Aaaah, Nutcracker Ballet season: full of glittery snow, plum-colored pancake tutus, sonorous applause…and exhaustion – pure, deep exhaustion. Between ballet rehearsals, fittings, tech weeks, and Nutcracker shows, time and energy can feel like sparse, precious resources. It can be all too easy to fall short of truly taking care of ourselves: enough sleep, good nutrition, and engaging in non-dance activities that light us up.
That falling short, as understandable as it can be, can come with serious consequences; "the physical load of Nutcracker season already leaves you more susceptible to injury. If you neglect sleep, run on caffeine, and underfuel, you’re just increasing that injury risk," explains Jess Spinner of The Whole Dancer. Burnout is another risk, she adds (which, to boot, won't help with the ensuing audition season).
Dr. Megan Wise, The Broadway PT, notes that unmanaged Nutcracker season stress and anxiety can also be a road to disordered eating and social isolation – certainly not conducive to optimal performance and moving forward in one's dance journey (not to mention quality of life as a human, dance aside). So, how can dancers avoid these outcomes? How can dance artists stay healthy and happy during the often stressful (and magical) Nutcracker season – and thus also perform at their best? Let's take a closer look!
Giving your body what it needs to perform: fueling with sleep and nutrition
Both Spinner and Dr. Wise are quick to note sleep as pivotal for optimal health/wellbeing and performance during busy dancing seasons. “It’s so often neglected,” says Spinner. “We’re tempted to follow the general guidelines of seven to eight hours per night being ideal; however, when you’re operating at the physical level of an athlete, it’s very possible you need nine hours per night or more.”
Spinner is clear on the importance of adequate sleep for injury prevention; “there is a connection to injury rates and not getting enough sleep.” Dr. Wise recommends getting to bed as quickly as possible at night, and then waking up at the same time every day. Even if it’s not sleep, finding “pockets of rest” – even if that’s five minutes on the couch, to close your eyes and breathe deeply – can be helpful for handling the demands of Nutcracker season, she says.
Spinner also underscores the value of fueling your body well. Unfortunately, “it’s very easy to undereat during the Nutcracker season because there is little time to prep, cook, or plan,” she says. She suggests meal planning and ways to eat in convenient, yet still nutritious ways: such as soups, frozen meals (even freezing some of your own cooking), and recipe kits (such as Sunbasket and Purple Carrot, if budgeting allows for it).
Attending to body, mind, and spirit: beyond the barre
Dancers know that the body, mind, and spirit aren’t isolated parts of us; the well-being of each affects the whole. In order to have our Nutcracker Ballet season meet its potential – when we perform at our best and stay well – we need to approach our health holistically. Spinner recommends meditation and yoga for staying grounded and present. These modalities “can allow you to find greater ease in multi-performance weekends, and yoga has the added benefit of stretching out your sore and tired muscles,” she notes.
Gratitude is also important, Spinner says. It can help us not take the special things about Nutcracker season – or any season – for granted. “Each day, write down a few things you’re grateful for, and that can support you to maintain a more positive mindset,” she advises. If body image is a challenge for you, include in that gratitude for your body and what it does for you, she encourages.
Spinner also notes that you might have to give yourself the grace to let some things go – like keeping a perfectly tidy home on busy Nutcracker show and ballet rehearsal weeks. Just stay aware of how you’ll come back to those things when you’re able to, and you can – you will. Dr. Wise, for her part, highlights the importance of maintaining social connections. Dancers and those who love them can go through the ups and down together. “Dancers think they have to do it alone, but they do not – in fact, social support is key!,” she says.
Planning and time management: make your routine
It can certainly be a challenge to make time for all of the above. Dr. Wise highly recommends planning (above and beyond meal planning, as discussed) – periodically taking the time to plan things out, from that get a sense of where and how you’ll fit everything in. She highlights the power of routine, even for reducing the mental strain of constant decision-making and self-reminders (“oh yeah, I meant to foam roll for five minutes before bed...”).
“Make it all so routine that it becomes almost boring…then you’re not having to think about it so much,” Dr. Wise suggests. This routine planning can become part of your routine itself. It’s been that way for Dr. Wise for years, in an hour or so on her Sunday mornings – and it really helps her organize things and consistently take care of herself, she shares.
Spinner also recommends taking time each week to plan out important tasks: grocery shopping, laundry, other domestic tasks, personal care, and rest (don’t forget that one, she urges). “Give yourself some time each week to sit down and think about what shifts will help the following week go more smoothly.” It’s a form of self-care in and of itself, she believes, this "anticipating what you can do to support yourself” in the coming days.
There might be times when social engagements conflict with the schedule you come up with – especially with all of the social activity of the holiday season. Only you can choose what you end up doing in those times. Yet Spinner notes that sometimes saying “no” to these social engagements might be the best thing for you: body, mind, and spirit.
It’s understandable for busy people – yes, dancers – to respond to calls for caring for themselves with “umm….with what time, when am I supposed to do that?” Dr. Wise notes that planning can help one to “take stock” of their time: how and where they’re using it. For example, thirty minutes of daily social media scrolling can become ten minutes, with twenty minutes for rolling out and meal prep. “What are the non-negotiables that are going to allow you to feel your best and therefore dance your best? What are the things that you can let go?,” Spinner asks.
Remembering your "why" and moving forward
Lastly, Spinner advises staying connected to your “why” – why you dance and put so much into it. “What do you love about dancing, performing, or the Nutcracker itself?”. It can be all too easy to forget why you started dancing – the magic that it can be. That can make an exhausting time like Nutcracker Ballet season “even more challenging,” Spinner says.
“Watch videos of yourself dancing as a child. Think back to your first memories of seeing the Nutcracker or perhaps your first Nutcracker performances. Think about the audience members who might be experiencing ballet for the first time, and commit to bringing the energy you’d like them to experience,” Spinner recommends. That will help keep you connected with the joy in the air – of the season of performing – and from there “dance through it with ease.”
We began this article discussing the worst case scenario: injury, stress/anxiety, and declining holistic health. Let's end on a positive note by discussing the wonder that's also possible – possible when dancers manage to sufficiently care for themselves through the Nutcracker madness.
Dr. Wise emphasizes the chance to become a stronger artist in this busy time, as well as to strengthen relationships with your dancing peers and colleagues. "Enjoying this time for what it is can really help with that!". Spinner notes that Nutcracker season can be "a fun and exciting time" with many performance opportunities.
You get chances to really dig into a role and explore its ins-and-outs, its contours, its nuances. Getting deeper into a role can not only help a dancer deepen their artistry, as Dr. Wise notes, it can also allow them to find "greater connection to…body and mind," says Spinner. "Take this as an opportunity to tune in and strengthen your self-awareness."
And when we build holistic wellness tools and skills for staying healthy during one season, we have them for all seasons; it can only be helpful in the long run. “Life is stressful, and dancers will always have busy things going on – so it’s great to have these things in your back pocket,” says Dr. Wise. Perhaps our eyes also light up at snow falling down across the stage during Snow Scene, and our hearts warm to see little children captivated by the magic – certainly pluses as well!