Advice for Dancers

March 22, 2009

Is caffeine bad for me? I’ve heard that it’s a diuretic, but dancers I work with also say it can weaken bones. I’m used to having three cups of coffee a day. Do I need to quit?

Coffee Junkie
Saratoga, NY

Caffeine has gotten a bad rap. New research shows that it doesn’t leach calcium from your body. As for the diuretic effects, they don’t kick in unless you drink more than 575 mg—that’s more than six cups a day! But go easy and avoid caffeinated beverages after 4:30 pm so you don’t jeopardize a good night’s sleep (see “Your Body,” Jan., for tips on how to cut back without side effects like headaches). Meanwhile, you can’t go wrong by sipping cool water, which your body absorbs more readily than a warm drink. Besides regulating your body’s temperature, water helps prevent constipation and transports oxygen and nutrients through your system. New York City Ballet dietician Joy Bauer recommends that female dancers drink nine eight-ounce glasses of water daily, and male dancers drink 13 glasses. You’ll need more if you sweat a lot or have a heavy dance schedule. (Tip: If you don’t like water’s lack of flavor, add a squeeze of lemon juice.) Consider using recovery drinks like low-fat milk with its carbs and protein to refuel your body after exercise. A glass of orange juice also will help you avoid cramping with its added potassium.

I know it’s good for dancers to do cross-training. But what should I do? I’ve tried the StairMaster but it only made my back hurt. Is there something better?  

Richmond, VA

You get a gold star for adding aerobics to your routine. Aside from sleep and taking real breaks from dancing from time to time, cross-training is one of the best ways to improve your overall fitness and health as a dancer. It will build up stamina and help to prevent fatigue. But you need to pick a workout that doesn’t stress vulnerable areas of your body. In general, climbing stairs adds stress to the back. The same goes for spinning on an exercise bike. Even when the bike is set to zero resistance it can strain the knees. Jogging can also strain turned-out limbs, and power walking can overwork the hips. When in doubt, use the elliptical machine. This low-impact workout gives all the benefits of aerobic exercise without adding undue stress to the body.


My doctor has diagnosed me with jumper’s knee. He told me to ice it to curb inflammation for 20 minutes after dancing. I’ve done it religiously after every class for weeks but it still hurts. Are there any other ways to deal with it?

Sore Knees
Salt Lake City, UT

Please speak to your doctor. Jumper’s knee is a form of tendonitis with several predisposing factors. One can be overuse from constantly repeating the same steps. Another can be tight quadriceps or thigh muscles. (Test this by standing on one leg and trying to pull your foot to your buttock.) A third can be weakness in muscles that lengthen under tension, like those used when landing in a plié after a jump. Treatment usually calls for cutting back activity, followed by frequent icing to let the knee heal. If you continue to have pain, your doctor may ask you to back off from all jumping and grand pliés and do physical therapy to address the tightness or weakness. Some may recommend a single cortisone shot to cut the inflammatory cycle. (Multiple shots can cause the tendon to rupture.) Your last option is surgery, where the surgeon scrapes the kneecap at the sore spot to promote healing. Hopefully, you won’t get to that point. The best way to avoid a serious problem is to let your doctor know that your pain isn’t diminishing. If things don’t progress, get a second medical opinion.


What’s the dance community doing to eliminate eating problems in dancers? My 8-year-old daughter wants to start ballet, but I am reluctant to enroll her in classes. I’m concerned that dancing all day in a leotard and tights in front of a mirror could create a bad body image, or even anorexia.

Worried Mother
San Antonio, TX

Many youngsters gain greater strength and improved self-esteem by studying dance. Eating disorders are not the rule—they’re the exception. Today’s dance teachers are far more knowledgeable about eating problems. They now understand that dieting is the biggest trigger (especially for young dancers with low self-esteem). They also understand that it’s crucial to make allowances for the normal weight gain associated with growth spurts and maturational development. Given the fact that dance is a small world, you can steer your daughter toward a safe training environment by asking other mothers about how their children’s dance schools handle this area. At the regional level, state government has become proactive about resolving this problem. Recently, I’ve participated in the New York State Labor Department’s Child Performer Advisory Board to prevent eating disorders. This group includes company managers, eating disorder specialists, and union representatives. It is a work in progress, but we hope to come up with guidelines that will be helpful in the learning as well as the performing environment.


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 Press).