8 Reasons This Dancer Chooses a Whole-Foods Plant-Based Diet

Over six years ago, my now partner invited me over for a casual, friendly dinner. He cooked. Dinner. With dessert. It was delicious, wholesome, and healthful. We talked and talked for nearly six hours.

Needless to say, I was hooked.

What I didn’t mention was that it was a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based meal.

Since moving back home to California and moving in with my partner, I have kept to a mostly plant-based diet. Yes, my partner still cooks the meals in our household, for which I am eternally grateful… because I’m terrible at feeding myself. Before we moved in together, I was subsisting on microwavable Amy’s gluten-free mac and cheese, and other things that were ostensibly good for me because they were “organic.”

I’m not zealous about my diet, but I do try avoid straying too far for too long. Sometimes I enjoy a bit of imported Italian Parmesan with a Super Tuscan or Iberian Manchego with a Tempranillo. When I’m traveling, sometimes I have to choose between the meal with eggs and the meal with wheat (to which I am allergic). I also don’t judge my friends who order meat when we go out, nor am I offended by their meals.

plantbaseddiet

There are many reasons to go plant-based, both personal and global. Here are the reasons I stick to a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD).

1) Weight management. I’m no longer the spry teenager who could eat cheeseburgers and fries for lunch every day. Seriously, I look at what I ate 20 years ago, and I marvel at how skinny I was. Granted, I was also figure skating 10-15 hours a week, but even so, my metabolism was much faster then than it is now. Alas, as I approach my late-30s, I can no longer indulge in too many fatty treats without seeing or feeling the consequences soon after.

The whole starches and protein-packed legumes in a WFPBD keep me energized and strong without the extra saturated fat of meats. But don’t take my word for it. Go check out Forks Over Knives for some dramatic and inspiring health transformations.

2) No calorie counting. I was never into calorie-counting to begin with, and I’m not detail-oriented or meticulous enough to do so. But I will say this: my partner cooks huge amounts of food. We don’t worry about calories, because there is almost no added fat in what he makes. It’s not a “no-fat” diet: we consume the naturally-occurring lipids in seeds, nuts, and avocados (because California)… just not a lot of them. The rest of our daily meals are bolstered with heaping piles of chickpeas, lentils, and other beans, as well as leafy greens, wild and brown rice, and whole-grain crackers.

3) Long-term disease prevention. A WFPBD can help prevent and even reverse heart disease and type-2 diabetes, and might even play a role in preventing some cancers (such as colo-rectal cancer). Several studies have shown even just reducing your consumption of meat can reduce your risk of these life-threatening illnesses.

In addition, a WFPBD can also reduce inflammation and the pain of auto-immune diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis (just go easy on the soy products!). As someone with a mild auto-immune condition, and whose family has a history of heart disease and type-2 diabetes, the WFPBD just makes sense.

4) Plants are cheap. The average cost of one of our home-cooked meals is about $4-5 a person. And we could probably make it cost even less if we bought dried beans and more bulk foods. UC Davis Integrated Medicine has a great list of ways to save even more with your plant-based diet and shows how a plant-based split-pea soup can potentially save you 1/3 the price of one made with ham. Darshana Thacker at Forks Over Knives created a delicious, yet austere, plant-based diet on $1.50 a day!

5) Reduced water consumption. I grew up in California in the 1980s, in the middle of one of our historic droughts. Water conservation has been ingrained into my psyche. I can’t even stand it when people run the water while they brush their teeth. (Seriously, why are you doing that? That water is literally just going down the drain.)

National Geographic’s guide to reducing water consumption says that someone eating a plant-based diet will “indirectly consume nearly 600 gallons of water per day less than a person who eats the average American diet.” The 10-20 gallons saved by not showering every day or not flushing every time you use the toilet hardly even comes close.

6) Smaller greenhouse gas footprint. Replacing my decent gasoline-powered vehicle with a hybrid or plug-in isn’t a priority for me right now. Why part with a car that works fine and gets decent gas mileage already? But because I do feel a bit guilty about not investing in a more energy-efficient car, I know that my WFPBD helps reduce my greenhouse gas emissions in other ways. In fact, in 2011 the USDA found that a single 10,000-cow dairy farm in Idaho produced 3,575 pounds of ammonia, 33,092 pounds of methane, and 409 pounds of nitrous oxide per day. Eating plants is way easier on the bank account than buying a new Tesla, that’s for sure!

7) Overall sustainability. In addition to conserving water and reducing my carbon footprint, a plant-based diet is just more environmentally sustainable. According to a report from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “the US livestock population consumes more than 7 times as much grain as is consumed directly by the entire American population,” and “the amount of grains fed to US livestock is sufficient to feed about 840 million people who follow a plant-based diet.” That’s a lot of land that could be used to feed humans or that could be returned to nature as open space.

8) I just feel better. After eating a plant-based diet for nearly six years, I just feel good. When I stray too far, eating too much cheese (which is nearly as addictive as opiates), consume too much oil or fatty foods, I feel sluggish and tired. When I return to my partner’s cooking, my body feels stronger, I have more energy, and I am (ahem) more regular. As a dance instructor and performer, I need to feel my best in the studio classroom and on the theater stage.

Of course, overhauling your diet is daunting and just not possible for everyone. But I do encourage my readers to reduce their meat consumption, and not just beef. Even just eschewing the meat once a week is great for your body and the planet. Do it for your heart, your health, and your environment.

Are you a plant-based dancer or athlete? What are your favorite recipes, tips, or tricks for eating well? Share in the comments!

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Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

As a child, going to the airport filled me with wonder and excitement. The smell of jet fuel and the hustle and bustle of the airport still means, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “I’m going on an adventure!”

As an adult, I’ve spent a big part of my dancing career traveling to cities at odd hours to teach and perform in places I’ve never been before. It’s a fantastic job, and I am grateful for every moment of it.

With all my years of travel, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve also learned that as I get older, my body doesn’t recover from travel as quickly as it used to. I’ve come up with survival techniques to keep limber and agile, even after being on a plane for 10 hours straight.

So, even if you’re not a dancer, or if you don’t even travel all that often, but just don’t want your body to feel like crap when you arrive, these little tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

1) Rollers and other self-massage devices. This might sound dirty, but self-massage devices are the best thing for a weary traveler. No, not that kind of massager. I’m talking the kind that you roll out your cranky and sore muscles. My favorite is the TP Therapy GRID roller. It’s short, and hollow on the inside. I can fill it up with small clothing items so it takes up very little space in my luggage. Plus, if you happen to pick up a bottle of your favorite libation while on the road, the GRID roller doubles as a protective carrying case… Not that I’ve ever done that before. Other small, but effective, tools include lacrosse balls and stick rollers. I love this Gaiam spiky stick roller, but you’re best off packing it in your checked luggage.

2) 4-Wheel Spinner Luggage. Nothing frustrates me more than a bag that won’t stand up on its own, and worse if it’s difficult to maneuver through crowded airport and train terminals. After a trip to Europe when I had to manipulate two unwieldy, unbalanced suitcases full of costumes and products for sale, I resolved to replace my bags with upright spinners as soon as I got back to the US. Because I refuse to be stingy when it comes to luggage and shoes (see #5 in this post), I’m still using those bags, seven years later. A quality spinner will be nearly effortless to move, and your body will be grateful for not having to drag your stuff along behind you. If you’re on a budget, because luggage isn’t cheap, check out your local Ross, Marshall’s, or TJMaxx. There’s no reason to pay full price for name-brand luggage.

3) Water water water. This one’s obvious, but flying can make us feel like human raisins. Muscles, fascia, and tendons need constant hydration to stay at tip top shape, so don’t be like me and make the mistake of not drinking enough water while traveling. Most of my injuries can probably be traced back to not staying sufficiently hydrated. Bring a refillable water bottle (empty, so you don’t get busted at the TSA checkpoint, or you’ll find yourself chugging 16+ ounces of water very, very quickly), and don’t be afraid to ask restaurants in the terminals to fill it up for you. Some terminals have filtered water stations (San Francisco International marks them on airport maps as “Hydration Stations.” How very Silicon Valley of them.) If you need extra hydration, pack along some Emergen-C or other electrolyte formulas. The ones that come in tablet form travel best, but individual packets of powders work well, too. Make sure your bottle is rugged enough to get beat up. I travel with an insulated bottle that I can fill with cold or hot drinks.

4) Snacks. Snacks on a plane! Haha… ha… nevermind. Anyhoo… Like many 21st-century Californians, I have dietary restrictions. I can’t eat wheat because it triggers my chronic inflammation, and I avoid dairy, eggs, and meat. Even if you can eat anything without feeling like someone is stabbing you in the large intestine, you might have noticed that plane food is expensive and unsatisfying. If you’re lucky to be flying out of an airport with decent restaurants (i.e., not Chicago O’Hare which has almost nothing for the gluten-free traveler), eat a large-ish meal in the terminal before you board… and be prepared for the rest of your trip with ample snacks. I bring nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and chocolate (of course!). I also bring along my favorite tea bags to keep some semblance of normalcy and comfort when I arrive at my destination. Remember that you can’t bring liquids or pastes on the plane, so leave that hummus at home, you fellow food weirdo.

Merrell discontinued these boots, so I bought an extra pair.

5) Shoes. I have a lot of feelings about shoes and travel. Our feet are our first line of defense against gravity, and a crappy pair of shoes will make your entire body ache. Dancers don’t have time for that. Heck, parents, businesspeople, and vacationers don’t have time for that either! I also don’t have time or packing space for bringing lots of different shoes with me when traveling. Personally, I get grumpy if I have to bring more than the shoes that I wear on the plane and maybe an extra pair of flip-flops for times I don’t need to go far, like from a hotel room to the breakfast buffet. My requirements for shoes? Easy to take off and put back on (because airport security), versatile for the purpose of my trip, flat soled, supportive, and comfortable like slippers. A good pair of shoes should last for over two years, minimum. I’m particular to the Merrell brand for my weird, narrow feet, but for the love of all that is holy, don’t be one of those people that wears flip-flops or 4-inch stiletto high heels. You don’t want to have to run to a connection with shoes like that, and both will likely make your joints very grumpy.

6) STRETCH. You know that weirdo in the back of the plane, near the galley and the lavatories, contorting themselves into some weird yoga poses as you try to get by? Don’t be afraid to be that person. Keep your blood flowing and stretch, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings, which inevitably are shorted when you sit in those tiny little airplane seats. In addition, those seats fit about 1% of the population. The rest of us are too short or too tall. Plus, if you get up and head to the back of the plane for a bit, you can ask the flight attendants for more water… or for the wonder that is tomato juice, which we all know you only drink when you’re on a plane.

How I want to dress on planes. (Randy from A Christmas Story.)

Bonus: 7) Stay Warm. If you’re one of those people who is always cold, you understand. And for dancers, the cold can be a formidable foe for our bodies. Bring a jacket on the plane that you can also use as a blanket, as well as a big scarf that can keep your neck and head warm if you get blasted by the plane ventilation system. If it’s too cold to stay seated, and it’s safe to move about the cabin, get up and go stretch out near the galley.

Traveling dancers: What are your favorite tips for keeping limber and ready to move when you travel?

Disclaimer: I just like the products mentioned here. I’m not getting any kickback from the companies who sell them.

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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.When you’re a dancer, you want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, we were required to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. We were not allowed to leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way. It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

Here’s what I learned…

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class… and then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure, that you are weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class. Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up. If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything. That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.


Dance Technique is Fancy Habits

Dance sometimes feels like some sort of mysterious practice, full of magic in its impermanence, and yet real in its physicality. We practice our technique and choreographies again and again to make our movements clearer, stronger, cleaner, more refined, and more fully embodied. Ballet dancers never stop practicing their tendus or plies. Practitioners in the Salimpour School always work on their glute squeezes and Basic Egyptian.

But really, when you get down to it, good technique is just fancy habits.

This is not to minimize technique, take it for granted, or imply that it’s easy. Indeed, maybe the opposite is true. How many times have you tried to change your habits in daily life, and how many times were you successful? Changing your habits and getting into new ones actually takes a great deal of mindfulness and work.

When we go to class, we’re integrating new movements and further integrating more familiar movements into our physical memories. Learning choreography is putting those habits into a longer practice. We revisit the same steps and sequences of movements again and again so that they become habitual, unconscious, and physically available to us in times when we need them most, and when we might be under duress… such as in a recital, performance, or practical exam.

And of course, habits can become mindless. I think of all the times I’ve locked the front door of my house out of habit but I can’t remember if I actually turned the key in the keyhole. We can “go through the motions” of our daily lives without thinking about what we do, and that is death for the dancer. When we fail to continually refine our technique, phrases, and choreographies, we fail to improve our already embodied skills.

Every day we go to dance class, we are creating new habits and refining existing ones. It is also essential that we identify somatic habits that might be detrimental to our physical bodies, such as poor alignment, as well as psychological ones that might result in negative thoughts or feelings. If we habitually tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough and that we won’t ever remember that choreography, then we truly won’t remember that choreography. That is, of course, where a great instructor can guide our practice out of negative habits and into positive ones.

We practice our technique so that we can somehow transform mindlessness into mindfulness, and become better dancers every time we enter the studio or take the stage.

 


Why Dancers Need to Cross-Train

Here’s something you don’t often hear: A dancer admitting their injuries.

14 years of figure skating, plus going on 16 years of belly dance (as well as many other dance forms) have taken their toll on my body. I’m constantly managing cranky hamstrings (biceps femoris for those nerds who are curious) in both legs, particularly on the left, as well as what might be pre-arthritic inflammation in my left hip socket. My left patella is prone to instability, resulting from muscular imbalances in my upper legs, causing the dreaded “Runner’s Knee.” In addition, I occasionally suffer from Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. The muscles around my left tibia and fibula seized up for a month in 2014 causing an excruciating pain in the ball of my foot, so much so that I could not walk or dance on it.*

I’m not asking for sympathy. This is my physical reality, but it doesn’t mean I’m forever doomed to dance in pain.

I could easily blame my coaches and dance instructors for my injuries, but my injuries are as much my own fault as the movements I have done repeatedly to invoke them. I’m not even sure “fault” is the best word. Dancers push their bodies to do unnatural movements for the sake of expression, aesthetics, and beauty; do that enough, and there’s bound to be some consequences. I could also easily admit defeat in the face of these physical obstacles, allowing them to dictate my practice. And while I take much care to not aggravate these conditions, I refuse to let them hold me back.

As a child, and well into my teenage years and early 20s, I saw myself as indestructible. Sure, I had some back pain once in a while (which I later learned was related to my psoas), but it would heal, and I would be fine. It wasn’t until I tore my left biceps femoris again last year that I actually did anything about it.

And by then, it was almost too late.

Thankfully, as a graduate student in a dance program, I had access to a fantastic physical therapist. I began seeing her regularly, as well as enrolling in a Pilates teacher training program.

Indeed, seeing a physical therapist and regularly engaging in a Pilates routine helped rehabilitate my hamstrings, as well as reveal other imbalances and instabilities in my pelvis that could, if I am not careful, lead to further injuries. But because of my injury, my rehabilitation has made me a stronger, more stable, and more efficient mover.

Many of us in the American belly dance community are in our 30s and 40s, having started this dance while we were in our 20s. Movements such as Turkish Drops, backbends, and the splits might have been more easily attained in our more youthful forms; however, years of wear and tear not only through dancing, but office work or anything else we have done in our lifetimes have taken their toll on our bodies. (Sitting all day wreaks all sorts of anatomical havoc.)

It is important that we find ways to mitigate the inevitable damage that we do to our bodies as dancers. Those of us who seek to make a living from teaching and/or performing must take even more care, for our bodies are literally our livelihoods. Even the most anatomically-aware dance practice includes repetitive movements, and this repetition, if not balanced out by cross-training, can cause imbalances in the body that could lead to injury. This reality is often not the fault of our instructors or their methodologies. It’s just a reality of this meat-covered skeleton we call Home, and as maturing practitioners we must take responsibility for our own bodies. We can do so through cross-training.

What do I mean by cross-training? Engaging in an exercise routine that explicitly aims to identify and balance the body’s strengths and flexibilities. Sure, attending dance classes in other forms will work out different muscle groups, but a specific exercise practice will likely be the most valuable for injury prevention and movement longevity.

What methods are out there? One dancer I know insists on machine-based weight training (and rehabbed herself after a major surgery). Some swear by yoga, others Gyrotonic/Gyrokinesis. I know others who insist on attending Dailey Method workouts. I prefer Pilates mat and reformer work to bring greater kinesthetic awareness to the intrinsic muscles around my hips. Any practice that emphasizes alignment, somatics, and strengthening will likely benefit you in the studio and on stage. You’ll feel a difference even if you only go once a week.

As we age, we must recognize that it’s up to us to modify movements as necessary. Indeed, an instructor can give modifications, but we are more empowered if we know how to modify for ourselves in a way that is not disruptive to the class or other students. It’s also up to us as students to alert our instructors to any injuries we might be dealing with on a given day; it’s up to the instructor to honor that communication. A good instructor will.

Do your body a favor and find a method that makes your body feel stronger, supported, and mobile. We won’t dance forever, but we can at least make our dancing years as pain-free and injury-free as possible.

 

*For those who are curious about why the left side? That’s my landing leg. Every time a figure skater lands a jump, she puts 5-8 times her own body weight on it through sheer impact.


Thoughts on staying healthy this winter

Autumn and winter bring cold weather for many of us (unless, of course, you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, happy almost summer!), and this change can leave our bodies vulnerable to illness and injury.  You might notice your muscles tightening and your flexibility waning. If you have sensitive joints, they might be more achy than usual.  As dancers we must take extra care of our bodies, particularly those of us over 30.  Our muscles and joints just aren’t as resilient anymore, and old injuries from our teens and 20s start creeping back into our practice with a vengeance.  (I have scar tissue in my left hip—my landing leg—from over a decade of figure skating.  I stopped skating regularly when I was 18.  That stuff just doesn’t go away.)

This winter, I’m making a concerted effort to keep my body happy and healthy.  Apart from the usual “remember to wash your hands” advice,  here are some little reminders as we head into the chilly holiday season.

  • Take more time to warm up before a show.  Performing cold is perhaps one of the most dangerous things a dancer can do. Bring extra socks, gloves, and sweaters (zip or button-up) to keep toasty in those cold back-stage areas.  I also always have a pair of “gig sandals” in my bag to keep my bare feet away from cold floors.  And remember that warming up does not mean just stretching.  Squats, Sun Salutations (A and B), alternating plies and releves in 1st and 2nd position, and good ol’ crunches and push-ups will help you generate heat from inside your body.  Bring a yoga mat with you if you suspect the floor will be dirty (I love my foldable Gaiam travel mat).
  • When you’re not dancing, stay warm on the outside.  Indulge in cozy robes and slippers at home, and hats and gloves for going out.  Keep your pulse points covered (throat, wrists, and ankles), as well as your head.  Break out those leg warmers for class and while running errands.  Own at least one wool sweater.
  • Stay warm on the inside.  What we eat has a dramatic effect on our health (understatement of the century, right?)  I’m an advocate for eating a plant-based diet, but I do crave a bit of meat in the winter, as it has warming properties (according to Chinese medicine).  If you’re a strict vegetarian, spicy foods can keep us warm internally.  My favorite winter foods include hearty lentil stews and Chinese-inspired noodle soups.  I also love vegetarian Indian dishes.  Our cabinet is also full of teas and herbal infusions that contain a healthy dose of ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, and cardamom (think “chai” or “pumpkin” spice). I also prefer to have warm breakfasts; even instant oatmeal with cinnamon, ginger, and honey does the trick.   If you’re prone to getting cold, even in mild weather, pay extra attention to what you consume.  Personally, I avoid cold milk (which isn’t very good for you anyway), soy milk, and wheat.  (Personal aside: when I cut wheat out of my diet in 2007, I was the only woman in my office who didn’t complain about it being too cold.)
  • Find a good bodyworker.  And I don’t mean just massage.  Find someone who can identify the physical and anatomical imbalances in your body and work out old scar tissue.  An experienced bodyworker will help you avoid injury by keeping your body open and aligned.  Also, when your muscles are loose, you might see an improvement in your overall circulation, which will keep you warmer.
  • Bring clean clothes to change into after a sweaty dance class.  You might be hot in the studio, but when you step outside, those damp clothes will feel freezing!  This seems like a no-brainer, but even I forget.
  • Don’t force your stretches.  Even if you feel warm.   You might be able to get all the way into that forward fold during the summer, but when winter rolls around, your mobility might be more limited.  Acknowledge those changes, and be kind to yourself.
  • Allow yourself to rest.  This is also a bit of a no-brainer, but in our fast-paced culture, it’s easy to forget.  We feel guilty when we take time for ourselves, but we really shouldn’t.  All throughout the natural world, animals and plants are winding down for the winter, finding ways to conserve food, resources, and energy.  We humans need to remember that we are animals, too, and require a bit of winding down ourselves.

I hope you find this list useful, particularly if your body, like mine, tends to “run cold”.  Here’s to a healthy and happy autumn and winter!

Source: Bellydance Paladin