Energy Bars: The Good, The Bad, and And The Ugly

When energy bars hit the market 15 years ago, they quickly became a go-to snack for dancers. But soon they gained a bad reputation—with up to 300 calories per bar and high-fructose corn syrup as a main ingredient, many brands were basically candy bars in disguise.


Recently, however, manufacturers have started producing healthier bars made with whole foods like soy, nuts and dried fruit. Now dancers have several nutritious options that they can easily stash in their bags.


Yet finding the right bar can be as tricky as finding the right pointe shoes: You need to try a few before you hit the best fit. With so many brands and flavors available, the choices can feel overwhelming. Heidi Skolnik, sports nutritionist at the School of American Ballet, tells dancers to first decide why they are eating a bar. “Is it a pre-class pick-me-up, post-class recovery snack to bridge you to the next meal or a meal replacement?” she says. Depending on when you eat the bar, there are a few different areas of the nutritional label to which you need to pay close attention.


What To Look For


For a pre-class snack, choose a bar made up of at least 65 percent carbohydrates and no more than 20 percent fat. This high-carb, low-fat combo gradually releases energy, allowing you to perform your best over a longer period of time. These bars are most effective if eaten 20 minutes before class, or in single bites every 15 minutes throughout.


An energy bar with a low glycemic index (which ranks foods on how they affect blood-sugar levels) is also a smart choice before class or rehearsal. You want the GI to be under 55; if the label does not list it, look for a bar with fewer than 18 grams of sugar. Low GI foods take a while to digest, so you stay full for longer. They also keep your blood sugar stable—unlike the highs and lows that sugary foods can create.


When you’re using an energy bar as a recovery snack, buy one that’s dense in both carbohydrates and protein (about 20 grams each). Carbohydrates replenish your energy stores and protein helps your muscles recover while also providing satiety.


In general, reach for bars that contain  unprocessed ingredients such as fruits and nuts. These offer more fiber and they retain their original vitamins and minerals.


What To Avoid


Steer clear of added sugars and processed items (foods that have been chemically altered through additives, like flavor fillers and preservatives). Avoid chemical-sounding ingredients that end in “-ol”—these are usually sugar alcohols that can cause bloating and gas.


Although the tastiness of chocolate-coated bars is hard to resist, these varieties tend to be loaded with saturated fat and calories. Before indulging, make sure the bar contains no more than 3 grams of saturated fat. If you’re using the bar as a pre- or post-class snack, it should have no more than 250 calories.


“You don’t want to rely on bars for most meals and snacks,” Skolnik says, no matter how nutritious they are. Two a day is the most any dancer should eat. Bananas, yogurt, string cheese, nuts and raisins are all healthful alternatives that offer the same portable convenience. Even though they may not have the crunch or sweetness of energy bars, these snacks are packed with vitamins and minerals that will fill you up and give you that same boost of energy.



Natalie Caamano is a certified sports nutritionist in New York City.



Top Choices

1.  Clif Bar: Depending on flavor, these range between 230 and 260 calories. They contain 23 vitamins and minerals and are 70 percent organic. They are made of soy protein and are wheat-free. When to eat: Anytime!

2.  PowerBar Harvest: These bars are the best for a high-carbohydrate (at least 42 grams) and high fiber (at least 5 grams) snack. They contain grains and 23 vitamins and minerals. Each flavor offers at least 10 grams of protein and has between 240 and 250 calories. When to eat: Before class or rehearsal.

3.  Luna Bars: High in calcium, folic acid and vitamin D, they are between 170 and 190 calories. Luna Bars contain at least 3 grams of fiber and 8 to 9 grams of protein. When to eat: After class or in between rehearsals.


Worst Choices

1.  Quaker bars: Cereal and energy bars by Quaker have lots of sugar and high fructose corn syrup. They also lack nutritional content.

2.  Nature Valley bars: These bars are loaded with calories, sugar and fat that let them create their wide variety of flavors.

3.  PowerBar (original): Studies have shown them to cause unstable blood-sugar levels—an initial boost and quick crash, similar to that of a candy bar.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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