Teachers and directors care about their dancers’ health, but they also understand that dance is an aesthetic art form. Sometimes, having discussions about weight or studio policies about food choices might seem uncomfortable. Here, three former dancers — now a dietitian, an executive director and an artistic director — weigh in on this tricky subject. We can and should take on these discussions because our dancers and our companies will be better for it.
Christina Salerno, executive director of The Salt Creek Ballet in Chicago and former professional dancer with Boston Ballet, Zurich Ballet and The Royal Ballet, says, “Fostering an open environment where topics surrounding food, weight, appearance, excellence, expectations and individuality all have a place at the table is really important for a dance organization in the 21st century. Bringing in experts to lecture on these topics, providing access to information and being generally open to the discussion will allow the demystification of all of these issues and will encourage dancers and parents to view the topics as integral to the overall health and well-being of the dancer.”
Emily Harrison, MS, RD, LD, is a dietitian who works with dancers and dance companies. Certainly, we need to be thoughtful how we approach the topic of food choices, but I personally think it is acceptable to have a policy that junk food is not a welcome choice and neither is engaging in restrictive eating. Both are equally detrimental, and we can play a role in helping dancers learn how to walk that line in a healthy way. It’s not helping dancers when we in leadership are afraid to say that a fast food burger and fries is not quality fuel for dancers. We need to encourage healthy alternatives and provide quick, easy meal and snack ideas. Dancers and their parents are all so busy. Instead of making anyone feel bad or ashamed of their food choices, we can provide clear examples of healthy alternatives and create an environment that makes it easy to choose those alternatives.
Creating the right studio environment
Research on The Blue Zones clearly shows that environment matters. When we live and work in an environment in which the healthy choice is the easy or obvious choice, body weight stabilizes and disease risk goes down. Start simply. Make sure students have access to a filtered water fountain or water bottle filler, and encourage water bottles. Make it clear that sugar-sweetened beverages and sodas are not smart choices for dance. Hydration is key to performance; sugar is not. If there is a vending machine at the studio, it needs to be filled with healthy options or it needs to go. When cheap candy bars and chips are easily accessible, it is asking too much to expect young dancers to make the right choice. We have to create an environment in which healthy options are easy. Giving students regularly scheduled water breaks or snack and lunch breaks is key to fostering a healthy atmosphere in the studio. It could even be as simple as giving them a five- to 10-minute break between classes to snack on a granola bar, sip on a smoothie or munch on some fruit.
New Orleans Ballet Theater (NOBT) and Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education (AB) are two examples of schools that work to keep this healthy balance. AB has a microwave that students and fellowships can access in a break room, and there are also healthy meals and snacks available at its boutique, so kids who come straight from school don’t have to stop at a fast food restaurant on the way. Space is always limited in studios, but providing a refrigerator, microwave and healthy options for purchase are important steps. If space allows, provide lockers for advanced students so they can keep shelf-stable items handy, like trail mix, dried fruit, oatmeal or energy bars. If you are on tour or traveling by bus, plan ahead about what food options are available. Can you stop at a grocery store instead of a pizza place? If someone runs out for food for the dancers, encourage them to bring back salads, sandwiches, wraps or even veggie soups. Leave the cookies, doughnuts and sugary beverages behind.
A dancer’s body
The aesthetic of the dance world is changing, and bodies of all shapes and sizes are much more valued today. We work in an aesthetic art form, however, and it can be important to be strong, toned and lean. We can approach this in a healthy way by using positive language, engaging parents, allowing snack/ water breaks, having healthy food policies, and making sure you have local professionals like dietitians and licensed counselors to help when needed.
Salerno says, “What decidedly doesn’t work is just telling a dancer to lose or gain weight. If a dancer needs to shift his/her diet and/or level and quality of activity, then that dancer needs to be referred to professionals who are qualified to advise on these issues and who have experience dealing with dancers.”
Use resources like the group for Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Dietitians online RD Finder tool (www.scandpg.org) and dancernutrition.com to find resources if you’re not sure where to find the right professional.
“The thing is, it’s really more about tone, muscularity, proportion and physicality,” Salerno adds. “Just focusing upon weight is the wrong calculus to take. Instead, honest assessments of where a dancer is physically and where he/she may need to get to in order to be taken seriously by the wider dance community is really important.”
Marjorie Hardwick Schramel, co-director of NOBT, says, “We try to avoid the ‘you are too heavy to dance’ talk until kids or their parents approach us about their child becoming a professional dancer. Only if a dancer needs a talk, and only in the presence of his/her parent or guardian, we discuss the ballet body.”
Schramel says this doesn’t happen often and that it is really important to not only get parents on board but to help foster an understanding with parents that aesthetics matter in this field but so does health. Those are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand. A dancer who is encouraged to choose fruits, vegetables, real whole grains, plant-based proteins and reasonable portion sizes lowers his/her risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Most students will not go on to dance professionally, so in most cases body type or size is far less important than the valuable lessons that dance imparts. By setting a tone that healthy food and hydration are important, however, we can decrease injury and eating disorder risk. It’s okay for teachers and directors to speak up.
“We have a responsibility to bring up concerns of an eating disorder directly with a parent or student/dancer if over the age of 18,” Salerno says. “The well-being of a human being is too precious to be wasted through inaction.”
Leading by example
I remember my teacher having an apple every day during our break when we were putting on our pointe shoes. Teachers and studio directors can say so much and create a positive atmosphere without using any words. Students notice when teachers are eating fruits, veggies and are carrying their own water bottles. When students see teachers carrying in fast food bags, they notice that, too.
Defining “success” in dance can mean many things. It doesn’t have to mean dancing leading roles with a company; it can mean having a good relationship with your body and learning how to fuel it for a lifetime.
Schramel says, “Hopefully, students see the professional dancers we bring in and see how athletic they are and how disciplined in every way. That’s how we learned the craft — our teachers leading by example first!”
Dancernutrition.com is a resource that has a Nutrition for Great Performances Resource Book and DVDs that address these exact issues and make it easy for teachers and directors to make sure their students are getting nutrition information from a quality source.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily 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 email@example.com, www.dancernutrition.com