During a busy season, Pennsylvania Ballet apprentice Adrianna de Svastich found her energy flagging mid-performance. She discovered that many of the other dancers drank tea for a quick boost before they went on. Now de Svastich sips a cup as she gets ready. “I love green tea,” she says. “It has a good amount of caffeine and lots of health benefits.”
Tea’s been a dancer favorite for a while. It has zero calories, tons of antioxidants, and enough caffeine to provide a lift without the inevitable crash that comes after too much coffee.
Tea proper comes from the camellia sinensis bush. White, green, oolong, and black teas all are harvested from its leaves. These go through a fermentation process that produces different flavors, colors, and strengths. “Real tea has anti-inflammatory properties,” says Roberta Anding, a nutritionist who works with Houston Ballet dancers. “The caffeine can also help with mental alertness and may aid in coordination.”
The Color of Energy
While green tea has become more familiar here in recent times, it makes up only about 10 percent of tea consumed worldwide. The leaves are lightly steamed before being dried, allowing the tea to retain a higher amount of its original antioxidants, particularly a flavonoid known as epigallocatechin gallate. Some research indicates that this protects against certain cancers, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and liver disease.
Rarest of all the teas, white tea comes from the same leaves as green tea, but the leaves are plucked when they are very young. It is the least processed of the teas and so contains the most flavonoids. White tea boosts the immune system due to its many polyphenols (chemicals found in fruits, vegetables, and other plants that help protect the body), decreases dental plaque, and protects skin cells. It also can help slow viruses and bacterial growth, making it an excellent choice for dancers who need keep their bodies going during flu season. As an added benefit, studies show white tea helps increase and maintain bone density and strength. This protects against arthritis and osteoporosis, problems to which dancers can be especially prone.
Black tea, the most common, accounts for 87 percent of U.S. consumption. It’s the most oxidized tea, meaning its leaves are dried longest. It has a greater amount of caffeine than more delicate varieties like white tea, and helps increase blood flow and maintain sugar levels. Pacific Northwest Ballet nutritionist Peggy Swistak notes that despite many dancers’ beliefs to the contrary, caffeine is not dehydrating. “In fact,” she says, “drinking tea can contribute to a dancer’s fluid balance.”
Remedies in a Cup
Many dancers also drink herbal teas, attracted by their flavors, colors, and claims of healing properties. Though marketed as tea, they don’t contain any leaves from the camellia sinensis. Instead, they are made from crushed herbs, spices, and flowers which get added to boiling water. Folklore attributes many benefits to them. Valerian tea, for instance, is purported to promote sleep, while tea containing St. John’s Wort is supposed to lift spirits.
Still, herbal teas contain some polyphenols, but unlike real tea, they have no caffeine. For dancers who fight nerves, this is a real plus. Infusions with chamomile, lemongrass, and peppermint are said to have a calming effect. Chamo-mile is also believed to have anti-inflammatory and anti-spasmodic properties—a soothing choice after a long day’s rehearsal. “If I have trouble sleeping or want to relax, I drink chamomile with a little bit of honey,” says de Svastich. “My favorite after dinner is lemon verbena, because it is supposed to help with digestion and tastes amazing.”
Whether it’s true tea or an herbal version, Swistak says what’s most important is that the dancer feels it has benefits. “If you think it’s helping, and it doesn’t cause harm, go for it! Drinking tea really has no downside.”
Natalie Caamano is a nutritionist and dance teacher.