It's Time to Dispel the Myth of "Ideal" Dancer Weight
As a dietitian specializing in dance nutrition, the most common DM flooding my inbox is "How can I drop pounds (specifically from body fat) and gain muscle?"
The short answer? Not happening.
The more we attempt to control the number on the scale, the more we risk developing physiological, biological and psychological deterrents that can drive us away from the passion we love: dance.
Striving for an unrealistically low weight while trying to increase muscle mass is utterly impossible, given the simple fact that muscle weighs more than fat. When you engage in a strength-training activity (like dancing), your weight is naturally higher.
As a society, we've developed an overwhelming fear of fat. However, whether it's on our body or in our food, fat is a key player in a healthy lifestyle and strong performance. Body fat regulates hormones, which support brain health, skin elasticity, reproduction and bone strength (helping you avoid stress fractures). In our food, fat promotes satisfaction, a commonly missing feeling in our "eat less," diet-ridden culture. When food is used solely for achieving weight goals, dancers are led down a restrictive tunnel without room for the positive experiences associated with a delicious meal.
Despite these realities, dancers still turn to weight as a predictor of achievement. Yes, the scale offers an objective measurable outcome. But this doesn't mean that controlling body weight is a positive solution—or a healthy practice. When control is placed upon our body weight or food choices, we're working against basic biology: The body is wired to survive famine, meaning it will use cravings to fight a self-imposed calorie restriction in order to protect a genetically predetermined weight.
But what exactly is the "right" weight for a dancer? For starters, it's not the weight that requires restrictive meal plans, calorie counting and obsessive exercise routines. A healthy weight is one that can be maintained without dieting. It fuels performance and makes room for all foods.
The reality of this industry is that antiquated slim "ideals" are still the unfortunate standard at many companies. Dancers are often asked to lose weight by their directors, or mentors advise them that dropping a few pounds may help them get a job.
If you're struggling with pressure to lose weight or maintain a low weight, make sure that you're seeking help from qualified sources, like a registered dietitian nutritionist who specializes in working with dancers. Online resources from RDNs are also available to help dancers make more balanced choices. If the pressure continues, realize that shedding those five pounds may not be worth the restrictive lifestyle—and you may need to consider other companies that foster a healthier aesthetic.
As far as the dance world goes, it's time to adjust old standards. Though body shape and size are very much apparent in this visual art form, neither needs to dictate it. Today's demanding choreography requires strength and endurance, both of which are products of a strong body and a healthy mind. An under-fueled artist, on the other hand, is mentally drained, physically fatigued and at risk for injury. Directors and teachers must shift the focus from weight to performance, because the number on the scale has no connection with a dancer's talent or drive.
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In the middle of one of New York City Center's cavernous studios, Misty Copeland takes a measured step backwards. The suggestion of a swan arm ripples before she turns downstage, chest and shoulders unfurling as her legs stretch into an open lunge. She piqués onto pointe, arms echoing the sinuous curve of her back attitude, then walks out of it, pausing to warily look over her shoulder. As the droning of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto's mysterious "Attack/Transition" grows more insistent, her feet start to fly with a rapidity that seems to almost startle her.
And then she stops mid-phrase. Copeland's hands fall to her hips as she apologizes. Choreographer Kyle Abraham slides to the sound system to pause the music, giving Copeland a moment to remind herself of a recent change to the sequence.
"It's different when the sound's on!" he reassures her. "And it's a lot of changes."
The day before was the first time Abraham had seen Copeland dance the solo in its entirety, and the first moment they were in the studio together in a month. This is their last rehearsal, save for tech, before the premiere of Ash exactly one week later, as part of the opening night of City Center's Fall for Dance festival.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
Dancers are understandably obsessed with food. In both an aesthetic and athletic profession, you know you're judged on your body shape, but you need proper fuel to perform your best. Meanwhile, you're inundated with questionable diet advice.
"My 'favorite' was the ABC diet," says registered dietitian nutritionist Kristin Koskinen, who trained in dance seriously but was convinced her body type wouldn't allow her to pursue it professionally. "On the first day you eat only foods starting with the letter A, on the second day only B, and so on."
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.