Advice for Dancers

September 30, 2009

I was raised as a vegan with foods that included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and soy products. My health is fine but my friend (who’s a meat eater) says she read that the strongest dancers eat animal protein. Do I need to change my eating habits?

Seattle, WA


The short answer is no. You can be a vegan and a top-notch dancer. However, you will need to work harder than your friend to ensure that your choices are balanced, particularly when it comes to protein. Apart from soy beans, the only “complete” sources of protein that provide all of the essential amino acids come from animals. These proteins are vital for life. They repair torn muscle fibers (a big plus when you’re injured), boost metabolism, and maintain strong bones. Fortunately, you can combine various foods like rice and beans throughout the day to create a complete source. Whole, unprocessed soy products like tofu, soy milk, or tempeh are also good (unlike most soy-based cereals, veggie burgers, and all supplements, which take the food apart and only use “isolated” soy). As always, it’s best to get the fortified kind with extra calcium. Still, these foods are not recommended for anyone at risk for certain health problems (for instance, thyroid disorders). Controversy remains about the impact of soy’s compounds, which mimic the hormone estrogen. My advice is to check with your doctor and pay a visit to a registered dietician.



At what age is it safe for young dancers to do big stretches? Most of my students already try to copy the older girls by working on their splits and extensions. I don’t want to discourage their youthful enthusiasm, but I worry about injuries.

Serious Dance Teacher
Dayton, OH


Thank you for asking! The more everyone knows about dancers’ anatomical development over their lifespan, the safer they’ll be. In terms of flexibility, dance medicine specialists tell me that everyone is pretty much born with their full range of motion, given that 85 percent comes from the structure of your joints. The key is to maintain it for dance. This, however, does not mean you should overstretch. Areas where the muscles attach to bones like the pelvis, hips, and knees (known as the apophyses) are extremely fragile, similar to the growth plates of the epiphyses at the ends of the long bones of the leg. Stretching too long or too hard can lead to injuries. The safest approach is to stretch small areas like the calf during a warm-up and save the bigger stretches for after class—30 seconds, up to three times for each muscle group several times a day. It’s especially important to back off during growth spurts when dancers temporarily become tighter.



I adore dancing but can’t seem to make it work. Either I practice until I’m ready to drop from exhaustion, or I quit. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. Why can’t I fix this? I’m getting good parts to perform and it’s breaking my heart.

Aspiring Ballerina
Toronto, Canada


For better or worse, gifted people are often born with a rage to learn and perfect their work. In your case, this innate drive most likely helped you progress in dance. The downside is that it may also have taken over your life. Everyone, including a gifted dancer, requires friends, hobbies, and time off. Without these resources, you can develop a full-blown case of burnout, which can take three months to recover from after you stop performing. Symptoms include a temporary loss of technique, upper-respiratory infections, and an absence of joy, making you question why you even want to dance. Before you make a precipitous decision, please see a psychologist who can help. Many talented people burn out. The challenge is to find a balance between work and quality of life.



I would like to protect my young daughter’s body image while she undergoes puberty. If she takes after my side of the family, her dancer’s body will soon develop significant breasts and hips. This is nothing to be ashamed of (but can become an issue if you want to be a professional model or dancer) and I want to spare her the pain. She has many interests—dancing is just one of them. How should I handle this delicate situation?

Long Beach, CA


Adolescence is a sensitive time, even under the best of circumstances. Hormones are surging, bodies are changing, and self-esteem is often at an all-time low. Dancers may experience these changes more acutely than others because the way they look is being evaluated on a daily basis in class. My advice is to find a savvy teacher who understands that genes play a major role in body shape and is willing to reward effort versus fitting a physical ideal. A curvaceous body doesn’t eliminate a dance career; many companies welcome this body type. Also, young dancers often slim down after they go through puberty, particularly if they follow a sensible eating and exercise program. 



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).