Have a question? Click here to send it to Pointe editor and former dancer Amy Brandt.
At my last checkup my doctor said I needed to gain weight. I’m 91 pounds and 5′ 3″. I understand the health risks of being underweight, especially since I’m 17 and haven’t gotten my period yet, but I like my body the way it is. What is the best way to gain weight without overdoing the ice cream? —Sarah
Even though you’re happy with your body as is, your doctor is right—you’re underweight. And the fact that you haven’t had your first period yet is a serious concern. A delayed first period, called primary amenorrhea, is often accompanied by low estrogen levels and frequently occurs in athletic teenagers because they exercise heavily, eat too few calories or both. As a result, you’re at a greater risk for low bone density—which can mean stress fractures and osteoporosis down the line.
According to Emily Harrison, MS, RDN, LD, registered dietitian for the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet, gaining 7 to 12 pounds is a good start toward being in a healthier weight range. She recommends slow, steady weight gain of about one pound every one to two weeks. “It’s best to achieve this by eating regularly throughout the day in smaller but frequent meals and snacks,” says Harrison.
Since individual needs are different, it’s a smart idea to meet with a registered dietitian in your area for a personalized plan. Here are some of Harrison’s recommendations for snacks containing healthy fats and protein, which will help you achieve your weight goal: Add 1/4 cup of nuts to your oatmeal for breakfast; top salads with three slices of avocado; eat 1/2 to one cup of high-protein red-lentil pasta before or after class, or hummus with crackers or veggies. You can also increase your portion sizes of healthy foods such as soups, wraps and salads—Harrison offers a variety of recipes on her website, dancernutrition.com.
Is working out in a pool a good way to cross-train? If so, can you describe some of the strengthening exercises that dancers can do in the water? —Karen
If you’re looking for a cardiovascular workout, swimming laps can be a great option. But it shouldn’t be your primary source of cardio exercise, says Michael Velsmid, DPT, MS and owner of Boston Sports Medicine, a clinic that provides aquatic therapy to Boston Ballet dancers. “The dancer’s body needs to have a certain amount of stress imparted on it,” he says. “But if you’re recovering from a heavy workout, the pool is great. Where you might typically want to skip a day to rest and recover, you can go in the pool without any additional delay in your recovery.”
The pool is also an excellent environment to rehabilitate, especially if you have difficulty with weight-bearing exercises like relevé and petit allégro. I spent an entire summer doing aquatic therapy when I was recovering from a stress fracture in my ankle. But according to Velsmid, “If you’re not recovering from an injury, the pool probably isn’t the best place to strengthen because it’s a gravity-minimized environment.”
However, simply taking barre underwater can do wonders to improve your alignment and balance. Suddenly, exercises that are simple on land, such as passé or grand rond de jambe, become much more difficult. “It helps create a better mind-body connection of how to activate those muscles,” says Velsmid. If you have access to a pool, try going through a ballet barre using the ledge or wall to balance. For an even greater challenge, try it without holding on.
I’m flexible and good at traveling across the floor, but I can’t seem to get any height or extension on my sauts de chat. What should I focus on to get that powerful grand allégro jump? —Mary
I sometimes see dancers with beautiful extensions struggle to get off the ground in grand allégro. While flexibility helps with splitting the legs, you also need proper strength in your hamstrings, back and abdominals to push off the ground and hold the position.
For saut de chat, multiple components must be perfectly timed. As you move through fourth position during your preparation, think of gathering your energy together, making sure your plié is deep and substantial so that you have more power to push off. When you jump, you want to carve an arc through the air—not stay the same level horizontally—so think of lifting your hips as you développé to propel yourself in the right direction (I always imagine a horse rearing on its hind legs). Then, push through the toes of the back foot and think of doing a grand battement derrière. To achieve a nice split, imagine an explosive energy underneath your back thigh. I also try to inhale at the height of the jump—it helps me to hold on to the air a little longer.
Try doing some daily exercises (such as plank poses and modified bridges) or taking a weekly Pilates class to help strengthen your core and hamstrings. And at barre, pay close attention to your fondus and grand battement. The deep plié action of fondu and forceful brush of grand battement are tools you’ll need to utilize later in grand allégro.