Dance and Nutrition Part One: My Story

Dance and Nutrition: what an important topic. Dance is incredibly demanding- dancers train (at least) as hard as athletes, however as artists are required to maintain a certain line. (‘Line’ is how we often describe the shape of the body in dance, both in general and when in specific poses). I recently went to see a dance nutritionist after years of struggling to find balance between dance and food. I’m going to share a post of things I learned in that visit in Part Two. First, I wanted to give some context to why this is so important to me, and to all dancers. Hopefully some people will identify with these experiences!

I’ll start with when I auditioned for my current ballet school, three years ago. I had been dancing for several years, though not seriously, and I knew that my shape was not the slim physique expected for ballet.

Whenever I try to state this fact, people are quick to say that I’m just “big boned”, “muscular” or naturally curvy, in a bid to spare my feelings. I am, however, not big boned at all, in fact I have quite a delicate bone structure. I am fairly muscular but I also have a higher than ideal body fat percentage. I am relatively curvy, but I think I could equally have a very slim body type, if I had always eaten that way.

I am a UK size 10-12, a healthy weight for my height, and relatively slim by non-dance standards. However, dance in general favours a more slender physique as it makes many elements of dance easier (especially partner work, lifts and pointe work) and also gives a more aesthetically pleasing line. This is the most true in classical ballet, which typically demands lower body fat than other dance styles.

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Back to my audition, three years ago: I expected that the topic my weight would come up, and I was just hoping and praying that the school would not reject me based on this. I was in luck, as they had seen potential in me and offered me a place: however, I was asked to slim down. People are always horrified when I tell them this, but I was expecting it and it was done very tactfully. I was told that I was beautiful, and perfectly in proportion for normal standards, but for the sake of training in ballet, I needed to “lengthen”. I didn’t find it at all upsetting. I was just over the moon to have been offered a place, and motivated to change my shape.

I really thought that I would succeed in this first time. I had made various short-lived efforts to change my diet in the past, but this time I had serious motivation: my future career depended on it. I was at ballet school now, and I had to start living like a ballet student. I’ve always been a very healthy eater, but I do have sweet tooth and a tendency to overeat in response to many emotions, which is where I’m certain the excess weight comes from.

I was doing lots of dancing and eating a lot of salad and avoiding anything very processed or high in sugar or saturated fat. I also tried to eat small portions and to not snack. I was finding it really hard, because I was hungry and craved sweet things. It only got harder, because the following month I had to start working almost full-time to pay the rent. I would often slip up, eat something I wasn’t “supposed to”, then feel so horrendously guilty about it I’d eat a lot MORE unhealthy things in response to the guilt (which I know is stupid but the brain doesn’t always work logically! If you’ve been there, you’ll know!).

For the next three years, I had to cram in enough work hours to make enough money to live on, alongside all my classes and normal housework, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. I worked in bars, so that I could dance in the day and still do full-time hours at night. I would get to work already tired from dance, and be ravenous by my lunch break. I was on my feet until one or two in the morning, getting home and eating again in the early hours because I was so hungry. I’d only have a few hours sleep before I had to be up for class. Being so tired gave me constant cravings for sugar, and I’m sure the lack of sleep itself impeded my weight loss efforts. I tried my best to be as active as possible, and I was always on the go and on my feet, but there were times when I went for long periods hardly attending class at all because I had to work overtime to make ends meet, or I was just so tired I couldn’t keep going.

I got more and more desperate to lose weight. I was painfully conscious that I wasn’t making the progress I needed to, and that I was letting down the school that had had faith in me. But my desperation only really made things worse because nothing got the weight off quick enough, therefore I didn’t stick with it. Then I’d end up thinking something was wrong with me, binge eating, then thinking, “what have I done?!” and returning to dieting, only to fail again. Anyone recognise that cycle?!

I tried many approaches, never sure exactly what was right for me, as a dancer. Here’s some of the experiences I had on these diets:

  • I tried the “I Quit Sugar” diet, because I was addicted to sugar and wanted to be free of that dependency. It went well for a while but I found that I really missed fruit, which is a great form of quick energy for dancing, and I wasn’t losing much weight. Indeed, this diet is more about kicking the sugar habit than dieting to lose weight, but I had hoped to lose some. In retrospect, I was probably eating too much fat as a replacement for the sugar I was missing so much.

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  • I tried the Paul McKenna approach, which is about eating what you want but only when you are genuinely hungry, eating mindfully, and stopping when you feel full. I have to say that I think this approach does really work because I ate loads less, although there isn’t a focus on actual nutrition, which I think dancers need to think about more than most people. However, I didn’t have the concentration to do it all the time. My focus really wanders, so this was so difficult for me.
  • I tried the Every Other Day Diet, which involves a partial fast of about 500 calories on one day, and eating anything and as much as you want the next day. I was recommended this by my mum, but wrote it off as an unhealthy fad. Upon reading the book, I saw it was backed up by extensive scientific research so gave it a try. This diet was actually highly effective, as it reduces overall calorie intake but your metabolism does not slow down, and you don’t really feel deprived because you can always eat anything you want the next day. I lost several pounds very quickly, but I could not sustain the fast days when I was dancing AND working. I was ravenous and felt weak, and I was in an awful mood. Maybe this is a diet better suited to non-dancers.
  • Shortly before my dad’s wedding last year, I had bought my bridesmaid’s dress a size smaller. I’d just had a renewed talk about my weight with my school directors and was certain if I bought a dress at my current size, it would be too big by the wedding. I lost a little bit not a whole dress size. In a last-ditch attempt to shed a few more pounds,  I tried just being very strict with eating well and portion control, alongside the Insanity workout programme. I found this far too strenuous in addition to ballet and work. I was aching, exhausted and I was losing a little fat but building a lot of muscle in places I couldn’t really afford to. I did fit in to the dress, but only just!

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  • I tried The Body Coach SSS programme, which was really hard but definitely the most successful. I lost fat and became more toned, however an injury stopped me being able to do the workouts. I tried to keep it going but I was out for so long it just faded away. The programme is designed around the idea that people follow the given HIIT exercises INSTEAD of other training, not as well as, so I was having to limit ballet while I was doing this, which just felt counter-productive. I decided not to come back to it, because it would mean having to restrict the amount of ballet I was doing.
  • Most recently, leading up to the last audition season, I lost weight by eating only very healthy food and eating very little in general. I wasn’t eating any carbs and was eating as little as I could manage to still keep going. I did lose about a stone, but it was hard-won: I’d have one egg with a little bit of spinach for breakfast, just coffee during the day and maybe a chia seed and yoghurt pot for lunch or some fruit, and a small portion of dinner, which was my biggest meal. Either steak or fish with vegetables, or maybe butternut squash noodles with tomato sauce. I found that I’d lose quite a bit of weight quickly, then the weight loss would all but stop. I’d have to restrict even further to start losing weight again. I knew that this was just my metabolism getting slower and slower, and that I was likely losing more water and muscle than fat. I also knew this wasn’t sustainable, and it wasn’t healthy. Please note I am not advocating this approach! It is NOT a healthy way to eat, does not provide adequate fuel for training, and is not the way to lose weight long-term.

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At this point I’d been going like this for three years. I was no longer working so much or so late, but working a day job, and looking to giving up work altogether, so it seemed the right time to make a change.

None of my efforts seemed to fit my requirements. I was so frustrated. It was as I was looking at ballet schools before the last audition season that I thought of seeing a nutritionist: I was comparing student support at different schools, and thought how great it would be to go to a school that had a physiotherapist and a nutritionist on site. I’d always felt that it was my own shortcomings preventing my weight loss, and it was my problem to deal with: it seems silly, but I’d never thought to consult an expert to educate myself properly about nutrition. I didn’t get in to the schools I wanted to, but I did decide I really wanted to see a nutritionist.

I found a nutritionist through One Dance UK’s directory: I wanted someone who knew dancers, and understood that I wasn’t just trying to lose a few pounds, but to be significantly thinner whilst maintaining performance. I found Zerlina Mastin, who trained in ballet before becoming a qualified and registered nutritionist, has written a book on dance nutrition (which I’ve since read and will review separately!) and happened to practice just around the corner from where I was working. It was the best thing I could have done: finally I had advice that I knew I could trust. Advice from someone who was an expert on nutrition, that was tailored to dancers, and specifically to my needs.

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Since visiting her, I’ve completely changed my way of eating and my attitude to nutrition in general. Head on over to Part 2 for all the tips I picked up!

It does feel a bit strange to be open about all of the struggles and failures I’ve experienced with trying to lose weight for dance, because I am embarrassed that I haven’t been able to make it work, even though it’s so important to me. However I really feel that I can’t be the only one who’s experienced this! I hope that this post and the next will help other dancers to view nutrition differently.

See you in Part 2!

 

P.S. If you like food pictures don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

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