Dance Nutrition: Does it Matter?

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Like many children of the 1970’s and 1980’s my day typically started with a bowl of Lucky Charms, Apple Jacks or Golden Grahams.  My lunch usually included a PB&J and some Oreo cookies and dinner rounded out my nutrition with some Tuna Casserole or other noodly delight.  It was not until my mid 30’s that I discovered a lifetime of stomach aches, depression and insomnia were rooted in my diet.  I was diagnosed with Celiac.  After 15 years as a bread-a-tarian (a vegetarian who mostly eats breads, pastas, and starch and avoids vegetables), I had to make a drastic change in my eating habits.  It took time.  It wasn’t easy.  I fell of that wagon plenty of times either “cheating” or inadvertently eating gluten.  Let me say, despite the ups and downs, and the day to day challenges, I have never felt stronger, healthier and saner than I do now at age 40.  This body, the sad, ill little thing it used to be is now capable of anything I ask.  I teach, dance, and rehearse from 20-25 hours a week.  I have energy for my family for my horseback riding obsession, for creativity.  My mind is so clear that I can remember 13 dances and where 100’s of dancers stand when it’s show time.

When we discovered that my son also had celiac at age 5, the dramatic effect on his incredibly challenging, moody, unhappy, angry behavior was seen and felt by every person in his life.  His teachers, relatives, neighbors and friends noticed this sensitive little being had been hiding under the tirade of fists and tantrums that were our life for his first 5 years.  Living without gluten has given us the gift of a creative, resilient, sensitive young man.  He was destined to be “that kid” who couldn’t control his body, sit still or keep his hands off his classmates but we changed that destiny with nutrition.

When I see kids come to class I can almost immediately (after 15 years of teaching) tell if they are hungry, tired or having a hard time emotionally.  Call it intuition or call it experience, I can absolutely feel them.  Yesterday, I had a child come in the door who was already melting.  She told me, “I am hungry.”  Moments later she fell while galloping and could not recover.  She cried for several minutes unconsolable on my lap until I eventually turned her over to her guardian in the waiting room and she went home.  If your child comes to class hungry, they will not have a successful day at dance.  Unfortunately, it’s what you put into your child before class that really counts.

Would you eat a sucker, cookie or cupcake and then go exercise for an hour?!  Maybe I’m weird but I certainly wouldn’t.   I see time and time again kids come in on a sugar high and bottom out halfway through class and are crumpled on the floor unable to focus or keep up with the class.  It’s a big deal.  Nutrition is everything when it comes to success in not only in dance class but in life.  A well fed body is like a well oiled machine, it runs and when it hits a little bump it gets right over it and moves on.

What do I suggest?  Feed your child a snack before class that has some protein and carbohydrates.  Their mood, and ability to dance, focus and participate will show you that you are on the right track.  Try and apple and peanut butter, a cheese stick and a few crackers, a hard boiled egg, a banana and a few almonds, a handful of pepperoni or salami, a bowl of soup if you have the time at home to eat it.

When I think back to being a young dancer in Ballet class, there were so many times I was completely spaced out, unable to remember the routine and relying on watching my classmates to help me get through the choreography.  Even the most recent company I was in as an adult, I relied heavily on my friend Summer to go over the steps with me over and over until the were muscle memory so I wouldn’t have to rely on my fuzzy brain.  I was not eating the way I should but I felt too busy, overwhelmed and tired to do anything else.  What might I have accomplished if my brain and body were nourished the way they should have been?

PNB Teacher Seminar. Wait! I’m not a Ballet Teacher!

Yesterday, I went to the Day One of the Teacher Seminar at Pacific Northwest Ballet. I didn’t have a lot of preconceived ideas about what I might learn I just wanted to refresh my teaching practice and get a feel for what the opposite end of the spectrum would look like. Directors and teachers from Ballet Schools around the country convened this morning and I thought to myself, “I am not a ballet teacher.” To rephrase, I do teach ballet to every single student that comes to any of my classes, Creative Movement, Mighty Littles, Creative Modern and Ballet, I just don’t teach 180 degree turnout classical ballet to anyone. While I teach classes, my goal isn’t necessarily train professional ballerinas or dancers, it is to teach children to love dance. I aim to inspire a love of dance that is so strong that when it becomes time to take on technique at 7 or 8 years old, that children are hungry for the structure, interested in the mechanics and ready for the work.

The students I saw at PNB today (ages 7-9) were so disciplined, they had beautiful turn out, they pointed their feet the entire class and waited at attention with hands on hips while the instructor gave us long explanations. The wore matching leotards, tights, leather slippers and hairs neatly in buns with matching hairnets.

These students did not look like my students in any way. It’s hard to pinpoint my feelings about this. Of course I wish my students would be at attention and ready to learn in ballet class. I wish it never crossed their mind to interupt me, adjust their undies (they don’t allow the girls to wear undies under their tights), wiggle, or flop onto the ground. So I hope to pursue implementing some their practices into my own, like assigning spots at the barre that children have the whole year, and teaching them to make two lines with space in between in order to see the rear row through the gap and have those space assigned as well. I hope my reminders about attire for class will eventually lead parents to understand that when you sign up for ballet, that means a leotard, tights, leather slippers and a bun. So I have to decide if I need to ask for a specific color to help cut down on distractions next year. It seems logical to put everyone in the same outfit for ballet, simplicity in what they see limits distractions and helps me see their body and honestly that seems far more important than freedom of expression in attire. There is plenty of room for rainbow babylegs and sparkle leotards in Creative Movement.

Pacific Northwest Ballet is the premier school in the state. They are a ballet school that turns out world class professionals and they don’t teach Ballet to anyone under the age of 8. They teach tots class for 2-4 year olds with Parent/Caregiver and have a 2 year Creative Movement Program for Ages 5-6. Six and seven year olds take Pre-Ballet which consists of Creative Movement, a short barre and some exercises to strengthen and stretch the legs and feet. They don’t work in turned out positions until age 8. What I admired was the way they incorporated simple moves like skipping but instructed them in bringing their knees up as they skipped, hands on hips, in different pathways and in pairs. The result was kids who skipped beautifully, precisely and with intention and frankly, that is the essence of ballet.

I realize that many of my Ballet students came to me in Creative Movement and somewhere along the way they came to Ballet but sometimes I am not sure why. In Creative Movement, there are many right ways to perform a task. A child develops in their own way at their own speed, incorporating new skills as they become ready for them. For example, in the scarf dance, we first see a gallop, then a chasse and around age 5 we see the skip emerge. Children learn balance, coordination, and gross motor skills. They exercise their bodies and their minds benefit as well. They gain strength, confidence and all the tools they need for any type of dance.

What I concluded today is that I need to make some changes to my ballet curriculum. I plan to transition the class to using more Creative Dance Activities but ask them to use ballet skills in those games. You will see us doing concepts like Speed, Direction, Self and General Space, Pathways and many more but we will explore them with ballet skills like skipping, leaping, plies, tondues, marching and jumping. We will continue to do a short barre but we will work in parallel position facing the barre and work for an entire session on a particular combination at the barre so that the simple patterns can move toward mastery of those skills. There is really no point to doing sloppy barre with kids who are not physically or developmentally ready to learn from corrections. For example, having kids coming out of first position all during plies and moving their feet back only to see the pattern repeated in tondues does them no good. They don’t have the consciousness yet that help them to incorporate corrections or even feel the difference between first position and not.

The way I have been teaching is not necessarily wrong, it’s the way I was taught 35 years ago and lots of teachers still teach this way. I just want to move forward teaching ballet in a way that I believe is genuine to the dancers who want to learn Ballet, and developmentally appropriate.

In the fall, I will only accept children who will be 5 by December 31st into the Pre-Ballet Classes. I will continue to offer Creative Movement for ages 3-5 and Ballet 1 will start at age 7.

I encourage parents who want to sign up for Ballet versus Creative Movement really think about which class suits their child. Pre-Ballet is not the best choice for a child who doesn’t like a lot of structure, listening to grown ups instruct them, and has trouble quieting their body. Creative Movement is an empowering and equally valid choice for that child. Pre-Ballet may work very well for a child who thrives in structured settings, likes physical challenges and is less social. Every child is different and building a lifelong love of dance starts with making the best choice with his or her strengths and challenges in mind.