"Lose Weight or Lose Your Job!"
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
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
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When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
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"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.