Dance Health

Sports Nutrition for the Male Dancer

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD
of The Centre for Dance Nutrition.

It is undeniable that dancers are athletes at the highest level. They have to maintain maximum performance, strength and endurance all while looking great in tights. The aesthetic athlete has to pay close attention to what they eat and drink. Sports nutrition for male dancers is an expansive topic, but here are a just a few key points.  

Timing is Everything

Veteran, Principal Dancer with Atlanta Ballet, John Welker, has had a remarkable career and knows firsthand how critical meals and snacks are to performance and recovery.  “Nutrition and eating enough is everything for me,” says Welker. “It’s harder for me to eat enough than not. I always try to eat consistently and constantly throughout the day.  I also started to eat during performances, which might sound weird, but any two-hour show is a long time without any food for me.” What John has found works for him is actually a well-researched concept in sports nutrition called “Energy Balance.” This is the secret for dancing stronger, improving body composition, building muscle, having more endurance, improving performance and reducing injury risk. It’s all about timing healthy meals and snacks to work for you. 

How to get Energy Balance to work for you

Eating exactly the right amount of fuel for the activity you are about to do is the best way. It is meeting and adjusting your body’s energy (calorie) needs as they change throughout the day depending on how hard you are working. Never go for more than three hours without eating something even if it is small, and some dancers will need to eat every two hours when working hard.

Dancer needs vary dramatically. This is a very generalized example. For a more detailed plan, e-mail

7:00 am breakfast (never skip breakfast)
9:45 am pre-class snack (like a banana) 
11:30 am post-class snack with moderate protein and some carbs
11:45 am-2:45 pm rehearsals: quick, complex carbs during breaks
2:45 lunch mix of protein, carbs, healthy fats and water
3:45-6:45 rehearsals: quick, complex carbs during breaks
6:45 commute home: chocolate soy milk or dairy milk
7:45 Dinner: mix of protein, carbs, healthy fats and more water

Protein Needs and Timing

Adequate protein intake is critical. However, the amount of protein actually needed is often over emphasized in male athletes and getting more that you need can be as bad as getting too little. Protein should be about 12-15 percent of all your calories each day3. Male dancers should calculate their protein needs at around 1.3-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (a bit more if they are still a young growing dancer). So a 170-pound male dancer (77.3 Kg) would need about 100 grams of protein per day. Fad diet Paleo followers often double that at the expense of carbohydrate, which can be a recipe for organ stress and poor athletic performance. Protein is best utilized when eaten in regular meals and snacks throughout the day in increments of 7-20 grams at a time. Protein loading doesn’t actually help. Research indicates that the body might not really use more than 20 grams at a time for building muscle so those extra amino acids end up being expensive extra calories4,5. The amount in a cup of beans and rice, a bowl of oatmeal (porridge) with ¼ cup nuts and flax seeds, 1 cup soy milk, or 3 oz. of chicken is 7-20 grams. Vegetables, beans, grains and soy all have protein and it adds up. Try to eat protein within an hour post-exercise. But up to 24 hours is ok4.


The first two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance. Thirst doesn’t kick in until the body has lost 1-2 liters of fluid1. Dehydration increases body temperature, can affect heart rate, cardiac output and endurance, and impairs ability for nutrients to get to working muscles and for those muscles to eliminate things like lactic acid. An even bigger problem is that in order to move quickly from standing to dancing full out, dancers rely heavily on a storage form of energy called glycogen. The body might burn through muscle glycogen faster when dehydrated thus depleting this important fuel faster than if well hydrated. Use sports beverages only sparingly and when needed, and let water be your main beverage of choice. Avoid high sugar and energy (caffeine bomb) drinks.  

Welker reports that he mostly sticks to water in keeping well hydrated: “Always a glass before going to bed, and always a glass first thing in the morning. Occasionally when I have a very demanding role and rehearsal period, and I need to stay hydrated beyond water to keep from cramping, I’ll make my own Oral Rehydration drink. The recipe is 1 liter water (~4 cups), 6 level teaspoons sugar and 1/2 level teaspoon salt. Mix until dissolved and drink. Also, I have found coconut water and chocolate milk are also very effective.” 

Drink regularly to avoid thirst. Your water bottle should be your constant companion.

Recommendations depend on weight, sweat rate and amount of exercise1,2,3:

Before Exercise: Drink ~400-500 ml (13-16 oz.) of water at least four hours before

During Exercise: Drink 150-350 ml (6-12 oz.) of water every 20 minutes (or at least 20 oz. every hour)

Post-Exercise: Drink at least 720-1000 ml (24-32 oz.) of water

Emily Harrison
Dance nutritionistEmily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at

1. Benardot D. Advanced Sports Nutrition.
2. Coyle EF. “Fluid and Fuel intake during exercise.” Journal of Sports Sciences, 2004, 22:39-55.
3. American College of Sports Medicine, Nutrition and Athletic Performance. Joint Position Statement of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly ADA) and Dietitians of Canada. 2009.
4. Tipton KD. “Protein Nutrition and Exercise: What is the Latest?” SCAN’s Pulse. Spring 2011.
5. Witard OC, Tipton KD.  School of Sports Studies, University of Stirling.

Photo (top):  © Viorel Dudau |

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