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By Linda Hamilton
Help! Ever since I left home to start my dance BFA program, I’ve felt non-stop stress. I think I hide it pretty well during the day, but at night I often get an urge to eat a giant bag of M &Ms. I’ve always been a healthy eater and I hate gaining weight—what should I do?
New York, NY
Emotional stress can create cravings for foods that are high in fat and sugar. It’s quite common among college students, who often gain weight during their first year; studying for a BFA doesn’t make you an exception. Besides juggling a heavy load of academics and dance classes, you’re living away from home, perhaps for the first time. It ’s normal to turn to comfort foods like ice cream, candy, and cookies. Sweets can sooth temporarily, but they do nothing to reduce long-term stress. Rather than getting down on yourself, make an appointment with your college counseling center, where you can learn more effective coping strategies. Remember: It takes time to adjust to new responsibilities.
I’m a corps de ballet dancer in a large company who recently has been given a lot of solo roles. I’m thrilled but I’m concerned that I’m getting tired and I’m afraid of getting injured. What can I do to avoid that?
Ambitious but Scared
San Francisco, CA
While it’s exciting to get good parts, you still have to do your corps roles. Fatigue can make your muscles tighter, weaker, and less coordinated. A holistic approach should help you handle the extra workload. Try to get regular massages, mark rehearsals (if you can), and occasionally do your own warm-up in place of company class. It’s crucial to rest at least one day each week and get enough sleep to let your body recover. Also, fueling your body with enough calories and hydration is key. To find healthy choices, check out “Guiding Stars,” the nutritional index put out by the supermarket chain Hannaford Brothers (www.hannaford.com). It awards three stars to products with the most nutrients.
I’m a former dancer, and my 12-year-old daughter is preparing to go on pointe next year. However, my husband is worried this could damage her feet. His fears are not ungrounded, since I suffer from severe bunions, arthritis in my toes, and heel spurs. I believe these are because of my age and being out of shape, not dance. Can you help?
Aliso Vieja, CA
Rest assured, bunions are not caused by going on pointe. In fact, a study done in Sweden found that they were no more common in ballet dancers than the general population. The major toe shoe concerns are corns, calluses, and blisters. Not fun, but also not serious. Medical experts tell me that with few exceptions most dancers can safely begin toe work after three years of training. The key is to have the strength and technique to do the steps on demi-pointe first. Also pointe shoes need to be fitted to each dancer’s foot type. For example, a bunion-prone dancer requires a wide toe box, with a spacer between the first two digits to keep the big toe correctly aligned. This will help prevent further deformity. A donut-shaped foam pad provides additional protection around the bunion. While your daughter’s ballet teacher should be able to judge when she is ready to start toe work, it never hurts to see a medical specialist who works with dancers for a screening. Ask your ballet school for a referral, or check out the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society. A final note: Once your daughter becomes an adult, her toe shoes will need to be resized approximately every three years as her feet continue to spread.
What should I do when I’ve had a huge meal—we were out celebrating—and am feeling bloated and have to perform the next day? Is there a healthy way to crash diet?
There is no “healthy” crash diet. Dr. Brian Wansink has some suggestions in his new book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Books, 2006), on how to control the tendency to overeat on special occasions. For instance, it helps to eat slowly, because it takes 20 minutes for the stomach to register feelings of fullness. So put down your spoon or fork between bites. You also can eat a snack before you go out to dinner so you’re not overly hungry. And try to leave some food on your plate. If you go overboard, it’s best to just get back on track the next day rather than starving yourself, which sets you up to overeat again. Reduce bloating by limiting salt and excessive carbs that make you retain water, and drinking water to flush out the fiber in your system. Meanwhile, be aware that carbonated drinks and chewing gum fill your tummy with air. Dancers who tend to bloat may benefit from eating five small meals throughout the day (rather than 3 squares).
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She has been offering advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.