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The Injury Diet: Speed Up Healing With These This Balanced Approach

While training at The Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia, Emily Docherty was plagued by recurring stress fractures in her feet. “I tried everything—icing religiously, physical therapy, cross-training, special shoes," she recalls. She didn't fully heal until she took a look at what she was eating.




"The value of good nutrition when recovering from an injury should not be underestimated," says Emily C. Harrison, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at Atlanta Ballet 's Centre for Dance Nutrition. Harrison helped Docherty develop a nutritional strategy for complete recovery. "I really started to see a difference within a few weeks," Docherty says. Now 21, she is thriving as an apprentice with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

All dancers want to heal quickly when they're injured. Every day on the sidelines is a day that could have been spent working on technique, auditioning or performing. Like Docherty, you can use what you eat to help your body recover faster. These three key nutrients in particular can help to get you back on your toes.

Protein

Protein is essential to building and healing muscle. But it's also a powerhouse for repairing bones, improving muscle contraction, maintaining fluid balance and restoring collagen, which is part of connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments.

The trick to maximizing protein's impact is eating it strategically—not eating more. "Many of the dancers I work with are already getting more than enough protein," Harrison says. "Too much protein actually backfires by forcing the body to release calcium from the bones as a way to keep equilibrium." Going overboard could actually slow your recovery from a fracture.

Instead, Harrison tells injured dancers to eat small amounts of high-quality protein with each meal and snack. "When you distribute protein evenly throughout the day, the body can really use it for rebuilding tissue." Along with yogurt, cheese and lean meats, Harrison recommends plant sources like beans and rice, quinoa, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin D

"We are adamant about dancers getting enough calcium and vitamin D," says Dr. Jordan Metzl, a leading sports-medicine physician at Manhattan's Hospital for Special Surgery and author of The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies. Stress fractures like Docherty's are among the injuries he sees most often, and along with calcium, vitamin D is crucial to repairing them. Vitamin D allows your bones to absorb calcium and use it to repair stresses, hairline fractures and breaks. As a bonus, vitamin D also strengthens the immune system and helps reduce inflammation throughout the body, so it's a triple whammy for healing.

However, according to a 2011 study of young male ballet dancers led by researchers at Pennsylvania State University and Australia's Deakin University, dancers are at a higher-than-average risk of vitamin D deficiency because they spend so much time indoors. Just 15 minutes a day of sun exposure, even when it's overcast, can help increase your levels for better healing, says Harrison. Yogurt and fortified milk are good food sources of vitamin D. Read the labels to make sure the brands you like include it. You can also get vitamin D from tuna and salmon, and the yolks of eggs.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a master healer, aiding everything from the rebuilding of ankle ligaments after a sprain to the repairing of skin wounds, like blisters. In his book, Metzl says vitamin C is also a key element in creating collagen.

Before you power up with vitamin C pills or packets of powdered drink mix, beware: Vitamin C is acidic, and your body will use calcium to neutralize the large amounts found in supplements. "If a dancer is megadosing on vitamin C," Harrison warns, "she's actually weakening her bones. Nobody needs 1,000 milligrams." The actual daily requirement is just 45–100 milligrams—the amount in an orange or two. Again, the savvy strategy is to eat small servings throughout the day: half a grapefruit at breakfast, a kiwifruit with lunch and a chopped bell pepper in your dinner salad.

What to Avoid

Healing is about not only what you eat, but also what you don't eat. Junk foods fill you up without contributing any useful nutrients, and they can undermine your recovery. "The worst are sodas with caffeine," Harrison says. "They reduce bone-mineral density and increase fluid loss." Ditch the empty calories. Other problem foods: candy, fried foods, packaged cookies and crackers.

"My general advice is to shop on the edges of the supermarket," says Metzl. Stick to the produce, dairy and meat aisles on the perimeter and avoid the pre-packaged goods that fill the center of the store. His word to the wise: "If anything has an expiration date of 2036, or if it's not a color found in nature, you probably shouldn't eat it." That's a smart game plan for healing—and for maintaining a healthy diet after you've recovered.

The Healing Foods Grocery List 

Protein, vitamin D and vitamin C are just the beginning—every nutrient plays a role in recovering from injuries. Fill your shopping cart with these staples.


  • Calcium: milk, yogurt, low-fat cheese, almonds, collard greens, arugula
  • Magnesium: wheat bran, almonds, spinach, pumpkin, ground flaxseeds
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: walnuts, ground flaxseeds, beans, wild salmon
  • Protein: skim milk, eggs, tofu, beans, lean meats
  • Vitamin A: sweet potato, carrots, blue/orange/purple fruits and vegetables
  • Vitamin C: broccoli, citrus fruits, berries, winter squash
  • Vitamin D: fortified milk and yogurt, tuna, salmon, mushrooms, egg yolk
  • Vitamin E: whole grains, fortified cereals, leafy greens, nuts
  • Vitamin K: leafy greens like kale and chard, asparagus, cabbage

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From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

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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