We’re on tour, the performance is tomorrow, and during the third hour of tech rehearsal I’m wondering if our Bolivian lunch contains anything besides rice, potatoes, and some type of salty meat. With raw vegetables and fruits off limits since half of my fellow dancers in Jennifer Muller/The Works are sick, the standard salad option is out. Hopefully my smuggled trail mix will give me the last minute energy boost I’ll need to dance through a two-hour show.
Dancers of all types struggle with performance-day food choices, even without being on an international tour. But a little extra planning each day can help you fuel up efficiently. Rebecca Dietzel, nutritional consultant for Canada’s National Ballet School, guides the dancers she works with toward smart foods for performances. “You can’t get up, not eat breakfast, and then suddenly at six o’clock realize you need to eat something before the show,” she says. “It’s too late! Activity without fuel actually damages your muscles.” That’s why eating to perform needs to begin the day before the show.
Today is the day to focus on hydration. Sip water throughout rehearsal to prep your body for tomorrow, even if you aren’t thirsty. “Most of us go through our days mildly dehydrated,” says Dietzel. As for energy drinks and electrolyte/vitamin enhanced water, she says they are just a good way to spend more money. Squeezing lemon juice into your water bottle gives you all the electrolytes you need, and food supplies plenty of energy and vitamins.
A Good Start
Performance day, like every day, should start with a hearty breakfast. When Michelle Brugal went on tour with Aida and Lion King, she realized that skimpy morning meals meant not having enough energy to get through eight shows a week. Now that she performs in Broadway’s Lion King, breakfast is especially key on days with two shows. Oatmeal (not instant) with fresh fruit is a favorite, and Dietzel suggests adding sliced almonds and cinnamon or cardamom: “Every spice that you add to food helps the digestive process and prevents bloating.” Nuts provide protein and omega-3’s (good fats) making them “a dancer’s best friend.” Brazil nuts are a great choice since they have high amounts of selenium, which helps decrease muscle damage. Between breakfast and lunch, have a small snack like a piece of fruit and a handful of trail mix to keep your body working on energy production.
For an evening show, lunch is your last chance for a big meal. If you are a meat eater, a lean protein like chicken or tuna over leafy dark greens with a variety of vegetables is a great power meal. Animal proteins are difficult to digest and take time to become usable energy. Beans are more readily accessible protein for your body, so another option is a whole grain flatbread with hummus and vegetables or a lentil salad. Adding spices along with olive oil and lemon juice keeps your system running smoothly. Heavy, dense foods with lots of salt overload your system, causing discomfort and bloating.
After eating two energy boosting meals, continue to drink water and snack the afternoon away until an hour or two before show time. Sounds too good to be true, but Dietzel says these mini-snacks create available energy in the form of glucose stored in the bloodstream. These snacks don’t have to be large, especially if you are busy spacing and rehearsing. A spoonful of almond butter, another bite of fruit, a handful of good quality granola, or even dark chocolate is all it takes to keep glucose levels up. (Dark chocolate, at least 70 percent cocoa, is full of good fats for long burning energy and antioxidants.) My go-to power snack is peanut butter and a banana. The potassium keeps my muscles from cramping and the protein creates lasting energy.
Glucose gets used quickly so the body turns to glycogen for energy, which is stored in the muscles and liver. Guess where this glycogen comes from? All the good carbohydrates you ate for breakfast and lunch. This stored energy source gives muscles the stamina to soar through a two-hour show. And the more you exercise, the more glycogen your body is able to store.
Once applause dies down and makeup comes off, it is tempting to go out and splurge on a big meal. Every once in a while that’s fine, but if late night dinners become habitual, they will take a toll on your body. Dietzel says big eating before bedtime means that while you’re sleeping, your body works more on digesting than repairing any injuries and micro-muscle damage that occurred during the show. Supply your body with healthy, fresh food throughout the day and let it sleep and recharge at night, and you will get one great performance after another in return.
Jen Thompson is a writer based in NYC.