Why Dancers Need to Ignore their Bodies - Part I

        Dancers’ bodies are their instruments. They know which muscles are tight, they know how flexible each body part is, and they know the difference between sore muscles and injured muscles. They can concentrate on and control each and every movement their bodies make – that’s a good thing, right? Maybe not…

        Scientists are spending a lot of time researching exactly how our bodies learn to move and perform, and there are some interesting findings. When we move, our bodies are programmed to respond automatically.  They respond quickly, reflexively and without any thought on our part. These responses are there to keep us balanced and to keep our bodies operating efficiently and effectively. When dancers or any other athletes begin to think about and analyze movements, they interfere with the bodies’ automatic responses and actually hinder motor performance. An example from every day life would be running up a flight of stairs. It may be something we do each day automatically. The minute we begin thinking about it, we find ourselves tripping and maybe even falling because we have interfered with the body’s automatic motor responses.

        Imagine the dancer who is working on turning. She tirelessly concentrates on alignment, arm placement, balance, the strength of the relevé and spotting and yet falls out of the turn. She prepares again, concentrates even harder and falls again. It seems that the more she concentrates, the harder the turn becomes. She believes she is working on controlling her body, and she may, instead, be fighting against herself. The more control she attempts to exert over the turn, the more she impairs her body’s automatic muscular and balance responses to turning.

        How then does the dancer stay in control of his or her movements without interfering with the body’s automatic motor learning responses?

        Studies have shown that when dancers focus on something external, rather than on their bodies, their bodies work automatically and efficiently. When we stop thinking about controlling our bodies, we use fewer muscles more effectively, our heart does not beat as fast and we do not breathe as hard. All of this means that our bodies do not have to work as hard and undergo less stress which are two great goals to achieve.

        Studies that involved jumping found that subjects who focused on jumping higher than something in the room achieved greater height than subjects who thought about the muscular effort of their feet and legs.

        A study conducted on gymnasts introduced the use of stickers to help with turning jumps. The sticker, although placed on the gymnast’s body, served as an external focus. The gymnasts were working on half turns and were told to concentrate on which wall the sticker would be facing when the turn was complete. The subjects who wore the stickers improved both jump height and movement quality of the turn.

        By using an external focus, dancers can use the body’s automatic motor responses to their advantage while also using tools to improve their technique. 

The next post in this series will discuss how metaphorical imagery can be used by both dancers and dance educators to create external foci for dancers to use.

Guss-West, C., Hum, B., & Wulf, G. (2016) Attentional focus in classical ballet a survey of professional dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 20 (1), 23-9.

Iron Intake, Anemia & Dancers

Proper nutrition is always a concern for dancers. Dance is an activity that requires high levels of energy fueled by food, but it is also an activity that requires an aesthetically pleasing body. Since dancers are often concerned about their appearances, they tend to limit the amount of food they eat. Eating a limited amount of food means dancers are not likely to get enough required vitamins and minerals in their daily diets.

Not consuming adequate amounts of iron can be detrimental to dancers and other athletes. It becomes an even bigger concern when you understand that iron is a mineral that can be lost through sweat. On extremely warm days, during an intense class or rehearsal, dancers can lose between 1 and 2 mg of iron.

A study of 47 female teen dancers in New Zealand found that 28% of them had iron levels that were less than ideal, and 5 dancers were found to have an iron deficiency. Another study conducted in the United States found that only 12% of 28 teen female ballet dancers ingested the recommended daily intake of iron.

Iron deficiency is a problem because results in anemia. Our bodies use iron to make hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the main part of our red blood cells and the part of our blood that binds with oxygen. Hemoglobin’s main job is to attach itself to oxygen in the lungs and deliver that oxygen to all of the other parts of the body. Our muscles and organs need oxygen to function, and our brains need oxygen to think clearly and operate well.

When there is not enough iron in the body, hemoglobin cannot be created, and oxygen delivery cannot occur. When a dancer is anemic, he or she may feel tired or weak, may have cold hands or feet, look pale, be moody, get injured easily and may have difficulty with concentration and memory.

It is very important that dancers consume enough iron so their bodies can function at their highest levels, and they can focus in class and remember combinations and choreography. 

Although everyone needs iron, it is especially important for teens. The body needs higher amounts of iron when going through a growth spurt. The average adolescent should try to ingest 6-8 mg of iron each day. Dancers and athletes need to have 9-12 mg per day to help distribute extra oxygen to their active bodies and make up for any iron that is lost through sweat.

Although iron can be gained from a supplement, the majority of iron we ingest should come from the food we eat. There are two kinds of iron that can be found in food. Iron that is found in meat is called heme iron. The body can absorb 15-18% of this kind of iron. Some sources of heme iron are beef, lamb, liver, seafood, pork, and chicken.  The other kind of iron can be found in plants and is called non heme iron. The body can only absorb about 5% of the iron found in these foods. Some sources for non heme iron are grains, dried fruits, and nuts.

It is very important for dancers to think about how much iron they are getting when they plan their meals and snacks. Being sure to ingest enough iron will keep them dancing at peak levels and help lower chances of injury.

Beck K.L., Mitchell S., Foskett A., Conlon C.A. & Von Hurst, P.R. (2015). Dietary intake, anthropometric characteristics, and iron and vitamin D status of female adolescent ballet dancers living in New Zealand. International Journal of  Sports Nutrition and  Exercise  Metabolism, 25 (4), 335-43.

Bonbright, J. (1989). The nutritional status of female ballet dancers 15-18 years of age. Dance Research Journal, 21(2), 9-14.

Lee, H., Kim, D. & Kim, S. (2015). An analysis of nutrients intake, related factors of anemia and bone density in ballet dancers. Indian Journal of Science and Technology, 8(25), 1-6.

Pacy, P.J., Khalouha, M., & Koutedakis, Y. (1996) Body composition, weight control and nutrition in dancers. Dance Research,  14(2), 93-105.