by Shannon Sterne, MS, MA, RDN
You have put in months of rehearsals, and now performance week is upon you. For many dancers, this translates to extra rehearsal hours with performance-quality run-thrus to build stamina, and long days at the theatre for spacing, lighting, and dress rehearsals. These physical demands can take their toll on the dancer’s body and may be coupled with feelings of anticipation, excitement or anxiety, which can affect sleep patterns, appetite, mood, and energy levels. If keeping your energy up during performance season proves challenging, try these eight tips to help prevent fatigue from taking center stage.
Stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can impair dance performance, slow reaction times, and reduce concentration (ever blank out on stage?). As outside temperatures rise and humidity increases, the need to replace fluids becomes ever more important. And if you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated. Aim to consume water regularly throughout the day to prevent thirst. If you dislike water, and have difficulty drinking enough throughout the day, try adding a cut lemon or lime to your water bottle.
- Go easy on the sports drinks. Sports drinks were originally designed to replace the carbohydrates and electrolytes during endurance events (like running a marathon) or long, strenuous activities like football or soccer. Numerous products are available in a variety of formulations for just about every type of activity, but for dancers watching their weight, sports drinks can add unwanted and unnecessary calories and sugars to the dancer’s daily intake. (Not to mention the artificial colors and flavors added to many sports drinks.) Water is sufficient for most dancers, but if you are a heavy sweater or if your classes and rehearsals keep you constantly moving and sweating for more than 3 consecutive hours, you might need a sports drink to provide fuel and to help replace electrolytes. Diluting a sports drink or 100% fruit juice with water (3 parts water to 1 part sports drink or juice) is another good strategy to make water more palatable without adding a lot of extra calories.
- Don’t diet. As the performance nears, some dancers develop anxiety about how they will look in their costumes, or whether their partner will complain that they are difficult to lift. This prompts some dancers to crash diet in the weeks prior to a performance. Dancers’ concerns about weight and body image are valid and can impact confidence, performance and well-being, but anxiety over weight and body image should be addressed earlier in the season. The weeks leading up to a performance are not the time to focus on weight loss. Instead, focus on providing your body with the fuel and nutrients you need to continue to perform at your best.
Fuel up. Most concert dance is anaerobic, meaning it consists of short periods of strenuous activity. To fuel anaerobic activities, the body relies on blood sugar and on stores of carbohydrates in the liver and the muscles. The primary cause of fatigue during performance is depletion of carbohydrates in the blood and the muscles. Ensure that your body has optimal stores of carbohydrates available for the performance by eating meals consisting of foods high in complex carbohydrates in the days leading up to your performances. Complex carbohydrates come from foods like pasta, whole grain breads and fruit, and are easily digested providing a steady supply of carbohydrates for your body to use. Avoid simple sugars like candy and soda pop, which will cause your blood sugar to spike and then crash leaving you feeling wiped out.
- Continue fueling on performance day. Stress, anxiety and anticipation on performance day may minimize appetite or even lead to gastrointestinal upset, but consuming carbohydrates in the hours leading up to the performance will help prevent the fatigue, shakiness, and lightheadedness associated with low blood sugar. To avoid feeling full and weighed-down, eat mini-meals 4 hours, 2 hours and 30 minutes before the performance. Meals should diminish in size as you get closer to curtain time and should consist primarily of complex carbohydrates. Avoid fried or fatty foods during this time as these can greatly slow digestion time and increase gastrointestinal discomfort. If consuming solid foods proves difficult, try a liquid meal replacement or a smoothie. Liquids pass through the digestive tract faster than solid foods and also help keep you hydrated.
- Stick with what you know. Avoid trying exotic cuisines or new food products or supplement formulations during performance week. It’s better to stick with the foods you know your body can handle. If you want to experiment with a new eating plan or supplements, test them out during rehearsals in the weeks prior to the performance, so you know how your body will react.
- Lay off the gas. Feeling gassy and bloated is uncomfortable under any circumstances, but trying to contract or jeté when suffering from excessive gas can be excruciatingly painful and even embarrassing. Beans are notorious for causing gas, and certain vegetables, including cabbage, cucumber and cauliflower can also contribute to gas in some people. If you are not accustomed to eating high fiber foods, such as dried fruits and brown rice, these foods can also be problematic. But reactions to these foods are highly variable between individuals. Be sure to limit gas-forming foods during the 24 hours leading up to your performance. Remember to eat slowly; the faster you eat the more likely you are to swallow air can cause gas and belching. Carbonated beverages and drinking through a straw will also increase the amount of air that is trapped in your digestive system.
- Rest and recuperate. Your body does most of its healing at night while you are sleeping, so make sure you are getting plenty of sleep before each performance. Both carbohydrates and proteins are needed to ensure healing of the muscle tissue and replacement of carbohydrates in the muscles. Muscles will take in nutrients best during the first 30 minutes after your finish dancing. Aim to consume a meal within this 30-minute window to help your muscles recover for the next performance. Avoid caffeine during the 6 hours before bedtime to promote more restful sleep.
BIO: Shannon Sterne is a dancer, choreographer, educator and wellness consultant. She performed with the San Diego Ballet and trained with three generations of principal dancers from the Martha Graham Dance Company before earning Masters degrees in Nutrition and Contemporary Dance from Case Western Reserve University where she teaches ballet and modern dance technique, dance kinesiology, and dance history. Shannon is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of Step Wise Wellness Consulting, which specializes in nutrition and wellness consultation for dancers.