As dancers, we all know how easy it is to sink into negative patterns of eating or thinking. It can be a challenge to confidently practice healthy habits.
When we think wellness, we tend to think about the physical aspects: eating right, sleeping, cross training etc. but what about our conscious and subconscious habits? A well-rounded state of being is so important in a competitive, body-focused profession like dance. All Olympic athletes have a variety of coaches to help them get where they want to go, why is that often not the case for dancers?
Jess Spinner, the founder of “The Whole Dancer,” gets it, and she has developed her health and lifestyle coaching business, The Whole Dancer, to provide the guidance and tools to achieve that well-rounded, healthy lifestyle as a dancer. We caught up with her and picked her brain on how to embrace wellness and become the strongest and happiest dancer you can be.
Wellness is such a buzzword nowadays, what does it really mean for a dancer?
I think it means everyone is starting to see the importance of taking care of their whole selves. For dancers, I think it means eating well, and caring for themselves mentally, emotionally and physically.
So what does being a “whole dancer” mean?
This goes right along with wellness. A Whole Dancer is one who is real and authentic and totally honest with herself. When she needs to rest, she rests, when she needs food, she eats. She stays in tune with her body and mind and strives to stay balanced with her needs and wants.
I think this is something for dancers to strive for and it’s not easy to reach. They might need outside support in the areas of food, body image, cross training, mindset, or training but a Whole Dancer knows that it’s OK to ask for help.
Is there an ideal time to tackle your wellness goals?
Whenever you feel ready. A lot of times we get to a low point before saying to ourselves, “wow, I need to make a change” and I think that’s ok. Of course it would be ideal if we could get to the place of tackling wellness goals when we’re already doing great but it doesn’t often happen that way.
What are some easy healthy habits to build into your daily routine?
Meal prepping and planning snacks and food for the day is essential and once it becomes habit, it makes life so much easier. When you’re running around and feel super busy it’s easy to look for convenience food. Dense nutrition is so essential to health, muscle and bone strength and performance that dancer’s need to make planning, preparing and packing food part of their routines.
With the seasons changing, does that mean our nutritional habits change too?
Preferences tend to shift with the weather, and people don’t always pay attention to that. Smoothies and cold, raw food is not super appealing when it’s cold out. As the weather turns warmer you’ll likely want raw, cold, fresh foods like smoothies, salads and raw veggies.
It’s great to eat local, seasonal food so, if there are farmers markets you can visit in the warmer months, take advantage!
What can dancers do to stay disciplined and dedicated to healthy eating and healthy attitudes about eating without obsessing or succumbing to the comparison game?
The focus definitely needs to go within as much as possible. Dancers need to be experts on their bodies. You need to listen to your bodies needs. Don’t overeat, don’t undereat, but recognize that by caring for your body you’re going to dance longer, stronger and happier.
We all have that friend who just has the “perfect” body for ballet and it’s not easy to stop comparing. The body is only one piece of the puzzle. Every dancer has different gifts to share and the trick is to find a place to dance that celebrates what you have to offer.
What are some steps you can take to self-love?
I always say practicing self – care is the path to self – love. Self care practices like baths, massages, meditation, or even eating well are ways of demonstrating that you’re worth the time, effort and care. That infiltrates your subconscious in a powerful way.
What are some tips for dancers dealing with the stress of audition season? For approaching their auditions, playing the waiting game, or making decisions on any offers that come along?
This is always such a hard time. One of my favorite quotes is,”Trust the timing of your life” and I think it’s especially true for dancers and audition time. You’ve just gotta keep working and moving forward towards your goals.
Seek out new and different opportunities to grow as an artist and to become a stronger more versatile dancer. It’s helpful for dancers to be willing to explore new paths and be open to creating connections.
What are some tips for preparing for summer intensives or during the months leading up to your first season with a company?
Late spring and summer are great opportunities for both professional and personal growth. It can be challenging that there are periods of intense dancing and weeks off when you might not be dancing at all.
Whether you’re attending a summer intensive or starting a professional contract, you need to prepare yourself for change. Change brings up stress for most people and if you don’t manage that it can be overwhelming. Again, this might mean seeking outside support or just talking to friends and family more about what you’re facing and what your fears are.
Talking is going to help you process.
Do you have any words of advice dancers who feel like they can’t find a healthy balance in their lives?
I love the idea of “balance” but it’s going to look different for everyone and for dancers,it might not look super balanced to an outsider. The important thing is that you feel good and you don’t overwork your body.
Too often dancers think they need to take 2 technique classes a day AND cross – train for hours AND walk everywhere and basically just constantly keep moving without listening to the messages their bodies are giving them.
Once again, I’d reiterate that reaching out and talking to someone would likely help. When you expect a lot of yourself, it’s easy to ignore feelings that might come up telling you to slow down or that you should change course or explore different passions.
Your Bag of Tools
What key things do you find dancers are often missing from their “tool bag,” outside of the classroom?
Sometimes I think because dancers get used to expressing themselves through movement they don’t get enough practice expressing their emotions by talking them out. When I work with a dancer to reach body goals, food isn’t typically the biggest problem.
The challenge more often lies in their mindset around food and their body. When we break down how they got to that place and how to work through it they’re able to reach their body goals easily.
Support is essential and not enough dancers reach out to get it. Even if they’re comfortable talking to their parents about their struggles if parents don’t have dance experience it’s challenging for them to relate to the pressures their dancer is facing.
The Whole Dancer
What are the most common questions or concerns most dancers that you see have?
Dancers come to me most often with concerns around their bodies. It’s quite unfortunate but true that the majority have received messages at some point or another, either directly or indirectly that something isn’t quite right with their body. This might be their actual facility – feet, legs, arms, knees or it could be body shape.
After this feedback is shared, the support piece doesn’t always follow. So dancer’s end up feeling stressed and confused about what will actually work. When they have concern around their bodies or weight this often leads to unhealthy habits.
What are the most common questions you get asked?
Dancers ask : what should I eat, how can I lose weight, how exactly should I cross train, how can I improve my mindset, how can I be more positive, how can I improve my body image?
It’s quite clear to me that as much as I wish the dance world was changing rapidly when it comes to body standards, it’s not. And much like when I was dancing there is still a lack of support and guidance for students and aspiring thru professional dancers in this area.
What would be a key take away dancers get when they work with you?
There’s no one – size fits all eating plan. What works for your friend won’t necessarily work for you and figuring out what to eat takes a lot of trial and error. Happily, at the end of working together, we’ve usually figured out what works!
What have you learned since starting “the whole dancer?”
There need to be more support systems in place for dancers throughout their training and early careers. It’s not enough for ballet schools to have a nutritionist on staff or to host a nutrition workshop once a year. The conversation around food and body standards needs to be an open and supportive one.
I have heard so many stories of teachers making comments about dancer’s weight or bodies telling them, “this needs to change” but not providing resources to help them. When a dancer starts to doubt her chances of success because of her body it’s often a downward spiral. One that can end a potential career years before it’s even started.
Through my work with The Whole Dancer I’ve had the pleasure of seeing that spiral completely turn around. For dancers who were ready to quit have gotten their first paying jobs and more importantly have learned to believe in themselves again.
To learn more about Jess’s work through The Whole Dancer, visit http://www.thewholedancer.com.
For the free cheatsheet from The Whole Dancer, “50 – Tips to get back in Dancing Shape,” visit : http://www.thewholedancer.com/tips