Ask Amy: Push Your Boundaries

September 22, 2013

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My teacher told me that my dancing looks academic and stiff, and it’s hard for her to see my love for ballet. How do I dance with feeling, so I’m not just doing the steps correctly? —Ramona

Dancing “correctly” has its benefits, but can look robotic or dry without personality. However, showing emotion doesn’t always come easily. There could be several reasons why your love of dance doesn’t quite come across—perhaps you’re naturally shy, worried about making mistakes or tend to overzealously analyze your technique. You’ll need to practice reaching outside your comfort zone in order to change—which takes a certain amount of courage, but will make a world of difference.

Listen to the emotional qualities of the music, and allow your body to breathe with it to create fuller movements. Take note of where you hold tension (for instance, in your arms, hands, neck, even your jaw) and try to relax those areas. Push beyond your usual boundaries: Travel further through space, make fuller use of your épaulement and reach more with your limbs. Also, observe what you’re doing with your face—a blank expression or downcast eyes can read as either boredom or a lack of confidence. Practice smiling in class—you don’t have to look like a total cheeseball, but a light smile and alert eyes can help awaken your whole body and let the world know that you love what you’re doing.

Is it possible to lay the educational groundwork for a future career outside of ballet while dancing professionally? —Nicole

Yes! Many dancers go to school part-time to accommodate their rehearsal schedules. But it’s not easy—you need to devote time for studying on days you’re not in class, which takes some serious organizational skills. I’ve been slowly working towards a BA in English and world literatures at Marymount Manhattan College. I take courses one or two nights a week, or during the summer when my schedule is lighter. If I know I’ll be touring extensively, I register for an independent study. I’m also applying for life experience credits through MMC’s dance program to use towards some electives—an option many colleges offer.

Much of your spare time will be devoted to homework, which can get pretty stressful. If my dance schedule looks insane, I take the semester off so I don’t lose focus. That’s why open communication with your professors is key. Sometimes exams or term papers coincide with crazy performance weeks—especially during Nutcracker season. Anticipate conflicts early in the semester, and talk to your professors to see what your options are; you may be able to reschedule tests or shift a deadline around. In my experience, they’re usually willing to work with you—especially if you prove to be a conscientious student.

As a dancer I have been told many different things about how many calories I should be eating daily. I am 5′ 7″, 130 pounds and 17 years old. What is a healthy range for someone like me who dances every day? —Priscilla

First off, remember that being healthy isn’t just about the number of calories you’re taking in. As a growing dancer, your diet needs a balance of nutrients (especially calcium to build strong bones), so what you’re eating should take precedence over counting calories. According to Emily C. Harrison, dietitian at the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet, there is no “one size fits all” approach for determining a healthy caloric intake—many variables can affect an individual’s appropriate weight range, such as how often you exercise. “Calorie intake directly relates to energy expenditure,” she says. That means that dancers typically need to eat more calories than the average person to compensate for their exercise load. For a 17-year-old dancer who’s 5′ 7″, 130 pounds and dancing a lot, Harrison recommends between 2,300 and 2,500 calories a day. For a more specific number that reflects your particular needs, see your physician or dietitian.

Harrison warns against obsessive calorie-counting. “There’s a risk you can get too caught up in it,” she says. “Being aware of where your calories come from is a better strategy.” Pay attention to portion sizes and ingredients. “Be a smart label reader. Look at the nutrition facts and serving sizes.” And listen to your body—hunger, fatigue, shaky muscles and dizziness are indicators that you’re not eating enough.