This conversation with Aus Dancers Overseas (Stephanie) is a fantastic blend of useful tips, scientific facts, talk of mindsets, how art meets food, and so much more. Not only is Stephanie a wealth of knowledge about fueling for the high demands of an active lifestyle and not afraid to highlight changes that need to be made for progress to happen, but is also a vocal advocate for the overall wellbeing of dancers. I am so grateful for the time and wisdom Stephanie gave, and couldn’t be more excited to see what ways this information helps your journey!
Disclaimer* all of Stephanie’s amazing insights could not be put into a blog post word for word. Hence, some of her answers have been slightly condensed with her approval.
What is your current profession and could you please give some dot points on your background in dance?
My current profession is a mixture of sports medicine and sports nutrition. I specialise in the treatment of relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S), low energy availability in sport, and hypothalamic amenorrhea (loss of periods). I also run webinars such as the LEAP overseas program (living, eating, adjusting, performing overseas program), which helps inform/prepare students and their families as they make the transition to training overseas.
I myself trained in musical theater, but started with ballet. My musical theatre journey ended quite late into my training when I fractured a vertebrae. The woman treating my back injury inspired me to go into medicine, but I struggled to decide my specialty. Medicine has so many layers, and for a couple of years I got very into global health and human genetics. Global health was actually the thing that brought me back to dance, as working in foreign countries introduces you to those cultures, and that often includes traditional dancing. Eventually these folk dances helped me realise I wanted to get back into the dance world. Global health had shown me that dance needed to be looked at through a much more inclusive and holistic lense, so that’s when I began the work I’m doing now.
Do you have a favourite quote/poem/piece of art, if so could you share it?
“If history repeats itself and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must man be of learning from experience”.- George Bernard Shaw
I’m usually quite an optimistic person, however I feel the above quote really hits home for 2020. We can look at the concept of that quote globally, but we can also apply it just to the dance world. We have known since 1980 that female dance students are subjected to low energy availability, due to harmful beliefs that this will help their development be delayed and create the ‘ideal’ of a pubescent body (even for adults) . I don’t understand why we are still fighting such dangerous beliefs today when the evidence has been there for 40 years.
Was there a specific experience that drove your passion for nutrition and then sharing that knowledge?
A lot of it was driven by my annoyance with diet culture. Not only are diets aimed at the general population (not dancers/athletes), but it is an industry; meaning it aims to make money. This industry wants people to fail so they can continue taking your money, and that’s inhumane. Whilst dance is an art form, physically we are moving our bodies like athletes. Hence, we have to apply the same physiology to dancers as to athletes. These days, we have so much insight from elite sports and know they eat tailored to their needs in order to produce PBs and national/world records. It should be a no-brainer that this approach is applied to dancers as well. The problem in the dance world is that often advice is given from teachers who haven’t studied biology, physiology, or nutrition; so they often give nutrition advice based on diet culture. I want to share my knowledge in order to help combat the harmful information of the diet industry.
You’re a vocal advocate for the physical and mental health of dancers. What helped you find your voice in these matters and where did you get the courage to speak up? What advice would you give to others who are afraid to speak up?
*You can listen to Stephanie’s podcast episode with Terry Hyde to hear her talk on this matter (AusDancersOverseas-The Podcast, episode title: ‘bullies and narcissists in leadership positions’, available on spotify)
Having a research position at university meant I had to be very politically correct, and in the end I found that stopped me from delivering the healthcare people really needed. I had to constantly let go of patients without them getting all the treatment they needed. This took its toll on me, so I opened my own clinic, after which it became very easy to speak up. I’m now completely responsible for supporting them to be the healthiest they can be. Noone is there to say “you shouldn’t say this or you shouldn’t have done that”, in the end I care about helping the dancer not the politics. I believe political correctness got the dance world where it is today, so I don’t believe continuing to be PC will see the changes that need to happen. It can be hard, as once you speak up in an environment that’s not supportive, you’re no longer safe in that environment. On the other hand, by not speaking up you are supporting what is happening. That is not to say all dance institutions are unsupportive, through my work I’m just finding many are, it’s just not enough yet. If you are not in a position to speak up, try and find someone who can do so for you.
What perceived ‘failure’ has turned into your most helpful lesson on your journey thus far?
I learnt my goal can’t be for all school/company directors to like me. Lots of what I do and what I post makes them feel threatened, because it forces them to rethink their beliefs and their approach to dance, and that’s a very uncomfortable thing for humans to do. I used to try so hard to be on good terms with them all, however after multiple situations of being bad mouthed and bullied I realised I cared more about the dancers I was helping rather than these people’s opinions.
As someone who has lived in multiple places, do you believe culture has an effect on a person’s relationship with food? If so, do you feel ‘culture shock around food’ influences dancers when moving overseas?
It’s important to remember that beauty ideals of western countries are not the same as everywhere else. There will always be behaviors and messages that are not only communicated through television, advertisement, and social media, but also through family. What happens in someone’s childhood hugely impacts their relationship with food, first you’re exposed to the food dynamics within your family, and then once you grow up you are exposed to diet culture. Due to this, I feel there needs to be more support and education around nutrition for families. I would say, yes, culture has an effect, but childhood teachings have a greater effect. Even if you move cultures/countries you’ll hang on to your childhood teachings. For example, kids are often told they have to finish everything on their plate otherwise there will be consequences. All this achieves is teaching kids to ignore their hunger and satiety cues for later in life. I think dancers also need to understand that cultures may feed them information such as salt is bad because the general population has an heart health issue. The dance population does not have that same issue, in fact they NEED salt to replenish what they lose from sweating.
Is water the best drink for dancers? Why/why not?
Whilst water is great for the general population, it’s not the best for when a dancer is training. Dancers frequently overlook that through sweating they lose both water and sodium; this sodium is required for a very delicate balance in the body. If you have listened to those guidelines meant for the public and are reducing your sodium intake in food as well as only drinking plain water, you could end up really unwell. By being mindful of your sodium intake your body is better hydrated and your heart has less work to do, so you will be less fatigued . The other issue I find is dancers lack of knowledge about their glycogen stores. Glycogen fuels your training, and often needs to be replenished early in your day. You can easily have depleted your glycogen stores just in your 90 minute morning class and many will run straight to their next class/rehearsal, continuing for hours without eating and only drinking a little water. By doing this, you’re switching from the body’s preferred mode of burning carbohydrates to burning fat. Everybody thinks that burning fat for fuel is amazing, it’s certainly not. It slows you down so the same intensity as before suddenly gets a lot harder and you fatigue a lot faster. It also greatly increases your risk of injury as dancers tend to push beyond their limits. This is why sports drinks are great, they have both the sodium and carbohydrates (glycogen) you need. Store bought ones have a decent amount of sodium, but you can also make ones yourself with natural ingredients (e.g. orange juice and water), just make sure to add sodium by adding a pinch of salt. I know a lot of dancers can be self conscious about being seen eating on breaks, and if that’s the case for you I recommend taking a bottle that is not see through and filling it with a sports drink.
Where do you believe the fear around carbs stems from? Do you feel it is time for a new mentality around this topic? If so, why?
This is completely diet culture’s fault, and it makes me so angry. Far too many people have no idea that they actually run on glucose, so they are so scared of sugars (carbohydrates) that they try to avoid any kind of them; when that’s actually the body’s prefered source of fuel. Most people misunderstand sugar and think I’m talking about raw sugar that is lumped into cups of tea (which is what we call added sugar), but all fruits contain sugars or more complex carbohydrates too. It is definitely time for a new mentality, as this thinking is just harmful. Without giving your body the right fuel, you will be more fatigued, prone to injury, and less mentaly alert.
Why do you feel there is so little conversation about the risks of DE/underfueling (such as RED-S,amenorrhea, and decreased mental focus)?
It forces people to rethink their beliefs, which is uncomfortable for many. There is also so much politics in the dance world that if one person feels threatened by a topic they will communicate that to others and then gang up to hide/ shutdown that topic. I also feel humans tend to like a simplistic mentality of ‘do this, don’t do that, eat this, don’t eat that’. This is easy and you don’t need to think for yourself, however learning the intricacies about fueling your own body does not fit into that easy mentality.
The internet allows for so much ‘advice’ at people’s fingertips about food choices/fad diets, especially with the current ‘what I eat in a day’ trend. What would you say to people trying to navigate this situation who may not have their own science based knowledge about what will benefit/harm them?
We want to believe that a one size fits all approach will work and that something as simple as a protein bar is going to solve our problems. This is just not going to happen and acknowledging this is uncomfortable for people. They would rather follow someone who says, ‘this is what I eat in a day’, and for a while they believe that if they eat the same things they will look the same, which they won’t. My advice for people is to find someone who you know has all the qualifications to give evidence-based advice to help guide you. If accounts posting things such as what I eat in a day are triggering you, but you don’t feel comfortable unfollowing, then please mute those accounts. This is very generic advice, so if you have questions please seek some individualized support.
Can you provide any evidentiary/factual support for your belief that the aesthetics of ballet can co-exist with scientifically correct feuling for bodies working at an athletic capacity?
Absolutely. Far too many people focus on the number on the scales, and in the context of your physique this number doesn’t really mean anything. Gaining/losing weight does not necessarily mean you are gaining/losing fat. You could have gained more muscle, or you could have gained a mixture of muscle and body fat, you also could have lost muscle and gained body fat due to being in low energy availability. The body tends to react to being in LEA contrary to what you may think, and will overcompensate by holding on to all the fat it can. Instead of the number on the scales, we need to look at body composition as a whole. That means looking at how much body fat you have, how much muscle you have, how is the balance of your hormones, do you have good bone density, or are they not as dense (which could be because you’ve restricted earlier in your life). We also need to look at psychological factors e.g your attitude towards the food you eat or the way you look. Only then can we actually determine if you’re a healthy individual or not. Dances are often very surprised that they end up with a higher weight than they thought they would, but they look a lot leaner. People comment they’ve lost weight and they didn’t, but they have turned their body composition into something more favorable. We actually see the composition not the number on the scales, which is what many directors and teaching staff unfortunately don’t understand. If you fuel according to your own needs (even if for you that means being a little heavier), you will most likely look more ‘the part of a ballerina’. The dance world still has a long way to go with learning this.
Do you see an overlap between art and science in cooking?
Everyone says a performance should evoke emotions in people, and we forget food has the right to do so too. People don’t realise there are many sides to ‘emotional eating’. There is of course what everyone thinks is emotional eating, such as ‘I’m so stressed and I have no coping skills for this situation, therefore I’ll turn to a tub of ice cream’. However that is only one part of emotional eating. Think about being with your family, together in the kitchen cooking and sharing meals, this creates memories. There is also the sense and taste of food that is totally emotional as well. I see the art as the presentation and the actual experience of eating (preferably a shared experience), rather than the recipe itself which is more the scientific component.
What advice would you give to the perfectionistic side of dancers who once gaining nutritional knowledge are too ‘scared’ to eat something that they don’t deem a perfect fuel/recovery meal?
I see my job as teaching dancers to become independent of needing a dietitian. Part of this is teaching you about the side of food associated with socializing/being with family, and simply enjoying it. Something that’s been great to discuss during our LEAP overseas program is you are going to make many new friends and that will mean birthday parties and other celebrations. There will be plenty of opportunities where you are being faced with the decision, am I going to join this social gathering? Am I going to try to avoid the food there? Small steps towards progress need to be taken in situations like these. Dancers are often perfectionists so they want to be 100% better by tomorrow. That mind set is not going to work because it’s overwhelming, and requires patience. Identify what triggers you, write it down, write why it triggers you, and ask someone such as your nutritionist or a counselor how you can overcome these triggers. Ask how you can build up resilience and learn coping strategies. You will still know what to eat to fuel yourself for a full schedule, and why those foods fuel you, but there will also be room for that piece of birthday cake.
What is one thing that’s integral for yourself when striving for a holistic lifestyle?
Having a life outside of dance. One of the reasons I love running half marathons is I have absolutely no time to think about anything else whilst training. I also recommend regularly setting yourself a day when you switch off as much as possible, this includes muting social media accounts that trigger you. Social media illustrates that it’s all about the tricks (e.g. more turns, higher legs), but this is when artistry gets lost. Switch off and remember dance is about quality not trick quantity.
They say the pen is mightier than the sword, so if you could scribe one word to use as your weapon in life what would it be?
If you stop being curious you’ll easily get into the habit of believing misinformation and trusting people who promise to ‘solve your life’ with something like a snack bar. This planet is amazing. Humans are amazing. Try to understand as much as possible, because our time is limited.
In what ways would you like to see readers’ minds expand with this interview?
You may have to search to find like minded people, but you will find them. What you can do with your life is much more in your control than we ever believe, just remember to be proactive, not reactive.
You can find Stephanie on IG @ausdancersoverseas and check out their website at https://ausdancersoverseas.com/