Dance Health

Can diet calm stage nerves?

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

Being nervous is a natural part of day-to-day life for a dancer. Maybe there is a big audition, a run of shows or even a new choreographer in the studio. There are healthy ways to deal with nerves and food choices can play an important role. 

Before any big show, you want to feel as prepared as possible.  Sure there can be last minute changes, but there shouldn’t be last minute changes to your diet on a big day. Preparing your food and snacks ahead of time will help you feel confident and strong. Going for too long without eating leads to one feeling jittery, shaky, tired and grumpy. Eat every three hours, making sure you have healthy, easy to digest, carb-based snacks on hand. 

You need to start a show day with a full tank. In nutrition terms, this means stored glycogen. Glycogen is stored in the muscles and liver, and is the form of energy that the muscles can mobilize quickly. When you go from standing in the wings to dancing full-out in a short amount of time, burning muscle glycogen will keep you feeling strong until the end. 

Make sure your glycogen stores are ready to go on a show day by eating a mix of carbs and protein within one hour after exercise the day prior. The night before, eat carbohydrates for dinner such as low-fat pasta, a sandwich or a bean-and-rice burrito.   

On show day, have easy to digest snacks in your bag. Eat an hour before you dance so you have time to digest. Focus on complex carbs with only a little protein and fat. Fruits, veggies and whole grains will give you sustained energy but won’t sit on your stomach and make you feel bloated or heavy. Save a moderate protein meal/ snack for after you dance. Protein and fat take longer to digest and if you are nervous this might lead to an upset stomach. 

Avoid too much refined sugar. Some people are sensitive too sugar and can get jumpy and overly energetic, but for some it may result in feeling more tired or fatigued. High sugar snacks, especially with refined grains, are considered high on the glycemic index. This means that they get digested and absorbed quickly and give a quick rush of energy that lasts for a limited time. This might be okay if eaten minutes before you step onstage for a short variation or if you are at the final intermission of a long show and you need something quickly absorbed. However, something sugary isn’t a good strategy for getting through a longer show or audition. Better choices would be whole grain crackers with peanut butter, an oat bar or low-sugar granola bar, or a whole grain muffin with raisins, flax seeds and walnuts. The flax seeds and walnuts have omega-3s, which have been shown to positively affect brain function, mood and attention. 

Hydrate with water but limit caffeine. Dehydration will negatively affect performance, especially under hot stage lights. The first two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance. You will be more calm and confident if you hydrate with water and not with anything containing artificial sweeteners, additives or colors. Good hydration starts long before show day. Plan to drink 2500ml-2800ml (10-12 cups) each of the 3-4 days before and on show day. One protocol is to drink 150-300 ml (5-10 oz) every 20-30 minutes. When nervous, don’t water load with large quantities at one time, but rather sip at regular intervals. 

Caffeine is known to help with alertness and can positively influence performance. One small coffee might be fine, but the amount in an energy drink can backfire by making you jittery and even more nervous. Avoid alcohol because it is known to negatively affect athletic performance for days after a drink. 

Dancers perform their best when calm, confident, and well fueled.  These few tips can help:  

1. Eat a healthy dinner with complex carbs the night before.

2. Plan ahead and bring carb-based meals and snacks with you; and eat every three hours.

3. Avoid refined sugar, artificial sweeteners, colors and additives.

4. Stay hydrated and limit caffeine.

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

Photo (top): © Andriy Bezuglov |

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