Advice for Dancers

July 31, 2007
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She has been offering advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.
Can switching pointe shoes to the opposite foot each day make them last longer? I don’t have much money for shoes after paying for my living expenses and dance classes. Wearing a pair for an extra week would be a bonus.
—Jessica, Staten Island, NY
There is a way to extend the life of a pointe shoe, but that isn’t it, unless you want to risk injury. Even though toe shoes don’t come in left-right pairs, they quickly conform to the shape of your feet with wear. Dr. Thomas Novella, a NYC podiatrist who works with dancers, believes that alternating shoes puts more pressure on the toes and joints of the forefoot, while making it difficult to control your balance. Also, dancers with mismatched feet can—and often do—fine-tune the size of each shoe with a special order to their shoemaker. Keep your shoes from wearing out too soon by pouring Fabulon (floor shellac) into the toe box and letting it dry overnight.
My sleep-deprived dancer daughter is actually bragging about getting nine hours a night since hearing you lecture at the School of American Ballet about the benefits of sleep. I’ve been trying to persuade her to get more sleep for years. I think hearing from you that it can help prevent injuries in professional dancers made a huge impact. Thank you!
—Happy Dance Mother, Seattle, WA
I love it when dancers develop healthy habits before they get into trouble. Fatigue is the number one cause of dance injuries. Unfortunately, dancers often believe they can push their bodies to the limit without suffering any consequences. Yet lack of sleep actually slows down their reaction time, so their responses mimic those of someone who is legally drunk. These tired souls underestimate their degree of impairment. Dancers who get only six hours of sleep are more likely to suffer a traumatic injury. Your daughter is smart. By getting more sleep, she’s increasing her ability to perform without injury.
How can I improve my self-confidence for auditions? I get so nervous before one that I think my heart will explode. I can’t concentrate and usually mess up the steps. This doesn’t happen when I work with my teacher at home. I feel like I’m sabotaging my chances of becoming a professional dancer.
—Nervous Wreck, Las Vegas, NV
It’s normal to get wired before auditions. The trick is to regulate your anxiety so you can perform at your peak. If you’re too relaxed, your performance looks flat. Likewise, becoming overly anxious can interfere with your coordination and concentration by flooding your body with stress hormones. Effective techniques include relaxation exercises, cognitive coping skills, goal setting, and imagery. For example, rather than a scary situation with high stakes, you could see a chance to take a free class. You could also reduce tension by breathing deeply through your nose and using helpful phrases from your teacher as cues to keep you focused on the steps. And remember, everyone else is nervous at auditions, too.
Could you tell me what happens when you go to see a nutritionist? I’ve made an appointment because I lost eight pounds during a very busy ballet season. I know I need someone to guide me but the meal plan my doctor gave me didn’t work because I didn’t like it.
—Stephanie, Address Withheld
Qualified nutritionists will develop a meal plan that works for your personal needs. You should look for one who understands the dance world’s physical demands, weight issues, and energy requirements. Nutritionists usually take a complete medical history of you and your family. They should also ask for blood work to rule out certain health problems, which might include an overactive thyroid associated with weight loss. The next step is to have you keep a record of what you eat and drink. Some nutritionists mail out a three-day food log in advance of your meeting, along with questions about allergies and food preferences, and if you avoid red meat or are a vegetarian. Lifestyle also plays a role in eating, from your daily schedule to whether you cook. The pressure to be thin makes many dancers unsure about portion size. Your meeting will typically include visual aids that illustrate the appropriate amount to eat. Hydration needs are also addressed. Together, you can then move on to an acceptable food plan, with the option of follow-up visits until you’ve reached your weight goal. Be aware that eating habits are difficult to change, so it’s helpful to share any discomfort that you might have about your new food plan rather than give up. Nothing should be set in stone.