Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dancers and Weight: A Delicate Balance

Weight is a topic many dancers tend to dwell on. I first became conscious of my weight when I was studying ballet at Butler University in the early enrollment program for high school students. Once a month we were weighed, and a few dancers were counseled based on the numbers the scaled returned (either too high or too low). Fortunately at that time my weight was right where it was expected to be, and I didn’t have to think about it much.

As a teacher I was never in a position to demand any student to focus their attention on their weight. For the most part, I taught kids who were still growing and really shouldn’t be worrying about it. Now that I have my own children, I think it’s important for them to concentrate on eating right and getting exercise however they enjoy getting it, but I would be concerned to learn that either of my daughters, at ages 12 and 14, thought they needed to go on a diet.

When I was a young dancer I had heard about people being anorexic or bulimic, and I was aware of the heightened sensitivity in the room whenever a teacher made mention of someone’s weight. I knew of one girl who was taken to the hospital to have her stomach pumped, and another who was addicted to exercise and couldn’t gain weight no matter how hard she tried or how much she ate. For myself, I was always grateful that these were not issues I had to worry about. During my undergraduate years I was a healthy weight for a dancer, always around 100 pounds at 5’2”. But when I was doing graduate work I lost weight as I went through a period of severe depression. I was working all day at the university and most evenings with a local company, teaching classes and dancing at least eight hours a day, if not more.

At that time, I went to the campus health center for a sinus infection and was very abruptly introduced to fear, handed on a platter full of desserts and whole milk (just kidding) from the doctor who threatened to put me in the hospital because I was under weight. I ate regularly, although the depression had made me less hungry, but I felt that if I had the energy I needed to get through the rigorous schedule I was maintaining then I was fine and the doctor had no right to intrude. They were very serious, however, and thus began a new experience for me: eating as much dessert and drinking as much whole milk as possible. Really. It was very interesting, and since I have a sweet tooth it was easy to manage, but I think the best help I got was by visiting a psychiatrist and being put on anti-depressants. My appetite returned to normal and my weight did, too. And here is some good information on kicking the sweet tooth habit.

I had a friend I danced with at the Lexington Ballet who struggled with her weight constantly. After she quit dancing (and stopped worrying about being overweight), she lost weight! So there’s something to be said about obsessing too much over it. Stress can definitely swing the scales upward. When you’re under stress, a hormone called cortisol is released. This prepares us for the fight or flight response. Read more here to find out about that.

For dancers today, I would recommend making healthy decisions if you feel you have a weight problem. Eat many fruits and vegetables and cut back on fast food or foods with lots of preservatives. Drink plenty of water. Sometimes when we feel hungry, we may actually just be thirsty. It’s difficult for us to recognize the difference between hunger and thirst. And a good rule of thumb in all things is moderation. Taking anything to an extreme is usually not a healthy choice. Click here for some healthy tips on diet.

Do any other dancers or teachers have any insights to add? Please leave a comment below.


  1. Dieting, weight control, and food obsessions are topics that as a professional culinarian I'm highly involved in (and have strong opinions of). I have sometimes provided home chef services for a few athletes. They were horrified when I told them they needed at least a 2200 calorie diet a day to maintain their energy levels to stay at peak performance. One athlete I counseled, a runner, was consuming something like 1500 calories a day and couldn't understand why she was so tired all the time and barely keeping up with her time trials. Turns out, her coach had told her that she needed to loose weight, something that was plainly unnecessary for her. I outlined a meal plain for her that included 6 meals a day of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with no processed foods, excess sugars, or starchy foods. Within in a week, she got her energy back and was performing better on the track than she had in the previous six months. Food, and the type of foods you consume, is so important for athletes. If you don't eat enough, you can't perform well, end of story! As a dancer, your body is under constant assault and strain, and food becomes even more important, but it has to be the right food. Every dancer's and athlete's body is different. Some thrive on lean protein and others on carbs. Genetic variations make figuring out the right eating plan a tricky undertaking, but with some professional advice and patience, it can be done.

  2. Thanks, Roxanne! Great comments. I was very surprised when the doctors told me to eat dessert back when they wanted me to gain weight. Your ideas make MUCH more sense.

  3. Thanks Tammy! Nutritional Science is an ever evolving life form :). With what is known now about food, no dietician worth his/her salt would ever prescribe a dessert everyday for someone who is underweight. Often, what's needed is more lean protein, and if that isn't enough, more complex carbs. I never recommend adding more sugar, that does more harm than good. For the record, doctors and nurses don't really know enough about nutrition to really provide good nutritional counseling. They attend one or 2 classes on nutritional science in med school and most of them don't take the time to keep up on the changes in the field and new research. A good registered dietician should be the right hand of an athlete and a good personal cook to teach you how implement the guidelines should be the left hand. =)