Being Performance Ready with Isabel Harris: Fill your Dance Bag, Fuel your Body
For dancers, December often means longer dance days filled with rehearsals and performances. However, it’s not just in the studio where dancers need to prepare themselves for success. They also need to arm themselves with essential supplies and routines that will ready their minds and bodies for the demands of the performance season.
We sat down with Isabel Harris, a graduate of Colorado Ballet Society and a multi-time scholarship winner of the Esther Geoffrey Young Dancer’s Scholarship Competition, to discuss what she packs in her dance bag for the theatre, her performance-ready and recovery routines, and the importance of nutrition for a dancer’s body.
For performances, what do you pack in your Dance Bag?
Extra leotard to wear during warm-up class
Leg warmers and other warm-ups to stay warm between shows
Puffy coat to stay warm!
TheraBands to warm up
Extra tights- in case of rips or stains
Ball and stick roller to warmup and use in between shows
Pointe shoes-lots of different brands and stages of broken in for different roles
Sewing kit- to sew in ribbons
Hairspray, brush, extra hairpins
Makeup for touch-ups
Headphones -to play music to calm down and get focused
Notebook to look over corrections to get focused and feel prepared
Band-Aids, Neosporin, Arnica cream- always good to be prepared for cuts, blisters, or muscle
Food- pasta with beans and artichoke hearts, almonds, oranges, nature valley bar, apple
Deodorant- always good to have
What are your performance routines?
During performance week, sleep is absolutely vital. Sleep is step one in making sure your body has all of the energy it needs to take on the demands of performing while staying healthy. I try to get 8-10 hours of sleep on these days, which means I will likely wake up around 8 am (depending on my call time).
First things first, hydrate! Drinking a glass of water before getting out of bed is a great way to prioritize hydration. You’ll thank yourself for it!
For breakfast, I like to have some toast with avocado and egg, and a couple of sausages.
Then I like to have some quiet time to get centered and prepare for the day. I gently warm-up (not ballet yet, just gently movement through all the joints and muscles), getting my body moving and the blood flowing, and then do a gentle foam roll.
Then I like to put on some calming music and get my hair and makeup done, leaving time to pack a good lunch. I double-check that I have everything I need, and then I’m out the door and to the theater. I like to keep it simple; so I don’t feel rushed or hectic before a performance.
Once I'm at the theater and settle in, it's usually time for warm-up class.
I prefer to eat about an hour or hour and a half before a show--so I’m neither full nor hungry on stage, but sometimes you just have to eat whenever you get a chance. For lunch and or dinner, I like to bring something that is fueling, but not too heavy. Carbs, protein, and fats are the main things we need to be including in these meals. 55-60% of that should be carbs as they are our main source of energy. Some of my favorite things to bring are a rice bowl with salmon, avocado, sautéed peppers, kale, and tomatoes, with soy sauce; and pasta with beans, chicken or steak, sautéed veggies, artichoke hearts, and a dressing. I find that this is an easy and tasty way to get a meal with a good carb base and then a mix and match of your favorite fats and proteins on top. If I go out to eat between shows, I look for something that has enough carbs to sustain me but also looks fresh, colorful, and has a variety of nutrients.
In between shows, I snack on things like nuts, fruits, vegetables, and granola bars. I also gently stretch and roll out between shows to keep my muscles ready to dance and drink lots of water!
After a show, it can be tempting to crash on the couch, but a good rest and recovery routine is so important, especially if you have more shows the next day. Even if I have already eaten dinner, I always eat again when I get home (same concept as before-carbs, protein, and fats). However, because I am about to go to bed, I include more protein because my body needs less energy while I sleep and more muscle recovery--which is one of the things protein does best! Then I always roll out. This time is much more thorough, using a roller for the big muscle bellies and a ball for the deeper muscles or those stubborn tight spots. After rolling, I do a deeper stretch, ice my feet, ankles, and anything else that may be irritated or inflamed, and massage any tired or painful areas with a topical gel/cream. Then it's time for bed and repeat!
Why is it important to properly nourish our bodies?
Everything we eat is made of carbs, protein, and fats--and our bodies need all 3 to work properly. A dancer's diet should be 55-60% carbohydrates. We need carbs for energy, concentration/focus, growth, good health, disease prevention, muscle building and strength, immune system health (complex carbs), and faster recovery. Your body turns carbohydrates into glucose which is your energy! The more complex a carb, the longer it takes to be turned into glucose. The most complex carbs provide energy for a longer period of time, while simple carbs are turned into glucose quickly, giving you a more immediate and intense burst of energy. Both types of carbs are necessary for dancers at different times.
Glucose turns into glycogen and is stored in the liver and muscle to be used as energy later. If you don’t eat enough carbs, your body uses proteins and fats as fuel instead--when this happens, our bodies no longer get the same nutritional benefits from the fats and proteins. We need protein for muscle repair and recovery and the growth and repair of all tissues. Carbohydrates increase protein absorption, allowing the protein to be more effective.
Fats are imperative to brain and nerve function, hormone production, protecting organs, joints, and bones, absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, and having healthy hair, skin, nails. Also, Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory, which are hugely beneficial to us as dancers.
What is your advice for other dancers?
I would suggest that dancers research with their parents to get a good idea of what their main meals could include and some good snack ideas. When you have an understanding of what eating enough from each group--carbohydrates, proteins, and fats--looks like, then you can make, eat, and ENJOY meals that still taste great, while knowing that you are fueling your body with everything it needs to be strong and healthy.
Do not look to common culture dieting to find out what to eat. Research into the science of what your body needs to function and be healthy.
Talk to a nutritionist if the internet seems a bit too overwhelming.
Look into complex and simple carbs, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals. Then, once you have a general knowledge of what a well-balanced diet looks like, don’t obsess. I personally don’t think it's fun or healthy to count every single number of every food group at every meal. Your body is
designed to process and best use everything you put in it! Your body will need different things every day; listen to it. If you are still hungry, you haven’t eaten enough. If you feel weak and faint in class, you haven’t eaten enough. You will need more carbs to fuel you through a full rehearsal day than you will on a relaxing day at home. Use your nutrition knowledge (again NOT diet knowledge) and listen to what your body needs.
Food is meant to be enjoyed! As dancers, it is important to eat delicious meals and feel confident that they are fueling us for our day.