Dancers are famous (notorious?) for pushing themselves to the limit. We're always trying for more, so it can be difficult to figure out just when, where and—honestly—why we should take time to care for our bodies. The truth is, dancers can put off necessary care if they're afraid it might mean taking a break. So here are seven New Year's health and wellness mantras for a strong, centered 2017 (and 12 more ideas for a year full of breakthroughs).
I will: Cross-train, cross-train, cross-train.
We've said it once, we'll say it again: Cross-training is essential to the longevity of your dance career. But where to begin? First, think about what you actually like to do outside of the studio. Cross-training doesn't have to mean mindless miles on the treadmill and it will be a lot easier to stick with if you enjoy it. Check out these three pros, who found unique methods to spice up their routines.
I will: Listen to pain.
Sprains, strains and fractures are your body's way of forcing you to rest. Never push through the sudden onset of pain, something that feels sharp or cracking, or pain that persists for more than a few days. Resolve to tell your teacher or coach when something hurts, instead of shrugging it off. That kind of communication doesn't mean you're whiny or weak. You're taking responsibility for your own career and training.
I will: Actually go to the doctor.
Trust us, we know how difficult it can be to squeeze in a doctor's appointment when you're already over-scheduled. But your pediatrician can take an objective view of your overall health, noting things that might seem normal for a dancer, but unusual for a pre-teen (tendonitis flare-ups, anyone?). That said, your doc might be totally mystified when it comes to dance. Here are our best tips for speaking "dance" with your MD.
I will: Face my perfectionist tendencies.
Lots of dancers are "type A." We're organized, driven and goal-oriented. Learn to recognize the difference between healthy self-criticism (which helps you grow) and unhealthy perfectionism (which beats you down).
I will: Conquer stage fright.
Say it loud, say it proud: "This year I will not be paralyzed by stage fright!" And you can do it, by identifying what level of fright you have, and then taking concrete steps to address it. A few butterflies in your stomach before you perform are totally normal. Even pros still get nervous! But if your stage fright is interfering with your love of dance, it's time to tackle it head-on.
I will: Find the food that best fuels my body.
Hungry, cranky dancers can't focus, are more prone to injury and can't recover properly. Don't be that dancer. Instead, experiment with your meals to find foods that satisfy you emotionally (chocolate), nutritionally (broccoli) or both (mmm...STRAWBERRIES!). Take a peek at these four pros, who've found the right combinations to power through busy rehearsal and performance schedules.
I will: Give myself the R&R I deserve.
Face it. You may feel like Wonder Woman onstage, but you have to rest like any other mere mortal. That's why it's essential to schedule in some down time. Take a bubble bath, try these relaxing yoga poses, read a new book, catch up with a friend...there are a million ways to thank your body for helping you chase your dance dreams!
Here's to a fabulous 2017!
We're reaching the time of year when the fatigue of Nutcracker, regionals and school haven't quite been replaced by late-season stamina and the mercy of winter vacation.
But guess what? You're almost there, and we've got your back. Here are a ton of tried-and-true ways to stay motivated and healthy through the tough winter season.
Don't go to bed hungry. Nothing's worse than starting a day of school/rehearse/homework/perform/homework/repeat with a calorie deficit. And when you're working in close quarters with a ton of other dancers, #hanger should be avoided at all costs.
(San Francisco Ballet, photo by Erik Tomasson)
Be a better understudy. Yes, you're dancing 13 performances of "Waltz of the Flowers," and yes, you're tired. But that doesn't mean you can slack off in rehearsals—especially if you're "only" an understudy. Show your professionalism by getting the sleep, fuel and healthcare you need to be your best, even when the spotlight is on someone else.
Address small aches and pains before they become full-blown injuries. Blisters and swelling come with the territory for dancers, but that doesn't mean you can ignore them. Nothing will sideline you quicker than an infected blister or Achilles' tendonitis.
(New York City Ballet, photo by Paul Kolnik)
If you're doing your hair on autopilot at this point, try switching things up with a new 'do. Or, use countless shows and rehearsals as a way to (subtly!) test out new makeup looks, like classy contouring, super-bold eyelashes or a shimmery glow.
Pre- and Post-Show
Reinvest in your warmup. There's having an active pre-show ritual, and then there's slamming down into the splits while scrolling through Instagram. Take 10 minutes before rehearsal for this quick total-body workout to center yourself.
Cooling down is as important as warming up. After class, rehearsal or performance, take a few minutes to stretch. Your body will thank you in the morning by letting you walk (maybe). When you have a little more down time, try these relaxing yoga postures.
Dancers need more than balance at the barre to be successful—they need it in life, too. That's where Jessica Spinner's online program The Whole Dancer comes in, making professional nutrition and wellness counseling available to dancers everywhere. “There's only so much your teachers can impart on you in the studio, and they're mostly focused on technique," Spinner says. “You need to have something outside to support you, as well."
With winter on its way out and glorious spring days in sight, it's natural to want your body to feel as fresh as the weather. A detox can seem like a logical choice—but it's important to understand how they can affect your body. " 'Detox' has become a buzzword," says Peggy Swistak, MS, RDN, CD, of Pacific Northwest Ballet. "They promise to eliminate any 'toxins', but we have organs like the kidneys and liver to do that for us. However, some detoxes won't cause real harm if done in a controlled way over a short span of time."
Timing's everything when it comes to dancing—right down to the timing of your breathing. And when the choreo you're performing calls for one quick, demanding sequence after another, you need to be sure you've caught your breath before you take the stage again. But that's easier said than done! Dance Spirit spoke with Alexis Robbins, a dancer and personal trainer at New York Health & Racquet Club, to find out how you can avoid getting winded.
We all know that pursuing a professional dance career comes with a dose of healthy competition. But sometimes that competition isn't so healthy. Whether it's against others, or against yourself, it can feel too easy for a positive drive to spiral into a negative fixation.
Enter, The Whole Dancer Program. Designed by health coach and former dancer Jess Spinner, the program aims to support dancers in situations where dance friends and artistic staff fall short. Sure, you might have coaches watching your every move in the studio and onstage, but who's there for you when you're über-stressed about healthy eating, or struggling with doubt about casting? Dance friends can be great allies in certain struggles, but sometimes competition can cloud their support.
Shelby Elsbree (photo by Kenneth B. Edwards)
The Whole Dancer offers several tiers of programming, with units focused on healthy eating, stress management, self-care and more. The program is run remotely, with worksheets to fill out and turn in, and group phone calls with Spinner. Boston Ballet dancer Shelby Elsbree will also contribute advice from her career experiences.
The eight-week program runs from January to March and you can sign up here.
(Photo courtesy Wavebreakermedia LTD/Thinkstock)
Excellence > Perfection
The annual post-holiday self-help craze is upon us—cue the gym memberships, health books, relationship advice columns and extra pointe classes. While committing to a New Year’s resolution can be a positive choice for many, it starts being harmful when taken too far. Perfectionism “becomes destructive striving when the goal, or resolution, is unattainable,” says Dr. Sharon A. Chirban, a sports psychologist and consultant to Boston Ballet company members.
Perfectionists come in all shapes and sizes, but certain dancers are more susceptible than others. Perfectionism is most common among what Chirban calls “precision dancers”—dancers involved in styles that require strict adherence to a set of standards, like ballerinas or dance-team dancers. “Forms that prioritize spontaneity and expression are less likely to breed perfectionist dancers,” Chirban says.
Try ringing in the New Year with an excellentist mentality, instead. Whereas a perfectionist seeks absolute perfection, an excellentist strives to be her most excellent self, which is an ever-changing target. (Are double pirouettes tricky for you? Be proud of yourself when you nail ’em, and don’t obsess over triples until doubles are no longer challenging.) An excellentist works toward self-improvement, understanding that the process—including mistakes and setbacks along the way—is more important than any end result. Instead of fearing criticism, an excellentist seeks it out, knowing that the only way to improve is to understand her weaknesses. “Excellentist dancers are usually more successful in the long run,” Chirban says. “They’re less likely to burn out or succumb to self-hate.”
Are you a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.
True or false:
1. You’re very worried about what others think of you.
2. You don’t enjoy the process of reaching your goals.
3. You criticize yourself when assessing your progress.
4. Even after you achieve a goal, you’re still afraid of failing.
5. When it comes down to it, you feel like you’re just not good enough.
If you answered “true” to most of these questions, it’s time to get your perfectionism in check.
Did You Know?
Crying can be good for your health. Beyond the obvious cathartic release of emotions, crying also flushes out built-up chemicals—such as manganese, a mood-altering mineral—leading to reduced stress and improved mood.
It can also boost your friendships. According to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology, tears are an evolutionary response, designed to draw others to you for compassion and support. So while you probably don’t want to become that girl who always cries in class, when the feelings hit, don’t be afraid to have a good sob.
Soreness in the ischial tuberosity, or sitz bone, is (literally) a pain in the butt. In dancers, it’s often caused by a hamstring strain, and it can make it difficult to lift your leg to the front or side.
Try this self-massage trick: Sit on the floor with a tennis ball centered on one of your sitz bones. Use your feet and hands on the floor to balance as you swivel your hips in a circular motion, releasing any knots in the muscles and ligaments that attach to that area (including those oh-so-important adductor and abductor hamstring muscles).
Eat This, Not That: The Common Cold Edition
When you’re dealing with a stuffy nose, sore throat and cough, you probably don’t feel much like eating. But your body needs fuel to fight off that pesky bug. Here are five foods to reach for—and five to avoid—when battling the common cold.
(Photos courtesy Thinkstock)
The Nice List
These foods will soothe your cold symptoms and get you back on your feet:
Chicken soup has a whole lot to offer. An electrolyte-dense fluid, it’ll keep your body hydrated. It also contains the amino acid cysteine, which relieves mucus buildup in your lungs. Most important, it’s easy to digest.
Garlic has antibiotic properties, and it’s been shown to lessen the severity of cold symptoms.
Green tea contains infection-fighting antioxidants, and its warmth can relieve a sore throat and ease congestion.
Honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties and can serve as a cough suppressant.
All-natural fruit popsicles can help you stay hydrated, and the coldness can help numb a sore throat. They’re also a great way to get some extra vitamins when fibrous whole fruits are too tricky to digest.
(Photos courtesy Thinkstock)
The Naughty List
These foods may irritate your cold symptoms or hinder your recovery:
Spicy or acidic foods may temporarily clear your sinuses, but they can also irritate your mucous membranes, leading to increased pain and discomfort in your nasal passages, throat and lungs.
Juice and other beverages with lots of added sugar can cause inflammation and weaken your immune system.
Fatty meats and deep-fried foods are difficult to digest, and your body can’t spare the extra energy. Plus, they can lead to increased inflammation.
Caffeine is a diuretic and a stimulant. What you need is hydration and rest, so steer
clear of soda.
Dairy may thicken the mucus in your throat, adding to your discomfort.
The jury’s still out on whether dairy is a true member of the naughty list. Some doctors say its protein and vitamin D can help boost the immune system.
Can't Sleep? Take a Breather.
After a day jam-packed with school, dance and homework, you probably feel exhausted by bedtime. But that doesn’t always mean sleep comes easily. Insomnia—persistent difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep—can be incredibly frustrating and stressful, especially for busy dancers.
While the age-old trick of counting sheep may be effective for some, others can get to sheep 1,000 and still be wide awake. The key is to quiet your thoughts so you can begin to drift into dreamland. Different tricks work for different people, but for many, breathing patterns are important. Next time you find yourself burning the midnight oil, try this simple breathing exercise:
• Exhale completely through your mouth.
• Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts.
• Hold your breath at the top for seven counts.
• Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
• Repeat the entire sequence three times.
Why Focus on breath?
When you’re stressed or anxious, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down. Plus, focusing on counting the length of your breaths can distract you from whatever’s on your mind.
Gluten is a buzzword in the dance world—and the world at large. Lots of dancers are going gluten-free, hoping it will help them stay fit and gain energy. But not all gluten-free diets are the same, and some processed gluten-free products aren’t any healthier for you than their normal counterparts. DS chatted with two nutritionists to get the scoop on this growing trend.
(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein naturally found in different grains, like wheat, barley and rye. Although it’s been getting a bad rap lately, gluten does have some good qualities. “It helps bread rise and stay moist, fresh and chewy,” says Joy Bauer, nutrition consultant for New York City Ballet. Gluten is also rich in protein—about 23 grams of protein per quarter cup. “That’s more than a palm-size piece of meat, fish or poultry,” Bauer says.
But in recent years, there’s been a rise in the number of people diagnosed with celiac disease, an immune reaction to eating gluten. “Gluten is not the same as it was 5 or 10 years ago,” says Colleen McCarthy, a registered dietitian and owner of OnPointeNutrition.com. “Now there’s more gluten in processed food than ever before.” Modern agricultural practices blend varieties of wheat to create a hybrid that grows faster, produces a higher yield and bakes fluffier bread—but hybrid grains also have a higher gluten content. “We’re seeing a rise in health problems because our digestive systems can’t handle that much,” says McCarthy.
Why Dancers (Without Celiac Disease) Are Going Gluten-Free
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with celiac disease, there might still be advantages to cutting gluten from your diet. Boston Ballet corps member Caralin Curcio, who has been gluten-free for four years, says she’s experienced a lot less inflammation since making the change. “During Nutcracker, I remember noticing that my feet still fit in my pointe shoes after the third show of the day!” she says.
Alice Klock, a dancer with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, went gluten-free six years ago (when her sister was diagnosed with celiac disease) and felt a difference immediately. “Before, I was always starving on busy dance days, no matter how much I ate,” she says. “When I cut out gluten and started eating more gluten-free grains—like quinoa, spelt and chia—I noticed I could dance longer.”
If you eliminate grains from your diet entirely, you may risk developing deficiencies in vitamin B-12, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6 and iron. Found in whole grains, B vitamins help your body convert food into fuel. “They’re a must for dancers,” McCarthy says. “If you’re not eating enough whole grains, you’re going to feel more tired. Gluten-free dancers should add in other whole grains, like faro and quinoa, and carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes, beans, peas and lentils, to make sure they’re getting enough B vitamins.
Some people who go gluten-free also eat too many processed foods, simply because they’re labeled gluten-free. “You can end up consuming more sugar,” McCarthy says, “because the manufacturers have to replace the gluten with something else to make the food taste good.” She recommends flipping over boxes and bags to see what’s in them. “If there are more than five ingredients, put it back,” she says. Klock avoids packaged foods by bringing a rice cooker with her on tour so she can cook up batches of quinoa in her hotel room.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's Jessika Anspach in George Balanchine's Divertimento (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
Living with Celiac
Pacific Northwest Ballet corps member Jessika Anspach remembers being bloated and constipated after she ate anything with gluten. “I had this belly I couldn’t suck in!” she recalls. She felt tired, achy and puffy—almost like she had the flu. Then last year, Anspach got sick with a low-grade fever and missed two weeks of rehearsals. Her doctor ran some blood work and discovered that she carries two copies of a gene that predisposes her to celiac. “He said I had to be off gluten completely,” she says. “It’s not a disease you want to mess around with.” Left untreated, celiac disease can contribute to certain cancers, osteoporosis or infertility.
Today, Anspach follows a strict gluten-free diet and strives to be in the best condition possible. “I’m eating right for my body so that I don’t develop celiac disease. It’s not a choice for me.”
Jessika’s Favorite Gluten-Free Meals
Breakfast: shake with pumpkin seed protein powder and hemp milk, scrambled eggs, coffee with hemp milk
Lunch: veggies, like bell pepper, celery, cherry tomatoes and carrots, roasted
turkey breast, dried seaweed
Snack: mixed nuts, fruit, like an apple, an orange or a handful of raspberries
Dinner: fish, pork tenderloin, hamburger patty or slow-cooker carnitas, salad or fresh veggies, rice, sweet potato fries or roasted fingerling potatoes
Sweet treat: coconut milk ice cream