Eating and Drinking for Energy
What—and when—to eat and drink before performing
Whether you dance through a season’s worth of high-powered performances, or just gear up periodically for a couple of big ones, you have probably tried every possible food combination to help fuel you past your first entrance. You’ve eaten power shakes or steaks, had protein bars or Gatorade, downed a pre-show bag of M&Ms, slugged back an espresso after a can of tuna, all in an effort to keep that larger-than-life performance energy cranking. Well, there’s food news flying through the dance world that will make you energized, not to mention satisfied.
While dancers need to look ethereal, they also must be able to work through long tours and dance-intensive reps. So developing the right combinations, portions, and meal times, and understanding food’s nutritional wallop is a real asset.
Elaine Winslow-Redmond, a former Rockette and athletic trainer for the Radio City Rockettes, encourages the company dancers not to be overly concerned about their weight. “They sometimes do four 90-minute shows per day, and they burn a lot of calories. Throughout the day they should eat small meals, and keep carbs in their plan because they act as fuel.”
Many dance company nutritionists give the same advice, especially if a dancer has a heavy performance schedule on top of rehearsals or a particularly athletic repertoire. In general you should eat six small “meals” a day, be they protein shakes, nuts, or something as substantial as a turkey sandwich. You should have one about two hours before the show and one after the show, as soon as possible. If you’re too nervous to eat right before a performance, have a protein shake, a Gatorade, or half a toasted bagel—they’re chock-full of good fats and proteins for energy. During intermission, some dancers eat protein bars or bananas if they feel faint. (Bananas are potassium-rich so they help prevent cramping.)
Winslow-Redmond makes a point of urging dancers to keep hydrated. “It can prevent injury by helping them resist fatigue. Think of a dehydrated sponge. Your muscles are brittle without water, and when you’re hydrated, they’re more pliable. Dancers with hours of rehearsals and performing should drink up to two liters of water a day and sports drinks to help replace electrolytes.”
It’s all about fluids, agrees Beth Glace. A sports nutritionist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, Glace says the type of exercise dancers do is high-intensity work that is carbo-dependent. On performance days, she recommends they eat smaller, largely liquid meals, followed by liquid. This makes food more digestable, which is crucial, as it has to be readily available. “You want something low in fat (fat slows digestion), high in liquid, and with a lot of carbs,” Glace says. “Chicken noodle soup with extra noodles is great because it’s liquid, yet the carbs help keep your energy up.”
Glace’s ideal performance day menu consists of soup with whole grain bread followed by water or Gatorade. And oatmeal and other hot cereals are high on her list of energy boosters. “Hot cereals are a thick liquid, but they are liquid. Apple sauce is also very liquid. That’s important because food has to empty out of the stomach by performance time.” If it sounds a little dangerous having so much liquid before a show (what’s a dancer to do if nature calls mid-performance?), Winslow-Redmond says, “Know the breaks in the show that will allow you to run to the powder room.”
According to Glace’s plan, dancers should eat the bulk of their calories early in the day, and should eat again in the evening, taking small meals in between. Low-fat smoothies, water, protein, juice, and carbs should be taken six times a day. She also says not to worry about gaining weight if you eat a larger meal before you sleep—you’ll eat less at that meal if you haven’t starved yourself during the day.
Eat, eat (and drink) is the main message doctors and nutritionists are broadcasting to the dance community. Dr. Richard Gibbs, a former dancer and supervising physician of the San Francisco Ballet says, “We’ve definitely moved away from recommending three squares a day. We say, eat when you’re hungry and find foods that leave you satisified. Eat smaller amounts and eat better. What often happens is that the dancer eats nothing all day, and at the end of the day pigs out on the wrong foods.”
While no one is recommending Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar, Gibbs says, “White bread, white rice, and other junk foods break down so quickly that it’s almost like eating plain sugar. You get an insulin rush, and 15 minutes you’re left with less energy and you’re hungry again. If you’re going to eat carbs, eat brown bread and brown rice. They stay in your system for a few hours, and continue to feed you energy.”
Gibbs also says that there are good and bad fats. Olive oil and omega-3 fatty oils (found in fish) are great for dancers because they break down slowly and protect your heart. “Dancers need non-processed foods, some healthy fats, and adequate protein to replace muscle tissue that’s being broken down,” he says. Gibbs believes in eating whole grain toast with peanut butter and honey at breakfast—and he’s adamant about not skipping that first meal. “Don’t make the mistake of having your system work on no fuel. You’ll run the risk of overeating, having no energy, or eating improperly later on.”
Try shaking up your idea of what’s-OK-to-eat-when. “If you feel like having almonds for breakfast, go for it,” says Gibbs. “They’re cardio-protective and provide energy for hours.” He also wants women to drink a glass of skim milk for a dash of calcium. For lunch have small amounts of whole grains, some low fat cheese, or chicken or meat with the fat trimmed off. And eating broccoli, carrots, and other high fiber snacks throughout the day keeps your appetite at bay.
Some dance companies now have workshops to educate dancers towards a more healthy life on and off the stage. “There is life after dance, so it’s important to eat well while you’re dancing—and performing,” says Gibbs. So eat more often, have great performance energy, and maintain your weight. It’s a prescription for a healthier, happier, totally energetic performer.
Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in New York.