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By Linda Hamilton, Ph.D.
In a shortsighted quest for a “lean and muscular” ballet aesthetic, I restricted my caloric intake too far. I lost muscle tone, and now my parents are pushing me to eat 60 grams of protein a day. Is loading up on protein enough? Would you also recommend weight training along with my dance classes, rehearsals, and performances?
While I’m glad that you’ve realized the dangers of excessive dieting, the remedy to your problem is taking in more food, not weight training. This means backing off from dancing too. No underweight dancer should be exercising; dancing in a weakened state can set you up for injuries. Knowledgeable directors and teachers are asking dancers who are too thin to sit out until they receive a doctor’s note saying it’s safe to exercise. Meanwhile, please don’t expect disordered eating to disappear without professional help. A registered dietician can help you develop a food plan based on healthy sources of protein, carbohydrates, and fat (hint: 60 grams of protein a day is fine). A doctor can monitor your vital signs, while a psychologist will help you cope with the anxiety associated with weight gain. Check out the Renfrew Center’s referral service for specialists near you (www.renfrew.org). After you’ve regained sufficient weight, you can use weight training to get back in shape and add muscle tone.
Last year, my 9-year-old daughter auditioned for a renowned dance school. She was rejected because “her body wasn’t right for ballet.” What does that mean? Her best friend got in, and I don’t see any major physical differences between them. These teachers act like they’re God. Don’t they care about talent or children’s self-esteem?
Many dancers excel in a variety of techniques without the “perfect body” for ballet. But you are working in the dark until you understand the selection process for ballet dancers. Teachers look for young bodies that can adapt to an artificial art form. This includes having 180 degrees of turnout, extreme flexibility, and feet that can assume a vertical line to stand on pointe. Unfortunately, structural differences can impede these abilities. For example, a talented child who is pigeon-toed can never assume 180 degrees of turnout without placing excessive stress on the hips and knees. Likewise, 85 percent of high leg extensions comes from the architecture of the joints versus a mere 10 percent from stretching. Lastly, the arch of the foot can improve a bit until it stops growing around age 12, but a flat foot rarely has a good point. It’s better to direct your daughter toward areas where she can excel—which may be in dance but not ballet—instead of trying to force her body into potentially dangerous positions. This will also contribute to her self-esteem.
Lately, I’ve been feeling depressed and craving fatty foods like pizza and ice cream. I’m tired all the time and avoid my friends. Nothing is going wrong in my life except I feel confused. I’m a 22-year-old modern dancer with no history of problems like this until now. How do I handle this?
San Diego, CA
Whenever I hear of a dancer with your symptoms, my first thought is, “Does she have a thyroid problem?” Certainly, dancers with disordered eating are often depressed. Yet dancers with an underactive thyroid can experience the same feelings. Get a complete blood count that includes regular thyroid functioning. Also ask for a special test that measures whether the thyroid stimulating hormone from the pituitary gland (TSH) is high because it is overcompensating in an unsuccessful attempt to get your thyroid to do its job. The good news is that medications like Synthroid can correct the problem without side effects, if this is the case. Isn’t it worth a shot before you make your symptoms into a psychological problem?
I saw a promising Russian dancer from a major company on television saying he never takes a day off because he’ll get out of shape. He’s only in his early 20s! Now I feel guilty if I take time off. Is this true?
Staten Island, NY
I hate to say it but I’m frustrated! Anyone who checks out exercise physiology knows that one day off every week will help your body build extra strength and stamina as muscle fibers repair themselves. Un-fortunately, the gap between research and old-fashioned teaching methods in dance remains. We still have dancers who ignore pain and overwork, and believe that perfection is possible. I hope this misconception will diminish as we learn more about the science that goes into the art of dancing. What should you do on your day off? Anything that makes you happy and relaxed, as long as it doesn’t involve exercise. A regenerative activity, such as a massage, whirlpool, or acupuncture is a great way to help your body recover.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, and the author of Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She is co-author of the recently released The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin).