Lauren Fadeley takes a few bites of a Clif bar before attacking William Forsythe’s fast-paced In the middle, somewhat elevated. On top of Forsythe, she also has Balanchine’s Square Dance and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Requiem for a Rose on her plate. “If I get lax with my nutrition, it’s harder for me to stay on top of my game,” says Fadeley, who just completed her third season in the Pennsylvania Ballet corps. “I just don’t have the stamina to get through the day—and it shows in my dancing.”
Your muscles need energy throughout the day in order to dance—and that energy comes from carbohydrates. They’re one of those seductive food groups that dancers often think they should avoid. But the right carbohydrates can be useful, especially when your dance schedule hits its peak. “Think of carbs as the currency of your muscles,” says Roberta Anding, registered dietitian at Houston Ballet. Carbohydrates break down into glucose, which fuels the body and the brain through a process called glycolysis and the Krebs cycle. “For immediate energy needs, muscles can’t use anything but carbs.”
Although nutrition never boils down to only one food group, neglecting carbohydrates is a huge mistake when the schedule revs up. If your muscles are under-fueled, your technique will suffer. Marika Molnar, a physical therapist who works with New York City Ballet dancers, says she can tell immediately when a dancer isn’t eating right: “They don’t look sharp and their dancing looks lackadaisical.” Dancers who don’t step up their carbohydrate consumption report experiencing “dead legs” and sluggishness. “It’s like having a Lamborghini in your driveway,” says Anding. “You can polish it up all you want, but if you don’t put any gas in it, you are not going anywhere.”
Dancers often think they need to eat more protein when their schedule goes into high gear. While protein is needed to repair and build muscle tissue, the actual ratio of protein to carbohydrates does not need to change from your normal eating patterns. What you should be doing is combining protein with carbs for a long-lasting source of energy. “That gives you the best time-released meal,” says Anding. “Steel-cut oatmeal with scrambled egg whites helps you to feel full all morning.”
Yet not all carbs are created equal. Complex carbohydrates, found in fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, nuts, seeds and grains are the powerhouse carbs that keep you going throughout the day. Simple carbohydrates, such as baked goods, candy, sodas and juice, are not ideal since they cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop.
You can get the highest carbohydrate count from starchy carbs, including bread, cereal, rice, pasta, potatoes, dry beans and some vegetables like carrots, peas and corn. Just be sure they are whole wheat or whole grain. “Starchy carbs are especially useful as part of a post-dance meal, since that’s when your body is most ready for nutrient uptake,” says Cincinnati Ballet registered dietitian Allison Wagner. Non-starchy (or fibrous) carbs such as green beans, asparagus, broccoli and spinach should also be part of your diet, since they are good for weight maintenance and they provide energy.
When time gets crunched, snacks often end up replacing freshly cooked meals. “Go for simple, clean and minimally processed. Think quick and portable,” says Anding. An apple or a banana and almonds, carrots with hummus, or whole wheat bread with peanut butter are all good options.
Energy bars are another smart snack choice. Look for brands like PowerBar Harvest, which has at least 42 grams of carbohydrates. “But try to stay clear of those high in sugar, and saturated and trans fats,” says Wagner. Sports drinks such as Gatorade, although not ideal, can be a last resort for carbohydrates and protein. (Wagner recommends diluting them with water to minimize the sugar content.)
If your body doesn’t get enough carbs, it will be forced to produce its own energy by breaking down muscle tissue. “Chronic under-fueling chews up muscle,” says Anding. In an effort to save itself, your body actually starts shutting down. You may start to feel irritable and unable to stay warm as your metabolism slows. The immune system also becomes compromised, so you will be more susceptible to colds and viruses. “A dancer can’t just suck it up and power through with a show-must-go-on logic,” says Anding. “It’s not a problem you can conquer with sheer willpower.”
Injuries are another danger. “Not consuming enough energy has negative effects on muscles, bones and the level of stress hormones produced by our bodies,” explains Wagner, “which can lead to muscle cramps, stress fractures and breaks.”
Learning and focusing on choreography will also be harder because the brain runs on glucose, which comes from carbs. “Mental concentration goes down,” says Molnar. “Food isn’t just for your physical life, but your brain capacity. It’s hard to learn and stay alert when you are hungry.”
Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston, TX.
Relief For Tight IT Bands
Although dancers are known for their loosey-goosey flexibility, there’s one area of their body that’s almost always tight: the outer thighs. That stiffness you’re feeling is your iliotibial band, which is a band of fascia that runs from the top of your hip bone to just below your knee.
“A tight IT band means you have a muscle imbalance in your lower body. Anytime that happens, you get extra stress on joints, ligaments and muscles—which can put you at a greater risk for injury,” says Amy Humphrey of Body Dynamics, Inc., who works with dancers from The Washington Ballet.
You can loosen up your IT bands with a foam roller. Lie on top of the roller, placing the outside of your thigh on it perpendicularly. Let your body weight sink in, and then roll up and down.
Also try stretching the muscles the IT band is attached to. Kneel on your right leg with your left foot planted on the ground and lean your torso to the left, sticking out your right hip. (Shown at left.) Hold, then switch legs to stretch both sides.
However, to keep tightness from recurring, take a look at the underlying cause: it’s usually because you’re cheating your turnout. Work to improve your turnout naturally by rotating from the hips.
If you want to improve your jumps, forget about height for a minute—go for speed instead. Try this exercise: Stand on the edge of a step (no more than eight inches high) and jump down with both feet, then back up as fast as you can 10 times. Wear sneakers so you don’t slip! The explosive bursts will strengthen your muscles in a whole new way, leading to higher grand jetés.
How Long Should I Ice?
Whether you’ve injured yourself or are just extremely sore, most doctors recommend icing for 10 to 15 minutes. Anything longer than 20 minutes can cause tissue damage and actually increase inflammation. Icing at the end of the day is smartest, but if you can’t wait, always make sure you have at least two hours after icing before dancing—and warm up the area extra carefully.