7 Ways to Eat a Healthful Plant-Based Diet While Traveling on a Budget

Studies have shown that eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet can reduce your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, type-2 diabetes. It can also lower bad cholesterol levels and help you keep off excess weight.

But anyone who follows this diet knows that it can sometimes be a challenge to stick with it while traveling.

As a world-traveling dance instructor, I’m on the road a lot. And in addition to eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, I’m also allergic to wheat. No wheat, no meat, no dairy. Impossible, right? Not at all!

So, how does a wheat-free vegan dancer eat when on the road without breaking the bank?

(This post contains affiliate links.)

Plant-Based Diet While Traveling on a Budget Post by Abigail Keyes

1) Plan Ahead

Because my diet is so restrictive (actually, it’s not, because there is so much to eat out there that doesn’t come from animals), I have to check out where I’m going to eat before I get to my destination.

Before you go, look up where you’re staying in relation to grocery stores, corner markets, any scheduled farmer’s markets, and, of course, inexpensive restaurants. I like to mark these places with a star in Google Maps, which syncs with my mobile phone so I can access them anywhere.

2) Bring Your Own Food

When I travel, I know that breakfast is going to be difficult and expensive. So I bring my own. Instant oatmeal is my breakfast (and snack) of choice because I can make it anywhere as long as I have hot water, a paper cup, and a spoon. I also love individual packets of nut butter, dried fruit, almonds, and rice crackers.

And don’t underestimate the power of a good nutrition bar. I just discovered GoMacro bars, and they’re are gluten-free, organic, and soy-free. Perfect for when I need a little extra pick-me-up while playing tourist or during long days of teaching dance.

But if you’re traveling to a foreign country, make sure you read up on what you can and can’t bring with you. Some customs regulations are quite strict about specific food items like dried fruit and seeds.

3) Get Thee to a Grocery Store

If you’re going to be in a place for more than three days, it’s worth going to a local grocery store to pick up some essentials. And it doesn’t have to be the leading natural foods chain grocer; even conventional groceries are carrying more healthful items.

If you’re lucky to be staying in a place with a kitchen (see #4), then get yourself some salad greens, hummus, tinned beans and/or lentils, non-dairy milk of your choice, and some fresh fruits and vegetables.

Even if you don’t have access to a kitchen, you can get breakfast cereals, fresh and dried fruits, rice cakes, and nut butter. No fancy health food store required.

4) Stay in a Place with a Kitchen

While having access to a kitchen isn’t always possible, it’s certainly ideal. An apartment-style hotel might have less amenities than the Sheraton, but it will have the essentials: refrigerator, microwave, kettle, flatware, dishware, cooking utensils, and more.

Being able to make my own breakfast, save and heat up leftovers, and brewing tea in the evening is also easier on my budget than going out for every meal.

Even modest hotel chains can have microwaves and refrigerators in the rooms. If there isn’t a microwave in the hotel room itself, check downstairs in the lobby.

5) Get in Hot Water

Even if you’re not staying in a place with a kitchen, most hotel rooms will at least have a way to make hot water, whether it be a coffee maker or a hot water kettle. Hotels with a restaurant will gladly give you hot water, or will fill your insulated water bottle.

With just hot water you can make instant oatmeal, soups, teas, noodles, rice, quinoa, and more.  Check out this ingenious post on how to prepare creative meals in your hotel room.

6) Be Demanding (But be nice about it!)

Don’t be afraid to ask about what’s in a certain dish or insist that you and your travel-mates go to restaurants and cafes that have more than one plant-based meal on offer. Hopefully, if you’ve planned ahead (see #1), arguments over where to eat dinner won’t be an issue. But if they are, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and your health.

That said, even the big box chain restaurants will have items that are vegan and gluten-free. Don’t underestimate the side dish menu, where you’ll find vegetables and baked potatoes. Plant-based dietician Julieanna Hever has even more great restaurant survival tips.

7) Be Adventurous

When traveling, whether it be in the United States or overseas, your best and cheapest options for meals are likely in “ethnic” restaurants. I’ve had amazing Colombian plantains in the suburbs of Atlanta, Cuban black beans and rice in tiny cities in Florida, and South Indian idli with coconut chutney in the outskirts of Paris.

And if you’re not sure about what’s in something, just ask.

When traveling in a country where English is not the dominant language, learn the words for “meat,” “fish,” “dairy,” “milk,” and other foods you wish to avoid. You can even print out a little card of terms in the local language to keep in your wallet or day pack to hand to the server to tell them what you can’t eat. If you’re polite, they’ll be happy to oblige.

What are your favorite ways to eat well while away from home?

Share with us in the comments!




Why You Should Foster a Mindful Dance Practice

What does it mean to foster a mindful dance practice?

Fostering a mindful dance practice blog post by Abigail Keyes

Mindfulness Is Good For You

Being mindful, according to experts in the field, is the act of noticing your feelings, environment, and physical sensations without judgement. It is the opposite of what we might call “checking out” or being on “auto-pilot.” Being mindful means ignoring our Ego and our “Monkey Mind.” And even though it has roots in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, it can be quite secular.

Some of the most powerful business leaders are investing millions of dollars on mindfulness workshops and retreats for their employees. Marc Benioff of the San Francisco-based company Salesforce famously consulted with Vietnamese Zen monks to improve employee well-being, and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program has a 6-month long wait list.

A number of scientific studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less likely to have a wide range of illnesses, from heart disease to depression. Those who exhibit trait mindfulness—that is, those who make mindfulness an inherent habit rather than just a deliberate practice—are even healthier.

Mindfulness also has a profound positive impact on our interpersonal relations, allowing us to observe our emotions and the emotions of others before reacting. It can even reduce implicit age and race bias. Whoa.

Dancers Are Already Mindful…

Dancers by nature practice a kind of mindfulness when we go to class. When we integrate new movements into our bodies, we must be aware of the present, listening to our bodies, observing our instructor… hopefully without judgement.

When a class is just challenging enough, we are forced to be present if we want to physicalize what is expected of us. Maybe it means remembering a full combination or doing a difficult technical element. We can’t mentally check-out if we are to integrate these movements into our bodies.

When it comes to mindfulness, dancers have a leg up. (Pun alert.) Afterall, dance technique is really just fancy habits, and habits are what we do without thinking.

…But Sometimes Not Enough

But what about those movements that we know? What about that repetitive drill that we’ve done a bazillion times or that choreography we’ve been running for five years? You know… those exercises that when your teacher asks you to do them, you might go, “But I know this already!”

It’s super easy to go through the motions and take a mindless approach to these elements of our dance practice, letting our bodies take the lead.

We dancers often rely heavily on “muscle memory” to get us through a rehearsal or performance. It can be easy to let our body do the work, and it should. There is a certain amount of automaticity that must happen in our bodies for us to do our job. But sometimes that doesn’t always mean transcendent mind-body connection. A recent study compared practitioners of Vipassana meditation with a sample of dancers, and found the meditators had a greater integration of mind and body.

I’m sure you’ve noticed when a dancer is not being mindful in class or rehearsal. Maybe there’s that one who doesn’t know how long their arms are and keeps running into you. Or maybe there’s a fellow company member who keeps making the same mistake over and over again. Or that one who just doesn’t integrate a doable correction, no matter how many times the instructor or director reminds them.

These dancers could benefit from taking a moment to reflect and observe their bodies.

Chances are that if you noticed these mistakes, you made a judgement call on them. Maybe a little mindfulness could help you, too!

Dance is Always New, Even When It Feels Old

Every day we step into the studio or on the stage, we must take a moment to take account of our bodies. Every day is different. Weather, hormones, a bad day at work, a fight with our significant other can all affect our movements.

When we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge those changes, and, most importantly, accept them, our time in class and rehearsal can be more productive and more positive.

A mindful dance practice also allows us to find the newness in material that might no longer interest us or challenge us. Every dance form has those movements and techniques that we must do over and over again, whether it be a part of our warm-ups or performance. But as performers, we cannot afford to get bored, because our audiences will feel that lack of engagement. They’ll know that we’ve checked out and let rote muscle memory do the heavy lifting.

And as a dance teacher, I can tell when my students are checking out. And I can tell you that it sometimes gives the impression that they don’t care about the work. Ouch.

Small Ways to Be More Mindful While Dancing

Many dance classes have repetitive warm ups, or at least movements that repeat every time. Instead of just going through the motions, observe yourself as you do these exercises. Are you putting your full attention into them, or is your mind wandering? If it wanders, breathe, and focus on the intent of the exercise.

Personally, I like to focus on different body connections as I dance. What is the relationship between my fingers and my toes? The crown of my head and my sacrum? My right and left halves? What about your facing in the room? Taking account of how these shift as I move gives my Monkey Mind more than enough to chew on, allowing my more active thinking to focus on the task at hand.

The next time you learn a combination or new dance, how can you best be mindful not only of your own body but the space around you? Maybe you are that dancer with the long arms who runs into fellow students. Notice when this happens, and observe how much space you need without popping someone else’s space bubble.

At the end of class or rehearsal, take note of how you feel. Were you happy with yourself or frustrated? Did the teacher give you feedback? Did a fellow student’s behavior affect you? How did it make you feel? Do you think you did well? Reflect, but don’t judge.

I feel that I’m just beginning to integrate mindfulness into my dance and teaching practice. Is this something you do, either as a teacher or student? Tell us in the comments!





Why Don’t Belly Dancers Warm Up Before a Performance?

Greetings, dear readers! Please enjoy this GUEST POST by Parya, fellow instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and member of the Suhaila Dance Company.


Ballet and modern dancers do it. Athletes do it. Actors do it. But why don’t belly dancers warm up before a performance?

Parya Guest Post: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before Performance

A Proper Warm Up Is Essential

This is a bit of a generalization, of course, as I’m sure there are some belly dancers who do stretch and warm up before a performance. However, in my years of performing belly dance in festivals, fundraisers, restaurants, and other gigs, I’ve seldom seen a belly dancer warm up.

I often feel alone in the middle of the changing room or the hallway of the gig, inhaling and exhaling before a show as I lunge from side to side, roll my shoulders, loosen and tense glutes and hamstrings, and sometimes start with jumping jacks or a brief high-kneed jog.

For me, warming up is a vital part of a performance. In order for me to be able to physically express my emotional state and physicalize the music, I need not to be concerned about my muscles functioning properly. Warming up before a performance is not only about my body, it also prepares my mind.

The warmup is like a meditation to center myself and calm my nerves, to think about the story I’m about to tell, and why anyone should care. It’s a time for me to reflect on the state of my body and wake up the muscles I’ll need in my performance.

A proper warmup helps me to increase the elasticity of my muscles, improve efficiency of the signals along my nervous system, enhance my range of motion, and minimize the chance of any potential injuries (knock on wood).

Creating Your Own Warm-up

It can be difficult to know what to do when you’re warming up before a performance. I’ve had dancers ask me about the movements I do or even follow me in a group warm-up prior to a performance. Having to figure something out right before a performance can be frustrating, distracting, and time-consuming.

So I highly recommend having an active routine that engages all major muscles and even minor muscles that you may be calling on during a specific performance. By active, I mean warm-ups that include movement and that contract and release the muscles sequentially as opposed to a static hold. Essentially, you want to elevate your heart rate by moving your body through a range of motions.

Different performances might need slightly different warm ups. For example, if you’ll be performing a khaliji piece with a lot of hair tosses and head rolls, activate and warm up your smaller neck muscles before you go on stage.

My Basic Pre-Performance Warm-up

It’s evident that no amount of warming up will ever take the place of years of technique and drilling; however, it will help to maximize your capacity when you set foot on the stage.

Give yourself a minimum of 10-15 minutes before each performance to warm up. Begin with 5 minutes of aerobic movements to increase your body temperature, such as jumping jacks, marching in place, or skipping (Abigail and I run back and forth in the hallway and high-five each other before an Enta Omri performance). Then, add movements such as side to side lunges, alternating runner’s lunges, and arm swings along the various planes of the body. After that, warm up your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves with quick tendus, dégagés, and battements to the front, side, and back, or calf raises. Follow these movements with head, shoulder, ribcage, pelvis, ankle and wrist circles (especially if you’re playing finger cymbals).

Finally, round off the circuit with some deep breathing to focus on your kick-ass performance.

I hope this routine helps you stay healthy and give your all every time you take the stage. Break an eyelash!

How do you warm up before a show? Share in the comments!


Parya Saberi: Why Don't Belly Dancers Warm Up Before PerformanceAbout the Author

Parya has a Doctorate in Clinical Pharmacy with a specialty in HIV care and a Masters in Clinical Research. She is an Assistant Professor at a top ranking Bay Area university where she conducts clinical and behavioral research. Parya began her love affair with dance at the age of 7 studying Persian dance and later trained in New York Style Salsa and belly dance. She is currently an instructor at the Salimpour School of Dance and has been a member of the Suhaila Dance Company (SDC) since 2014. She is currently Suhaila and Jamila Level 3 certified and is working toward her Suhaila Level 4 certification in July 2017. Read more at www.parya.dance.

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What You Need to Know About Morton’s Toe

On my last post about feet, one of the comments was about Morton’s Toe. Morton’s Toe, also known as Morton’s Foot—named after one Dudley Joy Morton—or “Greek Toe,” likely affects about 20% of the population. It challenges the body’s balance and can cause muscle and joint pain, but with the right tools it is manageable. I suspect that many people (like myself) who are told that they have high or fallen arches actually have this condition, but don’t know it.

What to know about Morton's Toe blog post by Abigail Keyes

6 Facts about Morton’s Toe

1. Even though it’s called “Morton’s Toe,” it really refers to the bones behind the toes.
In a “normal” foot, the first metatarsal extends more forward than the rest. This causes the big toe to hit the ground first while walking, running, and dancing. (Cue “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid.) For those of us with Morton’s Toe, the second metatarsal makes contact first, throwing off our balance, and putting pressure on the second toe and middle of the foot.

Common callus areas for feet with Morton's Toe

Common callus areas for feet with Morton’s Toe.

Some people with this foot structure have second toes that are visibly longer than the rest, like the feet on the Statue of Liberty. Others might not. An X-ray will show for sure.

2. Symptoms include pain in the ball of the foot. If you’ve had pain in the ball of the foot, you might have been told that you have “metatarsalagia.” A fancy word that isn’t really a condition, but just a description of discomfort and inflammation.

Additional clues can be where your foot develops calluses, particularly on the outside of the big toe, underneath the second metatarsal head, and on the outside of the foot right behind the baby toe.

Morton’s toe can also make you prone to plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.

3. It can create trigger point and referred pain all the way up the body.
If your second metatarsal is sticking out more then the rest, it can make your foot feel wobbly. Indeed, your body is trying to balance on a single point, where people without this condition can more easily place their weight on either side of the ball of the foot.

This constant balancing act can cause the shins, calves, quads, hips, and back to overcompensate. These areas are bracing and stabilizing so much that it causes muscle and joint fatigue. Your body has to work overtime just to keep you standing, let alone the extra balance and muscular engagement it takes to be in relevé!

If you’re prone to shin splints, calf pain, tight IT bands, and lower back pain, it might all start in your feet.

4. It’s not the same as Morton’s Neuroma, although the two are sometimes related. Apparently podiatry attracts a lot of Dr. Mortons. The neuroma is named after one Thomas George Morton. Totally different guy.

Morton’s Neuroma occurs when nerves between the metatarsal bones are trapped and become inflamed. It can lead to severe pain as well as numbness. Some people with Morton’s Toe do develop the fibrous neuromas, but not all. Those with the neuroma should avoid high heels and constrictive shoes.

5. Special insoles can help mitigate pain and improve balance. I’ve been able to manage the discomfort through regular self-massage, exercises, and insoles. A few years ago, the pain in the ball of my left foot was so awful, I couldn’t put weight on it. A (not-so-great) podiatrist told me I must have had a stress fracture, but the X-rays showed nothing wrong. Thankfully, a fellow dancer referred me to her dad, a trigger point massage therapist (shout-out to Chuck Duff). He worked on my calves, shins, feet, and hips, and within a few hours, the pain had disappeared.

Chuck also suggested I try out the insoles sold at mortonsfoot.com. I don’t get any kickback for linking to them, but I will say that their insoles have saved my dancing. They have thin insoles that I wear in my jazz shoes if I know I’ll be an intense workshop or on my feet for an extended amount of time. Their thicker insoles fit right into my regular boots and street shoes.

6. Massage can really help. Massaging the muscles between the shins, the calf muscles, and the soles of the feet will help loosen the muscles and joints in the foot itself, allowing it to relax. Use a foam roller, stick roller, or a lacrosse ball. I like to use a lacrosse ball on my shins and calves, because it’s a bit more precise than the foam roller. For your shins, place the ball on the floor, then kneel on the ball, as shown in this video. Find the tender parts, and don’t put too much weight on it, but just enough to relax the muscles. The same technique works for your calves.

Also you can massage the muscles between metatarsals with your fingers or a soft pencil eraser. This will help the toes spread out more, distributing your weight more evenly throughout the ball of the foot. The website of Bonnie Prudden, a pioneer of trigger point therapy, has lots of great exercises to mitigate the pain of a long second metatarsal.

7. It’s not a deformity, and if you have it, you’re not a freak (unless you want to be). This kind of foot structure is pretty common, so if you have it, accept it, discover ways to manage it, and give some extra love to your feet. They deserve it.

If you have Morton’s Toe, how have you managed it? Share in the comments!





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).
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6 Travel Tips for Dancers: Staying Well on the Road

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 travel tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

Heads up. This post contains affiliate links.

Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

6 Travel Tips for Dancers (and other people with bodies)

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.

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

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 (which I brew in my insulated water bottle). 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. Looks like Amazon still has some, though!

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?





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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. 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.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

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, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us 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.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  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. 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. They won’t think you’re 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.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

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.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!





Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique (It’s Not as Hard as You Think)

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, the secret to good technique is knowing that it’s all just fancy habits.

Unlock the Mystery of Effortless Dance Technique by Abigail Keyes

New Habits Are Not Always Easy

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.

Habits Don’t Equal Mindlessness

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.

Habits Require Mindfulness

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.

 




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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