Summer intensives can be incredible experiences, but they also bring challenges. As a former dancer and current nutritionist for dancers, I recall a common scenario: Mornings of classes and afternoons of rehearsals increase the demands on your energy, but with little time for breaks, food becomes less of a priority than new combinations and new repertory.
Busy schedules make it easy for students to unintentionally under-eat. If a dancer loses weight in the process and teachers or directors positively affirm this weight loss, it can increase the risk of developing disordered eating habits. These restrictive dieting behaviors, as a dancer attempts to follow strict rules regarding food choices or daily calorie intake, can stem from a drive to be "healthy" or from a desire to control one's weight. Yet obsessive tendencies can turn harmless intentions into unhealthy habits.
Students strive more than ever to achieve high levels of success in these physically demanding programs. According to Terry Hyde, a psychotherapist at Counselling for Dancers, says, "Eating disorders are about control. The intense pressure to be 'perfect' can lead to feelings of frustration and disappointment."
Though the intense and sometimes competitive nature of a summer program can improve a student's technique, Hyde says, "Any underlying mental health issues relating to eating disorders will be exacerbated."
Making decisions around food while managing a hectic schedule is a lot to coordinate. Dancers may attend programs away from home—often for the first time without a parent's guidance at meals. Meeting peers who have disordered eating habits can also spark the development of such behaviors.
Teachers and directors can provide helpful resources to prevent these learning experiences from turning into breeding grounds of eating disorders. And students can take proactive steps to fuel a healthy experience.
Fuel Your Movement
Focus on a balanced diet that includes enough to sustain both your energy levels and your metabolism. You may need an extra snack to stay fueled throughout long mornings and long afternoons. Create a homemade trail mix using nuts, seeds, pretzels and dried fruit. This is a quick, nutritious option that is easily accessible during short breaks. It also keeps for safe storage in your dance bag!
Utilize Appropriate Resources
Turn to health professionals for information. Registered dietitian nutritionists are licensed practitioners that offer evidence-based advice to educate you about a balanced meal plan. Mental health professionals such as psychotherapists and psychologists help dancers manage the mental weight of an intense environment.
Reach out beforehand if you're nervous. Online resources and training courses make this help attainable and convenient for your schedule. Also, inquire about the services offered at your intensive. If you're feeling overwhelmed, ask teachers to connect you with a professional.
Make Friends, Not Competitors
Create a positive experience with your peers. Look around and remember that you're all at the intensive for the same reasons: to learn and achieve. This is an opportunity to progress in both your technique and in your art as a whole. Sharing this experience with those who embrace your passion will allow you to grow as a dancer.
Keep a Watchful Eye
We live in a diet-obsessed society and disordered eating habits are amongst us. When combined with a perfectionist-type mindset, these habits can turn into harmful behaviors. If you identify with restrictive eating habits, or know a friend who may have an eating disorder, consider seeking a professional's help and check out the helpful tips supplied at the National Eating Disorders Association.