for recovery with them. 

Are you or have you been injured recently? How did you stay positive through the healing process?

Non-Dairy Sources of Calcium

February’s Dance Magazine has a great article on bone health, “The Bone Bank” (not available online, unfortunately). If you haven’t read your copy, take a look as the author, Nancy Wozny, creates a great image of your bones as a bank that you only get to make deposits on for a few key years after which, the bank pretty much closes. (Read the whole article for the specifics!)

Wozny also gives information on common sources of calcium, which reminded me that I have been meaning to post about non-dairy sources of calcium. Some people don’t like dairy or their bodies don’t process it well, and the good news is you don’t have to drink milk or eat cheese in order to get your daily intake of calcium (which is between 800-1,000 mgs for adolescents). Try some of these options instead or in addition to your usual dairy go-tos:

  • Spinach- 1 cup- 240 mg calcium
  • Collard greens- 1 cup- 250 mg
  • Kale- 1 cup- 249 mg
  • Amaranth – 1 cup- 267 mg
  • Buckwheat- 1 cup- 114 mg
  • Chick peas- 1 cup- 150 mg
  • Sunflower seeds- 3.5 ounces- 120 mg
  • Sesame seeds (whole, not hulled)- 3.5 ounces- 1160 mg
  • Pistachios- 3.5 ounces- 131 mg
  • Orange- 1 large- 75 mg
  • Papaya- 1 medium- 75 mg

Also, remember that calcium cannot be absorbed properly without Vitamin D3- the sunshine vitamin; if you aren’t getting some daily exposure to sun, here are a few common sources of that as well:

  • Eggs
  • Salmon
  • Tuna
  • Oily fish like mackerel and sardines

Keep those bones dense and strong!

 

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.

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

 

 

 

 

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!