Advice for Dancers

November 27, 2011




I am a woman of color planning to audition for several top all-white ballet companies soon. My body isn’t an issue; the problem is my hair. I’ve tried using flat irons and various drugstore products to tame my Afro. Now my hair is totally fried! I don’t want a miracle. I only want a way to get a decent-sized bun and a smoother look for when I wear my hair down for a role. I need help!

Frizzy Hair

Durham, NC

I’m sorry your efforts have caused so much angst. While it is difficult for dancers of color in ballet, your talent—not the texture of your hair—is the crucial factor for getting into a company. Ideally, it’s best if your situation allows you to accept your natural locks, given the frequency of less-than-flattering results when dancers fight their inherited texture. However, that’s not always an option—some companies have rules requiring dancers to tame their hair. To work with your hair type, it helps to know how it functions. According to evolutionary theorists, Afro-style hair originated near the sweltering equator for a good reason. Springy dark curls with sparse density made them less sensitive to moisture and sweat, helped increase the circulation of cool air to the scalp, and protected the top of the head from intense UV light. (In contrast, those who migrated to Northern Eurasia developed lighter hair, so the weaker sunlight there could more easily penetrate it to provide essential vitamin D.) My research, along with tips from Courtney Lavine, a black corps member with American Ballet Theatre, should offer some guidance. First, be aware that putting wet hair in a bun will cause breakage. So will chemical relaxants. Instead, wash your hair no more than once a week, rinsing with a lightweight conditioner. Add a dime-sized amount of the same conditioner while your hair is damp, using a wide-tooth comb to gently spread it from the roots to the ends. Lightly spray on a heat protectant, then part and clip your hair in four sections before you blow dry. Gently pull the ends of each section with your fingertips while drying to create straighter results. Make two to three passes with a flat iron on one-inch thick sections. To create a larger bun, stuff it with a small hairpiece. Avoid alcohol-based hairsprays, which dry your hair, in favor of hair wax or balm. Finally, deep-condition once a month. Your hair will thank you.

I recently performed in a festival outside of Barcelona. During the shows, which included dancing in heels on cobblestone streets, I may have injured my arch. It’s been bothering me for over a week. I’ve started to have difficulty walking, although I continue to rehearse and take class. After researching my symptoms online, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s posterior tibial tendonitis. My concern is that without proper treatment my arch could collapse, giving me a rigid flat foot because the tendon is no longer doing its job. I will go to a doctor, but it’s hard to find someone working in ballet. Do you know whom I could see here?

Barcelona, Spain

I understand your concern. However, self-diagnosing an injury on the internet is dangerous. For all you know, you may have actually strained your plantar fascia, a ligament-like structure on the bottom of the foot. It’s highly unlikely for an arch to collapse, except occasionally in older people. My advice is to get an accurate diagnosis by contacting the International Association of Dance Medicine & Science for a referral ( If you can’t find a dance orthopedist, try the doctor of the local soccer team. Meanwhile, dancing when it’s difficult to walk could worsen your injury or prevent it from healing.

I am an 18-year-old professional dancer who has had secondary amenorrhea for about three years. I know this is called the female-athlete-triad (although that usually encompasses disordered eating, which I don’t believe I have). I am thin (105–110 pounds and 5′ 4″) but healthy. I feel strong but I know that this problem with my menstrual cycle can lead to loss of bone density, stress fractures, and osteoporosis. Do you have any suggestions?


Grand Rapids, MI

It sounds like you’ve been reading one of my posts on Facebook. You’re absolutely right about the consequences of not menstruating for six or more months. Three years requires medical attention ASAP. There are many reasons why this may have happened. For example, although you say you do not have an eating problem, you still may be consuming fewer calories than your body requires. Many dancers make this mistake by taking in only 1,400 calories a day. An active girl your age can require anywhere from 1,800 to 2,200 calories. In addition, weighing in at 105 pounds puts you at 15 percent below the ideal weight for your height; the anorexic weight criterion established by the American Psychiatric Association is 16 percent below ideal. Other factors that might interrupt the menstrual cycle include birth control pills or hormone shots to prevent pregnancy, severe emotional distress, and certain health issues, like a thyroid problem. Please see your gynecologist, who may recommend that you go to a specialist. A registered dietician would be helpful as well.

Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass), and co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is