When American Ballet Theatre staff told Misty Copeland that she needed to lose weight—or rather, that she needed “lengthening"—during her second year in the corps, she felt lost. As she recounts in her autobiography Life In Motion, she was flung into deep distress, unhealthy eating habits and constant scrutiny of her muscular body. She knew that her younger dancer body had slipped away with puberty, but she didn't know how to slim out in a healthy way.
Unfortunately, this dilemma is all too common for professional dancers. Maintaining a lean body is almost always part of a dance job—sometimes even stipulated in your contract. But when your director tells you to slim down further, you may be forced to take a hard look at whether you already are at your healthiest weight or if losing a couple of pounds is in your best interest.
First, figure out what healthy weight loss would look like on your body—or if it's even necessary. “Dancers need to understand that it's not just about the numbers on the scale," says Shannon Sterne, a registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant professor of dance at Case Western Reserve University. “Two dancers may weigh the same, but have different shapes based on their body composition—the ratio of fat to muscle mass. Get a realistic assessment of what is changeable and what is not."
Consider recruiting a dietitian familiar with dancer bodies, as well as getting an assessment from a doctor and an athletic trainer. Use their impartial advice to develop a strategy to adjust your body shape, then schedule a follow-up conversation with your director about your plan. “More often than not, artistic directors know what they want, but are also willing to work with a medical team to help the dancer achieve it healthfully," says Alison Deleget, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of New York University Langone Medical Center. “With a team approach, a dancer will feel educated and empowered in their choices, and directors should listen."
Deleget says it's reasonable to lose about a half-pound to a pound per week at most. But wait to implement your plan until you're not in heavy rehearsal or performance season. “There's no quick fix," she says. “There's always an underlying reason why there's weight gain or decreased muscle tone, so you have to be willing to invest in long-term adjustments. It's the same approach we take with injury: If you don't figure out what you're doing that's making that tendon hurt, you're never going to get anywhere with the treatment." Ultimately, you'll want to develop a regimen that is adjustable within the ebbs and flows of your schedule, so you can maintain it throughout your career.
Devise a Nutrition Plan
A dietitian will likely ask that you track what you eat so she can point out places for adjustments. She may recommend focusing on limiting your portion sizes. Eating smaller meals throughout the day is often helpful, since dancers who wait too long between meals are more likely to overeat when they're famished after a long day. A dietitian will also help you correct any imbalances. Sometimes, dancers don't realize they're not getting enough protein (which helps them stay satiated and build lean muscle mass), or they're eating too much processed sugar in an attempt to keep their energy up.
Sterne warns that trying to target a specific area of your body like your belly or thighs isn't realistic. “There's no such thing as spot burning," she says. “You see articles on the internet all the time saying, 'Eat this food to lose all your belly fat,' but those don't work."
Strategize Your Cross-Training
Class and rehearsals, which can involve a good amount of standing around, don't always burn fat efficiently, so an athletic trainer may recommend adding cardiovascular training like running, swimming or circuit training. Dancers who are looking to lengthen bulkier muscles should develop a conditioning routine to create a different shape. “Doing lower-weight and higher-repetition exercises is more geared toward toning instead of hypertrophy (which makes a muscle bigger)," Deleget says. Copeland, for example, turned to Pilates to strengthen muscles while keeping them lean.
Identify Lifestyle Challenges
If you have put on weight recently, identify what might have contributed to the change. “Weight gain is usually the symptom of a larger problem," says Deleget. “There's often something troubling happening in a dancer's personal or professional life." It may be as simple as a new living situation that makes cooking more difficult, or it may be a traumatic breakup. You might just need an education in healthy cooking techniques—many younger dancers don't know how to cook for themselves and fall into unhealthy eating patterns inadvertently. Other lifestyle choices, like skimping on sleep and any substance abuse, can play just as big of a role in weight fluctuations as diet or exercise.
Beware the Risks
While losing a couple of pounds may not seem like a huge feat at first, the process can be dangerous. “There's a high risk of eating disorders in dancers, and once they've started, they're really hard to get over," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet. “The biggest warning sign is that you'll start feeling like your weight is the most important thing about you, and it's tied to your self-esteem and self-worth. You may become obsessed with food or the scale, and think negative thoughts, like 'I'm fat' or 'My thighs are too big,' every time you look in the mirror. You may also feel depressed or even suicidal." When you notice any of these red flags, it's time to reassess your plan.
If you start eating too little, your body may go into starvation mode. “When you cut your calorie intake too low, your body will adapt by slowing down your metabolism," Sterne says. “You may not only stop losing weight, but you may also be so tired that you won't be able to get through rehearsals." For female dancers, the first sign that your body is starving is that menstruation stops. You may also experience a loss of concentration, or feel unstable and off-balance while dancing.
Remember: No job, role or director's request is worth destroying your health for. “Even when dancers know that they're in a situation that's bad for their health, they're often scared to stand up to a director for fear of losing roles or even their job," says Kaslow, who recommends taking a hard look at the culture of your company, and perhaps even recruiting a group of dancers to confront your director together if necessary. “Trying to have a conversation is always worth it." If your director refuses the plan recommended by your expert team or asks you to keep losing weight after you're seeing unhealthy side effects, consider taking your talent elsewhere.
Time It Right
Timing is everything. If you try to shed five pounds in the first two weeks of the season, you're unlikely to succeed, and could even suffer negative consequences. “Losing weight is extremely stressful for the body. You're providing it with less fuel, so it breaks down tissue to produce energy," says dietitian nutritionist Shannon Sterne. “During heavy rehearsal or performance periods, insufficient energy can be disastrous."
Unfortunately, the start of the season is often when directors make this request. So start by getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritiously (without making drastic changes) and cutting down on unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking. Show your director that you're taking the note seriously by outlining the exercise and diet plan you intend to put into action as soon as your schedule lightens up. Sterne points out, “It's worth it to both you and your director that you hold on to a couple pounds for a little longer, since the alternative may be that you're shaky onstage, sprain your ankle or forget where you're supposed to go."
Large dance companies may offer on-site experts to help you reach weight-loss goals. But many troupes can't afford them—and neither can their dancers. Here are a few resources to turn to:
The Actors Fund provides medical services, help finding health insurance and some financial assistance to performers. actorsfund.org
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers advice for changing your diet in a healthy way, plus a database of registered dietitian nutritionists. eatright.org
The International Association for Dance Medicine & Science offers a downloadable nutrition fact sheet that breaks down the percentage of their diets that dancers should be getting from carbs, fat and protein, along with the best foods to eat to get them. iadms.org
Weight Watchers offers tips for losing weight at a healthy rate, a supportive community and a built-in method for tracking your nutritional intake, beginning at about $20 per month. weightwatchers.com —RZ
Find Your Own Way
Take the time to find a weight-loss strategy that works best for you. It's more complicated than a calories-in/calories-out calculation. Scientists are realizing that our bodies absorb a different number of calories depending on how our food is prepared—for example, we take in far fewer from raw food than from the same thing cooked, since cooking breaks down cell walls, making more calories available. What's more, the amount absorbed also varies from person to person, partly depending on the microbes in our gut.
According to “Gastropod," a science-based food podcast, we burn those calories differently, too. Even between two people of the same age, gender and weight, the amount we use simply to maintain the body's basic functions can vary by up to 600 calories per day, depending on height, body fat, liver size and the amount of the stress hormone cortisol. Experiment to find what fills you up best while providing the nutrients and energy you need—it might be very different from the dancer standing next to you. —Jennifer Stahl