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It is no secret that America is not the healthiest country in the world, and there are whole industries fueled by our nation’s current predicament around proper self-care and a healthy diet. However, the majority of these industries seem to be focused on either selling you a product, like the diet and fitness industry, or on managing symptoms with medication and surgery rather than treating and healing the root cause: a poor diet and a crippling lack of information. Many of the most common diseases that ail Americans, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, could be greatly decreased and prevented through proper nutrition and self-care. However, even though the US Department of Education states that ninety-nine percent of public schools offer some form of nutritional education, there is a great lack of understanding and knowledge when it comes to what to eat and why. A healthy, well-functioning body is a wonderful thing to have as a human. As a dancer, it is instrumental for success. So why is so much time spent in the dance studio on just how to dance? Perhaps it is time to add some additional education into the general dance curriculum on how to take care of the dancing body.

It is in our art form’s best interest to create a better-informed, healthier generation of children

If you look at a brochure or website for most dance studios in the United States, you will find classes offered in ballet, hip hop, jazz, and tap, with other options like pointe, “Leaps & Turns,” and “Strength & Stretching” classes offered here and there.  What you will not find in the average day-to-day schedule are classes on nutrition, health education, and injury care & prevention. The reason for this is obvious—a dance studio is meant to instruct in dance education, and the common belief is that things like health and wellness should be left to the school system. Unfortunately, many schools are woefully ill equipped to provide children with healthy food to eat, let alone provide them with a sound education on what to eat. In 2015, sixty-four percent of the USDA Foods Program budget that provides free food to schools went to meat, dairy, and egg products, rather than fruits and vegetables, and it seems like the focus of most school vendors is the bottom line rather than the child’s health. Only about half of elementary school teachers have had formal training on how to teach about nutrition, and although the Center for Disease Control cites that forty to fifty hours of education are needed to cause any behavioral changes, the average student receives less than eight hours of this vital and life-changing knowledge. 

How does this gap in knowledge affect dancers? 

Education around health and wellness is especially important for dancers. A good diet can help a dancer stay well-nourished, help prevent injuries, and keep a clear head while dancing. The sooner that information reaches a child, the easier it will be to change any potentially harmful eating habits. The physical toll that dance training takes on the body can be offset by getting the proper amount of nutrients that will aid in the repair of the body between classes, rehearsals, and shows.  A poor diet can lead to slower recovery from injury, greater susceptibility to illness, and a general fatigue or malaise. Food is not a minor detail in a dancer’s life—it is the fuel that makes everything from a plié to a performance possible. As an art form that centers so completely on the body and what the body is capable of doing, a dancer should have a clear understanding that what they are putting into their bodies (or what they are not putting into their bodies), is exactly what they will get when they try to dance. 

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Why anatomy goes hand-in-hand

Alongside proper nutrition, anatomical knowledge of the body can help a student understand and care for injuries beyond just parroting what the doctor or physical therapist has said. Certain aspects of technique can be grasped more quickly, and an appreciation for the gravity of certain technical errors (like forcing the turnout in a ballet class) can be instilled at a tender age. The mechanics of the body inform what it is capable of producing. If the magic of how the dancing body moves was more transparent to the student, difficult movements and technical ideas could be explained and understood as scientifically as possible, rather than a frustrating wall for the student to run into over and over. We owe it to our young dancers to give them all the anatomical “whys” behind the various techniques, not just the stylistic “hows.” 

What can the studios do?

Dance studios should be in the business of fostering a healthy, well-informed student body with a lifelong love and appreciation for movement, and while many certainly instill a great love of dance, they would have everything to gain and nothing to lose by implementing a supplementary curriculum that provided their students with additional knowledge that they could use inside and outside of the studio. Offering short courses that explore what foods to eat to build a healthy diet, how to prepare them, what will fuel your body the best, how to take care of yourself when you are injured, and basic musculoskeletal anatomy would give their students an edge over the majority of their peers. Much of this health education will not reach a dancer until they are out of high school, and have moved on to college or to the professional world, and by that time, many potentially damaging habits are already in place that could have been prevented with earlier intervention.

We owe it to our young dancers to give them all the anatomical “whys” behind the various techniques, not just the stylistic “hows.”

Additionally, the more children know and understand an idea, the more likely they will be to comply with the adults who want nothing but the best for them. Healthy eating choices would become a collaborative interest between the student and the parents, rather than a fight between what the parent knows their child should eat and what the child thinks tastes better. Students would have a greater respect for and attention to their dance anatomy and alignment in technique classes if they understood how deeply it affects their movement and ability to improve. Children should be interested partners in their education, and this additional knowledge would certainly aid in that pursuit.

In the end…

It is obvious that the school system is failing our young dancers, and it is in our art form’s best interest to create a better-informed, healthier generation of children. Until a real and comprehensive nutritional and anatomical education is offered in schools, it should be a collaborative effort between dance educators, students, and their parents to help bridge the knowledge gap. I certainly wish I could have had access to this kind of knowledge sooner. Don’t you?

photo © John Finkelstein

About the author

Caitlin, a native of Nashville, Tennessee, holds a BFA in Dance Performance and a BA in Economics from Southern Methodist University. After graduation, she performed and taught in and around the Chicagoland area before the windchill drove her west. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California, where she is a company member with Seda Aybay’s Kybele Dance Theater. When not rehearsing, touring, and performing with Kybele, you can find her either teaching ballet and modern dance at several local studios, or battling traffic on the 405. She is deeply passionate about all facets of the art form of dance.