Your Best Body: The Secret Performance Enhancer

Caffeine is everywhere. There are Red Bull energy drinks, 5-hour Energy shots, Foosh energy mints, Sheets energy strips that dissolve on the tongue, even AeroShot “breathable caffeine” that gets sucked in like an inhaler.

Most of us assume we should feel guilty about our caffeine habit. But the stimulant is actually loaded with benefits. Professional athletes regularly harness caffeine’s power to improve their performance—and dancers can, too. Imagine it: You’re on stage in the same body, with the same talent, but your concentration is sharper, you have more endurance and vivacity, your feet don’t even hurt quite as much. All it takes is a cup of coffee.

But there’s a catch. Not all caffeine is created equal. You have to calibrate its kick if you want it to work to your advantage.

Your Body On Caffeine

The rush of a latte comes from caffeine stimulating your central nervous system. Caffeine works by blocking adenosine, which slows down nerve activity so you rest—it’s the body’s natural chill pill. When adenosine can’t do its job, your muscles and brain stop receiving the usual messages to mellow out, and voilà, you’re ready to tackle 32 fouetté turns.

Depending on how much you drink, caffeine stays in your system for about three to four hours. Heavy caffeine drinkers often fall into a daily morning habit. “When somebody says, ‘Don’t talk to me yet, I haven’t had my coffee,’ they’re going through withdrawal,” explains Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s a pretty safe substance, but it’s addictive.” People who become dependent may feel irritable and drowsy, and could experience headaches or even stomachaches if they don’t get their fix.

Performance Perks
Caffeine’s benefits extend beyond the wake-up call. Because it slightly increases heart and breathing rates, caffeine prepares your body for peak athletic performance. Research has shown that it improves endurance by sparing glycogen, your muscles’ primary fuel source. One study found it reduces the loss of glycogen by as much as 50 percent in the first 15 minutes of exercise, which means your body can go longer before running out of gas.

Caffeine also makes exercise feel easier because it blocks some nerve endings from sending pain signals to the brain. The typical discomfort of holding a développé will diminish, a sore ankle will feel less tender. ?”But that doesn?’t mean you can skip the physical therapist if you?’re injured!?” warns Roberta Anding, a sports dietitian who works with Houston Ballet. Caffeine is no silver bullet to pain relief, but it could be a helpful addition to icing, taking ibuprofen and whatever else you’re doing to work through minor aches or soreness.

In addition, caffeine activates the parts of the brain that control short-term memory, attention and concentration. This means it can help you pick up and remember choreography better. You’ll also feel more alert, better able to focus during a performance.

The Right Stuff

How can you take advantage of all these benefits? Drink one cup of coffee or two cups of tea about 60 to 90 minutes before dancing. (Beware: One cup—8 oz—is a Starbucks “short,” not a “tall.”) Have it with a meal, such as a healthy sandwich and a mixed green salad, for well-rounded fuel—your body needs calories for true physical energy. Plus, if you don’t have any food in your system, coffee’s acid could upset your stomach.

Bypass the souped-up chemical products like Red Bull, and stick to caffeine’s natural plant sources: coffee or tea. “If nutrition science has learned anything, it’s that, just because there’s an active ingredient in something (i.e. caffeine in coffee), when you isolate it and put it in another product, it doesn’t necessarily behave the same way, because it doesn’t have the same supporting cast members around it,” explains Anding.

While tea’s benefits are well-documented—it fights everything from cancer to clogged arteries—coffee also offers a number of health advantages. With about two to four times the caffeine of tea, a cup of joe is loaded with antioxidants and even offers up to one and a half grams of fiber. “There are so many things to worry about and avoid,” says Giancoli. “Coffee shouldn’t be one of them. As long as you don’t have a heart condition or an ulcer, chill out and enjoy it.” Just skip the sugar and reach for skim milk rather than cream.
Contrary to popular belief, coffee and tea don’t dehydrate you. Although there is a mild diuretic effect, regular drinkers adapt to it. More importantly, eight ounces of either beverage provides eight ounces of water. “Studies have shown that because coffee and tea contribute to your fluid intake, there ends up being no decrease in hydration,” says Giancoli. A daily cup of coffee will hardly leech calcium from your bones, either, as long as you maintain your dairy intake. Even adding one to two tablespoons of milk to your cup is enough to offset any negative impact.

This isn’t to say you should start drinking huge amounts. Most nutritionists agree that the upper limit is around 300 milligrams of caffeine a day (about three cups of coffee), depending on your tolerance. Beyond that, you could become shaky, anxious or experience insomnia. Paraphrasing a scientific adage, Anding puts it simply: “The dose determines whether it's medicine or poison.”

Plank Out

One of the quickest ways for dancers to warm up is with a plank: It’s a full-body workout. To make the position even more effective, take a limb off the ground. The fewer points of contact you have with the floor, the more your muscles have to work to support you. Try bringing one hand at a time up to shoulder-height, or picking up one of your feet. You can even give your balance a super challenge by picking up your right hand and left foot at the same time, then switching sides.

Smarter Comfort Food
Ever wonder why you crave ice cream and French fries when you’re stressed? Whenever the body senses anxiety, it releases cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, which stimulates cravings for energy-dense foods. Your cavewoman instincts are making sure you’re properly fueled to fight or flee possible danger. The next time you feel the urge to smother your stress in bacon, try munching on these foods instead:
-Citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruits contain high levels of vitamin C, which can reduce cortisol levels.
-Complex carbs such as whole grain cereal, bread and oatmeal help stabilize blood sugar and prompt the brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that eases stress.

-Nuts or fatty fish such as salmon and tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids that help stabilize hormone levels and prevent mood swings.

Soothe The Burn

A leotard strap digging into sunburned shoulders can ruin an entire day of class and rehearsals. Unfortunately there’s no quick fix to undo the damage. But you can lessen the pain with a few easy steps suggested by the Mayo Clinic:
1. Keep your skin cool and moist. Lather up in aloe or moisturizer, and keep a damp towel nearby to apply to your skin whenever you have a break.
2. Take an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory, such as ibuprofen.
3. Avoid the temptation to pop blisters, and be gentle with peeling skin—you could slow down the healing process.
4. Next weekend, use more sunscreen!

It’s Tasty, Too!
Every so often the health gods smile down on us, and something decadent is actually good for our bodies. Nutritional yeast, the trendy dietitian-approved health food, is filled with B vitamins and is a complete protein. It’s also low in fat and sodium, and free of sugar, dairy and gluten. But you’d never guess its wholesomeness. The powder or flakes have a nutty flavor that tastes just like Parmesan cheese.
What Is It? A deactivated yeast made by culturing yeast with a sugar cane and beet molasses mixture.
Where To Buy It: The supplements aisle of most health food stores.
How To Eat It: Sprinkle some on popcorn, or add it to a stir-fry, roasted vegetables or pasta.

Protect Your Feet
Small wounds like splits on your feet can be prime infection spots for plantar warts. Caused by a virus that thrives in warm, moist environments, these bothersome warts often grow under calluses and are painful to dance on. Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers, advises patients not to use self-treatments such as over-the-counter salicylic acids, which can injure the surrounding skin and cause the wart to spread. Instead, cover the wart with duct tape during the day and apply a foot antiperspirant such as Mintoes before going to bed to buy time until you can see a podiatrist to undergo a more aggressive treatment. The best way to prevent plantar warts is to avoid going barefoot in the studio or theater, and to keep your feet clean and dry after dancing.

Train Like A Pro
Every day, whether she dances or not, Miami City Ballet principal Mary Carmen Catoya does a little Pilates and a little Gyrokinesis. “Not necessarily the whole routine,” she says, “but enough to bring everything back into balance. When a ballet works one muscle or one side too much, the body starts to complain. I need to even it out.” Catoya changes her cross-training regimen depending on what she’s dancing: “It’s different for Giselle than it is for Don Q or for Ballet Imperial. If you have a lot of partnering, you need to work more on your arms; if you’re performing something with a lot of small jumps, you need to strengthen your feet.” How does Catoya determine what parts need extra toning? “The first time after rehearsing a piece, wherever you’re sore tells you exactly where you need to work.”

Boost Your Creativity

Attention, budding dancemakers! There’s a new cure for choreographer’s block. Researchers in the Netherlands recently discovered a simple trick to get the creative juices flowing: Break a habit. It can be as mundane as pouring milk in your breakfast bowl before the cereal. Actively shaking up our typical patterns stretches our cognitive flexibility. The mind sees more possibilities—and we become more inventive artists.

Iron Woman
Feel like you don’t have the energy to make it through class? Fatigue, headaches and poor stamina are all signs of iron deficiency. Iron is essential to dancers. It helps our muscles receive, store and use oxygen. Without adequate amounts, both our physical and mental function is impaired. Yet insufficient iron is the number one nutritional deficiency in the United States.

Make sure you’re getting enough. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences recommends 15 to 18 milligrams a day for women, and 8 to 11 milligrams for men. The richest sources include lean red meat, poultry, salmon, tuna, dried beans and fruits, eggs and whole grains. What’s tricky is that our bodies absorb the iron found in meat more easily than iron from plants. If you’re vegetarian, remember to eat foods rich in vitamin C, which helps to increase iron absorption.

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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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