Looming immediately after the holidays is the season for dancers when contracts are given out and when audition season reaches a peak. November is the ideal time to prepare your body to look and feel strong, healthy and injury-free. Too many dancers wait until after the holidays and then feel pressured and rushed, leading to unhealthy choices that end up actually harming their body rather than helping it. As a dietitian who specializes in dancers, I always wish that dancers would come to me in November to start their audition prep and not January. There is so much we can do, and here are my top five strategies that I use with my elite level clients.
#1. Fuel your body.
You have to fuel the muscles when they need fuel in order to dance your best and actually maintain that muscle tissue that looks (and feels) so beautiful on well-trained dancers. This is not the time to crash diet or try some trendy fad diet. Real dancers eat, but they make smart choices about the foods they put in their body because literally those foods get broken down, metabolized, and those building blocks become new cells and energy to push you further. The food choices you make become your dancer’s instrument, and they matter. This is the time to take an extra 15 minutes a day (yes, you have time) to meal prep and bring your meals/ snacks with you to the studio or theater.
- Make breakfast at home before you leave. Include one serving of complex carbohydrates (like oats), one serving of fruit (like berries) and one serving of protein (like nuts or a hard-boiled egg).
- Pack snacks with you that are easy to eat on a five-minute break like a banana and about 10 almonds, or sip on a protein-rich smoothie that you made at home and brought with you in a thermos. (I recommend using hemp or pea protein powders.) Bring a slice of whole grain toast with avocado or nut butter to munch on between rehearsals.
- Protein is best utilized when eaten throughout the day. However, it’s good for muscles to get a protein source within 30 minutes to one hour after you finish for the day. Add foods like beans, quinoa, chickpeas, a hard-boiled egg, pumpkin seeds, bean-flour pastas, edamame, tempeh (see recipe below), meat substitutes, grilled chicken or fish to your evening meal. Even a protein-added smoothie would be better than not eating at all for dancers who finish Nutcracker late at night and are too exhausted to make food.
#2. You need water. Even in the cold weather.
Hydrate well in regular intervals throughout the day. Dancers forget that the first two signs of dehydration are fatigue and poor balance. If you are thirsty, then you are already past the point of dehydration. Don’t let yourself get thirsty. Start your morning with a hydrating beverage, and make sure your water bottle is your constant companion in the studio. If you have long days at theater without proper breaks to eat, then a sports beverage with energy and electrolytes could help get you through to your next break when you can eat. An occasional sports beverage is fine when needed, but this is not the time to drink unnecessary calories in the form of sugar (like a 600-calorie Frappuccino, for example). Watch your liquid calories.
#3. Cut out the late night snacking.
Too many dancers don’t eat enough during the day when energy needs are highest and then feel so famished in the evenings that it’s hard to stop eating even when they have a good dinner. Poor energy balance during the day resulting in late night snacking is the number-one biggest problem I see with my clients, and it often leads to muscle weakness and even a few extra pounds. Of course, it is essential that dancers eat a good meal when they get home (don’t skip dinner), but dancers have to be disciplined to not keep going back into the kitchen for snack after snack at night. Strategies to help with this are: eat adequately during the day when dancing, get a good snack/mini-meal around 4pm when energy dips and people tend to get “hangry”, eat a good dinner (fiber-rich bean/vegetable soup is one idea), and don’t keep tempting treats in the house.
#4. Don’t keep sugary junk food in the dressing room or at home.
It’s the holidays, and treats are everywhere. Certainly sweets and treats have a place in all dancers’ normal diets, and they’re fine occasionally, but this time of year tends to be treat overload. We don’t have to have an all-or-nothing mentality around sweets, but we do have to make them an occasional treat, not an everyday thing. Enjoy a piece of pie on Thanksgiving, enjoy cake on your birthday, enjoy an occasional Christmas cookie and don’t feel guilty, but also don’t keep a whole box of cookies at home or a whole pint of ice cream in the freezer during this time of year. It’s about making smart choices.
#5. Take care of your body and mind outside the studio/theater.
The Nutcracker in particular is exhausting, but it’s also a time when dancers don’t get in their regular cross-training of Pilates, swimming, cardio or strength training. Doing class and then two shows can sometimes actually be less physical activity than a regular rehearsal day for dancers, so during breaks at the theater, get together with a friend and do some strength exercises or take a brisk walk in between shows (after you’ve had a snack!). Mentally prepare yourself for audition season and the pressures of the holidays by taking 10 minutes (or more) a day to meditate. If this feels awkward or hard, try one of the guided apps like Headspace or Calm. This is also a good time to close your eyes and visualize what you would like to manifest. Visualize yourself having a great audition or getting that contract you’ve been working toward, and think about what steps you can do to take good care of your body and mind to put yourself in the best position in January. My last recommendation might seem obvious or even trite, but it’s as essential as water….get extra sleep. Put down the phone at night a little bit earlier, and give yourself the gift of rest.
Happy Holidays, everyone! Here is my favorite Thanksgiving recipe, but it works so well any time of the year, and it has the perfect mix of protein and carbs from whole grains and veggies. Tempeh has protein and calcium, and it’s one of the fermented foods that are good for the gut. It’s yummy.
Savory and Healthy Thanksgiving Dressing
Gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, high protein, calcium-rich, pack with herbs and veggies.
1 package regular tempeh, cut up into little cubes
1 tbs olive oil
2 sprigs of rosemary, chopped
2 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
5 leaves of fresh sage, chopped
½ tsp salt
4-5 slices of Udi’s gluten free Millet/ Chia bread (or any bread of your choice) cut into cubes.
2-3 carrots, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
½ cup veggie broth
Bonus points for adding chopped kale, mushrooms, or cubed butternut squash, but those are just optional.
Steam all veggies in a steamer just until slightly soft. In a separate pan, sauté chopped tempeh in olive oil in a pan on medium heat until browned. Add the cubed bread and chopped herbs, and brown with the tempeh. Combine veggies, salt, broth and tempeh, and mix well until combined and at the consistency of a typical Thanksgiving dressing. Serve warm.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org