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By Nancy Wozny
In her pithy story dance Salt, choreographer Jane Weiner spins a funny tale of a bewitched village that falls under an evil spell when all the salt disappears and suddenly the villagers start dropping like flies. Weiner's dance draws a parallel between all the unsuspected things that sustain us like dance, art…. and salt. I found out the hard way when a series of fainting spells sent me to my own version of Dr. House. “Do you ever use the salt shaker?” asked my internist. As someone with low blood pressure, to stay conscious I needed to stop my avoidence of salt. And trade water in for a sports drink whenever I felt dizzy.
Dancers rarely worry about getting enough salt. Trained to avoid bloating and apt to skip high-calorie salt-saturated processed foods, most dancers view salt as an enemy. What few realize is how essential a role salt—and salt intake or loss—plays in basic body functions, like muscle contractions. Dietitian Marie Elena Scioscia, who works with dance students at The Ailey School, notes that some dancers’ extremities get cold easily. While there can be many causes, sometimes low blood pressure can be the culprit, since dancers tend to be very fit, lean and eat healthil. These dancers will be able to tolerate, and may even need, a little more salt in their diet.
When we sweat—and dancers are prone to sweating as an occupational hazard—we loose precious sodium. Sodium gets a bad rap, mainly because the over-consumption of salt has been linked to some 74.5 million people who suffer from high blood pressure. But omitting salt altogether creates equally serious problems. Salt regulates our body’s fluid balance. The body needs salt to maintain blood pressure. Without enough salt, we become dehydrated and easily lose focus. Since dancers lead active lives where they frequently sweat during the day, just how much salt does a dancer need to stay healthy and moving?
Since 600 BC, salt has been used to preserve food, making just about everything taste better. “You never want to totally eliminate sodium,” says Scioscia. “Salt helps the body move nutrients in and out of the blood vessels and regulates your electrolyte balance.” It’s that balance—or the loss of it—that can lay a dancer low. Electrolytes—sodium, potassium, and magnesium ions among others—help cells in your body maintain their voltage and carry electrical messages to the rest of the body. “Electrolytes regulate nerve and muscle function, blood PH, blood pressure, and the rebuilding of damaged tissues,” says Scioscia. “Since body fluids like sweat contain a high concentration of sodium chloride, a sudden fluid loss through sweat can throw a dancer's electrolytes, and so their body, out of balance.”
Some dancers are prone to this kind of problem. BalletMet's Jackson Sarver has often triumphed as the lead in Dracula, David Nixon's physically grueling ballet. A heavy sweater, Sarver finds he needs an extra sodium and potassium boost via an athletic drink like Gatorade to keep himself properly hydrated during the ballet. “There's a joke in the company that if you dance with me you, will end up with more of my sweat than your own,” he quips.
Plain water does not—in fact, cannot—sustain Sarver’s electrolyte balance. He learned the dangers of fluid loss, particularly the muscle fatigue that can come from electrolyte imbalance, as a high school cross country and track and field athlete. Sarver’s coaches and dance teachers explained that water further diluted sodium levels, leading to a compromised performance. Athletic drinks like Gatorade and its rivals blend water, sugar, salt, potassium and other essential elements lost through sweating.
Dancers can avoid processed foods and still get enough sodium and other minerals to modulate their blood pressure. There's sodium in just about everything, including yogurt and broccoli. Even an apple contains 1mg of sodium. Most Americans consume about 6,000 milligrams of salt daily, about twice as much as they need. “If you keep to about 3,000 milligrams daily, you will be doing fantastic,” says Scioscia “Most dancers can replace the salt they lose through sweat with a daily diet of fruits, vegetables and lean protein, all of which contain trace amounts of sodium.”
Although high blood pressure may be a rare finding in dancers, it's important to remember it can be hereditary and unrelated to weight. Get your blood pressure taken at your annual checkup, particularly if you come from a family with high blood pressure history. Dancers, though fit, still need to be concerned with salt over-consumption. “Too much sodium in your daily diet also causes the body to excrete calcium,” says Scioscia. “That affects bone health. I am most concerned about young dancers' bones.” This is one reason that Scioscia does not recommend salt tablets. “
For Sarver, his body chemistry links directly to his dancing. Understanding it, and accommodating to it, has made him a stronger performer. “I'm fascinated by how the body works, it's an incredible machine,” he says. “I can tell a big difference in my body when my electrolyte balance is in order.”
Nancy Wozny writes about the arts and health from Houston.