If you follow me on Instagram, you know that I just got back from teaching a summer intensive for the Susquehanna Youth Ballet. During the program, we did a nutrition talk which reminded me how prevalent toxic mindsets and calorie counting are in the dance world. So, to counter those dangerous (and quite frankly ineffective) diet schemes bred by distorted body image and a lack of real knowledge of how to nourish your body and your art, let’s dig into some better fueling strategies.
There’s a reason my nutrition philosophy is called Fuel the Fierceness. It’s not just about fat loss. It’s about fueling your body to support your art (aka - be a better dancer!). This requires 3 essential components – AESTHETICS, ATHLETICS, & ARTISTRY.
When we approach diet, dancers don’t have the luxury of purely focusing on fat loss. Our diet must also give us enough power, energy, and vitality to actually dance. On top of that, we need passion to inspire our artistry.
If you get caught up in restricting calories to lose weight, your performance and artistry will surely suffer. Even if you get the “ballerina body” you want, it’s not going to make you a better dancer if you have no fire power to perform and are completely miserable & devoid of artistic inspiration.
Trust me; I made this mistake for many years. I thought being the skinniest in class would make me a good dancer. Not only did my health suffer from my restrictive eating but my ballet performance went drastically downhill. It wasn’t until I discovered how to nourish these 3 components of peak performance that everything changed:
1) Aesthetics - Fat Loss
One of the main results you search for in a diet is fat loss - control over your body aesthetics. Even though the dance world is making improvements on this front, we still hold ourselves to the rail-thin, frail looking aesthetic associated with the Balanchine ballerina. It’s a challenge to make peace with your body feeling the constant pressure to be leaner, even if that pressure is only coming from your own mental demons.
But, as an athlete & artist, it’s not enough to hold yourself to a super strict diet in order to get “skinny.” Yes, it is important to optimize your body aesthetics. But, if you sacrifice your health and power for this single purpose, you will get further from your dance goals. Simply restricting calories is a good way to get yourself in trouble with things like muscle loss, hormone imbalances, and slowed metabolism - none of which will help your dancing.
By eating the right kinds of foods, you can teach your body to burn its own fat for energy – making you leaner while providing a more efficient fuel tank for your physical demands throughout the day. Plus, this kind of fueling strategy will leave you feeling satiated, meaning you won’t have to constantly deal with hunger pangs distracting you from your art. (You know that pesky situation where you’re trying to resist gnawing your hand off from hunger while you're supposed to be retaining choreography???)
2) Athletics - Performance Power
Sure, you need to be able to perform at an elite level, controlling and manipulating your body in ways the "normals" can't begin to wrap their heads around. After all, this is one of the reasons our audience is so drawn to ballet. And there are certain kinds of foods that can optimize this performance power both in terms of providing instant energy (without the crash that comes from a sugar high) as well as recovery nutrients (so your body can recuperate after a long day of rehearsals and be ready to do it all again the next day).
But it's also not enough for us dancers to be super regimented with our nutrition in an effort to max out our athletic performance. A strict sports training approach that dials in the nutrition needs of athletes in order to allow them to perform at the highest levels in their sport sounds like it would be great for dancers. After all, you are an elite athlete. But this approach neglects the fact that you are an artist as well. If you get too regimented in your nutrition (considering most dancers are already too rigid and strict in their training as is), you suck out all the passion and lose your inspiration – the fire that fuels your artistry.
Which leads us to our last component...
3) Artistry - Pleasure
This third component is absolutely necessary to your dance success but often overlooked - pleasure! You are so quick to be restrictive and disciplined with yourself in order to get ahead in your ballet that you end up squeezing the juiciness right out of life. Tell me if this sounds familiar: you employ a delayed gratification mindset where you think that if you suffer enough now, you’ll be repaid for your efforts later. This is a recipe for disaster. Real life doesn’t work that way. Here’s a more accurate description of what happens: the more you suffer now, the more time you’ll waste just waiting to be happy. (It's the kind of thing where you'll look back on your life years later and ask yourself, why was I waiting to LIVE?)
Whether it comes from food, relationships, hobbies, experiences, or friends, you need regular doses of pleasure to fuel your artistry. That's the stuff creativity and inspiration come from. Otherwise, your dancing turns into mechanical movement and tricks (we've all witnessed the technically perfect dancer who leaves you feeling nothing)...instead of real art with the ability to touch and make a difference in the world.
But this doesn’t mean you eat whatever you want whenever a craving strikes. You learn to strategically plan your treats to stay in control of your aesthetics while indulging in special moments to fuel your pleasure receptors.
The key that ties all this together is timing. Knowing which foods to eat and when to eat them allows you to enhance these 3 components of your dancing. It’s nothing magical or overly complicated, but it’s the difference between nourishing your body into its peak performance state versus manipulating it through deprivation & callous force.
This knowledge is necessary not only for effective fueling but for healing your relationship with food & your body image. Your peak performance state requires nourishment not deprivation. Rather than seeing your diet as something restrictive to cut weight, learn how to use food to fuel your aesthetics, athletics, and artistry.
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Photo credit: Steve Vaccariello