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Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Beauty from within
Animated, Summer 1999. Lynda Robbins talks candidly of the distorted belief systems that are denying dancers and their bodies crucial energy and nutrients for health and improved performance
Depressingly many dancers striving for 'svelte beauty' are far from nutritionally beautiful from within their bodies. A search beneath often cracked or flaky skin, soon reveals malnutrition merrily dancing and leaping to and fro. Delving deeper into the energy storehouses in the liver and muscles you discover empty fuel tanks dreaming of the chance to be refuelled and regenerated to full capacity. Bones feel empty as calcium leaches out and the blood craves oxygen as its iron content is low. The whole body wishes for more fluid to enhance the concentration processes and the whole gastric tract from the mouth resigned to unpleasant breath, through to irritable bowels cries out for a regular input of suitable foods.

This scenario is more likely to be reality for many dancers constantly following low energy diets to lower their body fat still further, when only a few will be naturally, genetically thin. Even fewer of these will be nutritionally healthy. The constant denial of food, containing crucial energy and nutrients, that the body itself is craving for, creates the increased risks of injury, missed classes and rehearsals, and a high susceptibility to colds and related illnesses due to poor immune systems.

Working with such dancers presents enormous difficulties when trying to disentangle the downwardly spiralling pirouette of disordered eating and distorted belief systems. Eating, or rather, not eating, takes over their thinking and daily behaviour. Many dancers also try coping with eating on a low income and with limited cooking facilities. Current health suffers apart from any long-term health considerations. When supportingly dancers to re-educate their behaviour and knowledge and trying to regain control of their eating, I aim to assist them to improve their health and ultimately dance performance. For them to take the first few steps in eating starchy carbohydrates requires so much confidence and continuing reassurance that they will not 'get fat', that remarks which reinforce the stereotype of the thin dancer can only serve to break down this fragile process.

The dance aesthetic that sets unrealistic goals for dancers may put them at risk of passing out whilst dancing and making mistakes from poor concentration levels. This can prove detrimental to both themselves and fellow dancers, and increased injury rates can occur. Low bone densities can provoke stress fractures and for women, long-term problems can result including early osteoporosis and fertility problems. Financial implications may also result. I wonder what, or who, shall be blamed for ill-health by our retired dancers of the future. Will the establishments hold some responsibility?

Food is a performance-enhancing tool, not a taboo. Dispelling the myth that it is a dangerous substance with negative links to svelte beauty, can, I feel, improve dancers nutritional health enormously. The resulting benefits for the establishment are positive and more confident dancers - training for longer, at a higher intensity. Demanding schedules may be more achievable, both physically and psychologically. Dancers with inner confidence from executing a planned, dance nutrition strategy, who are thin and healthy, of differing shapes can, I feel, strengthen a company. Malnourished dancers, in contrast, provide more risk with unacceptably low body fat levels, solely relying on luck - which can run out...

Lynda Robbins, Dance and Accredited Sports Dietician, London Contemporary Dance School. Contact +44 (0)20 7387 0152.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001