A Dancer’s Diet

Healthy, Nutritious Foods for the Non-Stop Dancer

Dancers often call the studio their second home. And it makes sense when you’re spending five, six, sometimes seven days a week there for hours on end, in technique classes and rehearsals. But no one can keep dancing at that rate without the proper nutrition to stay fueled and energized.

This week I spoke with two Cal Poly dancers and a Cal Poly nutrition professor to gain insight on best meals, snacks, and drinks to keep a dancer’s energy up for those long days at the studio.

Tiffany Davids is a freshman business major and Orchesis company member. She began her dance career as a “tapper” at age seven, adding jazz, ballet, and contemporary to her repertoire in the following years.

Orchesis is currently performing their annual showcase, Immersion, which consists of six shows over the course of two weeks. Preparation for the performances has required many hours of rehearsal, often late into the evening and on weekends. Tiffany knows first-hand how important it is to stay fueled during these long rehearsals.

Tiffany is a fan of trail mix full of nuts, raisins, and other dried fruits.

“It’s easy to just pop in those little morsels in your mouth between dances and you get a burst of energy.” -Tiffany Davids, Orchesis company member

Illustrated and Photographed by Christina Favuzzi

In addition to trail mix, Tiffany said baby carrots are a “go-to” snack. She also likes crackers as a source of carbohydrates.

Backstage at the Immersion shows, Orchesis dancers are provided with a “food table,” Tiffany said. On the table they have grapes, apples, mangos, blueberries, trail mix, pita chips and hummus, and acai berries covered in chocolate for something sweet but not sinful. And of course, tons of cases of water.

“I only drink water during rehearsal but afterwards I will sometimes drink Gatorade or PowerAde to regain some electrolytes.”

Alexa Dack is a sophomore architecture major and this is her second year on the Cal Poly Dance Team, which performs at Cal Poly sports events and competes nationally. With practice at least three days a week for two hours, plus game performances several times a week, she knows how to pick foods that will boost and sustain her energy.

“I like to have some kind of nuts, like almonds, for some protein. Peanut butter is also good.”

Like Tiffany, Alexa reaches for fruits such as apples, oranges, or bananas to refuel.

Illustrated and Photographed by Christina Favuzzi

“I don’t like to eat a lot before practice because it can make me feel sluggish. If I do eat something before dancing, it’s something light and healthy because I know those types of foods won’t slow me down.” -Alexa Dack, Cal Poly Dance Team

Cal Poly nutrition professor, Dr. Susan Swadener, recommends eating two to four hours prior to dancing because, as Alexa mentioned, eating a heavy meal before dancing can make you feel sluggish.

She also advises eating within 15 to 30 minutes after working out. Dr. Swadener said it is important to restore glycogen quickly. Glycogen holds starch, which holds water, so when you restore your glycogen, you also hydrate your body.

Whether it’s a pre or post-workout meal, she recommends having a meal that has low fat, high carbs, and moderate protein because it will help you to digest the food more quickly and it won’t weigh you down.

“I think carbohydrates are so important but we’ve become so carbohydrate-phobic today, with people saying that carbs are ‘bad,’ but muscles use carbohydrates for fuel and to help them rebuild when they break down.” -Dr. Susan Swadener, Cal Poly Nutrition Professor

Whole grains are the ideal carb and can be found in cereals and whole grain breads and pastas. They are also rich in vitamins and fiber, Dr. Swadener said.

Illustrated and Photographed by Christina Favuzzi

Protein is an important part of a dancer’s diet and Dr. Swadener’s recommendations are easy and delicious.

“I think yogurt can be a fantastic snack. Or string cheese is a great option. Have peanut butter and an apple, because you need some protein and fat to sustain you through those long hours of exercise.”

Illustrated and Photographed by Christina Favuzzi

Dr. Swadener said that protein bars are also good for refueling because they have a good mix of protein, carbs, and fat.

“I think smoothies are another good snack because you can throw in yogurt and you can throw in fruit. And if you’re nervous before a performance, sometimes a liquid is easier to digest and handle.” -Dr. Swadener

Another beneficial fluid: non-fat or low-fat milk.

“It’s fantastic because it’s high protein, it’s low fat, and it’s fluid, so you get your fluids in to be hydrated.”

Dr. Swadener is a believer in “everything in moderation” and said that sweets are okay to have, but she said to make them “fun foods.”

“Personally, I like frozen yogurt because it’s lower in fat, it’s sweet but it’s healthy because it’s got calcium and protein.”

Photographed by Christina Favuzzi

Lastly, in addition to refueling with food, dancers should never underestimate the importance of sleep. With that said, try to limit caffeine intake to about two cups of coffee a day, one in the morning and perhaps one mid-afternoon.

“Be careful with coffee and caffeine in the evening because then you’re jittery, can’t sleep, and you really need to get good rest as a dancer.”

A Quick Recap:

  • Trail Mix
  • Dried and Fresh fruits
  • Nuts
  • Carrots
  • Crackers
  • Pita chips and hummus
  • Whole grain breads, pastas, and cereals
  • Yogurt
  • String Cheese
  • Peanut Butter
  • Protein Bars
  • Smoothies
  • Milk
  • Frozen Yogurt

Want to learn more?

Check out this video: A Healthy Dancer’s Diet


The Importance of Stretching and Flexibility

“Stretch is just the opposite of strength and it’s all about finding balance in your body” -Lisa Deyo

From the time one begins his or her dance career, whether it’s a first ballet class as a young child, or later on in life, flexibility and stretching are regular and necessary aspects of dance training. But it can be difficult to motivate oneself to stretch because it’s often uncomfortable or frustrating because the dancer isn’t noticing any improvement in his or her flexibility.

This past week I sat down with Lauren Creger and Nikki Sullivan, both members of Cal Poly’s dance company, Orchesis, as well as a Cal Poly dance teacher, Lisa Deyo, to talk about the importance of flexibility and stretching and how to fit it into our daily routine.

Lauren is a freshman psychology major and has danced on and off throughout her life. In high school she was a member of her school’s dance team and had a coach that pushed the dancers tremendously to improve their flexibility.

“She once said, ‘Splits aren’t good enough; splits are expected,’” Lauren said about her dance team coach. “She told us, ‘If you aren’t flexible, you’re nothing to me.’

While her coach may sound like an unreasonably harsh person, Lauren said she always meant her criticism in a positive way and she led them to their first national title, so the intense stretching definitely paid off.

Lauren stretches everyday and begins her stretching routine by walking or light jogging to get her heart rate up and blood flowing. Then she does gentle head rolls, isolations, and leg swings.

Lauren recommends stretching right after showering because the hot water warms up and releases muscles so they are easier to stretch.

Dancers often use equipment to intensify their stretching routine. Theraband resistance bands, tennis balls, and foam cylinders are useful tools for working on flexibility. Therabands are often used to stretch and strengthen ankles. Wrap the band around the arch of the foot, holding each end tightly with both hands, flex and point your foot to stretch the muscles on the top of the foot and strengthen the ankle. See the photo slideshow to see Lauren demonstrate this exercise.

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Tennis balls and foam cylinders can be used to roll out tense muscles. Rolling a tennis ball under the arch of the foot releases many tiny muscles that are very tight. The small surface area of a tennis ball increases its pressure on muscles. With that said, use it cautiously or try using a foam cylinder to massage larger muscles such as calves.

Lauren also showed me how she uses ropes to improve her flexibility. Because rope does not stretch, it increases tension and affects the muscles differently.

Fellow Orchesis dancer and sophomore business major, Nikki, echoed Lauren’s note about warming up before stretching. Starting with some breathing exercises and light cardio is beneficial for stretching, Nikki said.

“Stretch everyday for longer that you want to and don’t give up if you don’t see results right away,” Nikki said. “You’re essentially training your muscles to move differently so it’s going to take time to see improvement.”

Flexibility is important for dancing because it makes everything look better and strengthens your ability to hold lines, Nikki said.

Nikki fits her stretching routine in everyday, whether it’s before a technique class, an Orchesis rehearsal, or just at home.

“If I’m at home, I sometimes watch something on Hulu and stretch then,” Nikki said.

This is an easy and enjoyable way to stretch because it takes your mind off the pain you may be feeling and if you’re really enraptured by what your watching, you’ll likely hold the stretch longer.

Cal Poly dance teacher, Lisa Deyo, has witnessed her flexibility change over the course of her dance career. Her daily stretching routine depends on how she’s feeling each day and thus determines what exercises she will do, she said.

“My body always thanks me later.” – Lisa Deyo

With age, Lisa said she feels things more intensely, so she focuses on staying strong and balanced. She distinctly remembers needing to transition from stretching to more strengthening when she turned 36. However, at that time, she said her muscles also became tighter so she had to work on stretches that she didn’t need to do when she was younger.

“I used to wake up and sit in the splits, but that goes away very abruptly with age,” Lisa said. “I’m almost 47 now which means my tissues are less flexible, so I have to be more gentle and take longer with my stretching.”

When instructing younger dancers, Lisa teaches them how to listen to their body to feel where they are tight. She emphasized the importance of staying in a stretch longer and really picturing the breath filling the space where it hurts.

“Flexibility is about balancing your flexibility with your strength so that you are as pliable and able to respond to the needs of the choreographer as much as possible,” Lisa said.

Here is a list of  stretches that dancers are recommended to do everyday. Always remember to listen to your body and stretch according to what it needs.

Before you begin stretching, do some form of cardio to get the blood flowing. Stretching your muscles will be easier and less painful if they are warmed up.  

  • Pike – legs stretched out in front of you. Lay torso on legs, pressing head into knees. Hold feet with your hands.
  • Butterfly – sitting on rear, bend legs and press feet together. Increase stretch by leaning torso over legs.
  • “Cobra” or “Seal”
  • “Child’s Pose” or “Kitty Cat” – lean back on your thighs and stretch arms straight out ahead of you
  • Frog – lay on stomach with legs bent and feet pressed together
  • Lunges
  • “Pigeon” or Half-Split
  • Splits on the left, right, and in the middle
  • Wall stretch – lay on back with rear pressed against the wall, legs extended in second position. Let gravity pull legs down
  • Feet Stretch – point and flex. Therabands are a useful tool for this stretch