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By Johanna Kirk
For marathon days at the Juilliard School, third-year dance student Anthony Lomuljo keeps himself going with caffeine. “I drink a coffee when I get up, one before rehearsal, one between classes, and a cup with lunch. Really any break I have, I grab one.” When he doesn’t get his caffeine fix, he’s shaky and headachy; he’s even fainted. Like many young dancers with great aspirations and impossible schedules, Lomuljo relies on coffee to stay on top of his game. But as a result, every day is a rollercoaster ride between exuberance and exhaustion.
While getting his start in the dance biz, Christopher Hutchings, now a dancer with NYC-based choreographer Laura Peterson, was stuck on the same seesaw. “I was up to three large coffees a day,” he recalls. “At that point, it actually made me feel sick and more tired.”
With its twofold effect of focusing the brain and stimulating the body, coffee has natural appeal for dancers. But despite the short-term boost it provides, there’s clearly a tipping point where it starts to do more harm than good. Where is that point? And for those who have gone too far, what does it take to kick the habit? Nutritionists and dancers spill the beans.
Coffee Is Not Nutrition! When consumed in excess, coffee presents certain risks: anxiety, insomnia, headaches, nausea, and, in the bleakest situations, arrhythmias and panic attacks. It also increases blood pressure and pulse rate. But for dancers in particular, coffee is most detrimental when substituted for food. “Dancers need lasting energy, and caffeine has nothing to do with this,” says nutritionist Brenda Schwartz, who worked with dancers from The Ailey School.
Often, coffee drinkers mistake low blood sugar for sleepiness and grab a cup of java instead of a real energy source. “The effects will inevitably wear off,” says Schwartz, “and you’ll most likely be left feeling more tired than you were to begin with.” Coffee tricks the brain into thinking it’s been fueled, because it jumpstarts the sympathetic nervous system (the body’s “fight-or-flight” response). But this can only sustain itself for so long. Then comes the “crash” that coffee-lovers like Lomuljo know so well. According to Schwartz, Ailey students who took her seminars and rethought their diets—eating a solid breakfast and lunch with high-quality protein, whole grains, and veggies—had ample get-up-and-go. Many students ditched caffeine altogether.
Too revved to relevé? Despite the ups and downs that come with every cup, some researchers recommend coffee as a supplement for athletes. “Coffee appears to enhance athletic performance when taken one hour prior to short-term, intense exercise, like cycling or sprinting,” says Peggy Swistak, nutritionist for Pacific Northwest Ballet. But such findings, Swistak notes, don’t translate neatly over to dance. Dancers need more than muscular thrust; they require long-term stamina and nuanced muscle and breath control, not to mention a calm and keen mind to confront unforeseen challenges onstage. By causing muscle cramping and tightness, coffee can interfere with stability and increase the possibility of injury or strain. “Once I took class after having too much coffee and was all over the place, sweating and nervous,” says Peterson dancer Kate Martel. “I felt out of touch with my body. I can only imagine how it would affect me in a performance!”
On the Other Hand... In moderation, drinking coffee has some benefits. For those who just can’t give it up—but who keep their daily indulgence in check—Joy Bauer, nutritionist for New York City Ballet, says coffee is among the healthier sources of caffeine. “While soda and energy drinks have less caffeine, they contain added sugars, artificial sweeteners, and other chemicals. The great thing about coffee is that you have complete control over what you put into your beverage.”
As for rumors about coffee’s dehydrating and calcium-depleting effects, Bauer and Swistak agree there’s not much truth behind them. The volume of water consumed while enjoying your java will more than make up for the small amount lost in urine, and adding milk or drinking a skim latte can have a net-positive effect on calcium levels. Because of the antioxidants in coffee beans, some doctors even recommend a cup a day.
Other Ways to Get a Boost If a cup a day becomes three or four cups and you’re still fighting fatigue, it’s probably time to break the habit. And although that can be painful, there are tricks that make it easier on the body. Schwartz recommends a four-week plan of replacing caffeinated coffee with decaf, a quarter cup at a time, until the drinker is headache-free. Hutchings switched his workout schedule, hitting the gym right before rehearsal, and found himself with more productive energy. And for Martel, the ticket is consuming protein before, during, and after rehearsals while staying hydrated.
Peterson dancer Stephanie Miracle realized that for long days of dancing, coffee isn’t nearly as effective as enough sleep the night before. In its place, she says, “I drink decaf espresso. It isn’t as shocking to my system but still fulfills my expectations of a joyous experience.”
Johanna Kirk is a journalist, performance artist, and choreographer who splits her time between NYC and Boise, ID.