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DancerLife: A Man, A Plan, A … Well, Kind Of A Plan, IDK

Today’s episode of Danseur Ignoble is brought to you by the famous palindrome, “A MAN, A PLAN, A CANAL: PANAMA.” Which, to be fair, only works properly if you don’t consider the punctuation when reversing it, in which case you’d get “.AMANAP :LANAC A ,NALP A ,NAM A” thus utterly defeating the entire point of palindromes in the first place. Also, full disclosure: at the moment, as far as I know, there isn’t a canal in my plan.

I wrote recently about how planning to eat is a good idea, and how the #dancerlife can make that challenging, etc.

Anyway, now that the season is looming into sight (OH LORD, MAKE HASTE TO HELP US, etc) and I’ve done the fun part of being a responsible adult danseur (New tights! New shoes! New … dance belts. Yeah, well, it can’t all be that exciting.), I’m on to doing the hard part.

Or, well, the part that’s hard for me.

Which is planning.

Anyway, in the spirit of continuing to explore the vagaries of #dancerlife in ways that might potentially be useful to other people, today we’ll take a brief look at my planning process (HA! I’m not sure it qualifies as a process, tbh.)

I find it really helpful to create a broad visual guide to my week: a kind of general picture of how things are likely to look, knowing that they’re going to be different sometimes. Because I’ll take 6,000,000 years to finish it if I try to do it by hand, I typically just create a table in Google Docs.

Here, for your edification, is a screenshot of said table as it currently stands:

I like to assume that I’m an idiot and address myself accordingly in the notes. I’m not, in fact, actually an idiot in a general sense, but I’m TERRIBLE at imagining time, and reminding myself to “Eat breakfast. SERIOUSLY. EAT BREAKFAST.” is a good idea.

My teaching schedule (thus far) includes Monday evenings (useful, since my teaching job is more or less halfway between home and Lexington) and Wednesday evenings, and my Wednesday class is late enough to allow me to take an extra class in Lexington on Wednesday evening.

I’m deeply grateful that I won’t be trying to jet out to Frankfort to teach at 5:15, or 5:30, after rehearsal. Yes, it bought me some time to play around in the studio, but it also made it really hard to figure out when I to eat dinner.

Though I’m not sure yet whether this strategy will work, my current plan for Wednesday is to eat a reasonably substantial meal between Rehearsal Block B and Evening Class, then a snack/mini-meal on the way home from teaching. That should prevent me from wanting to murder anyone in the interval.

I might(???) be teaching on Friday evening, though if I’m not I plan to take an extra class then as well. Might as well make the most of my time, and I have plenty to learn as a dancer, soooooooooo………..

I have literally no idea what Theater Week for our first production will look like, nor whether the Nutcracker run will in any way resemble its usual self, so I’m not even going to try to make a draft plan for Theater Week right now.

TBH, half the time, no matter how well I plan, Theater Week turns into “All You Can Eat Pizza Week” anyway (work is irrelevant, as one inevitably just has to tap a sub, or in my case, possibly several).

A bird’s-eye view of Theater Week. (Pixabay via Pexels.com)

I think our company schedule is a little different this year (I seem to recall that our morning break is now 15 mins, which probably means we’ll take lunch at 1:30 instead of 1, or something) but not so much so that it’ll drive a train right through this schedule, which is only a rough draft anyway.

If you find yourself thinking, “Yes, fine–you’ve written all these words, and you’ve still told us NOTHING about your planning process,” you’re absolutely correct, and I apologize.

So here’s how the process itself works:

Really first, before I actually begin planning, I look at my various schedules from various places and try to make them make sense in my head and generally develop a headache.

Officially First, I realize I need to make a visual depiction of my typical week, so I begin by making a table on a blank document.

At first, my blank document includes:

  • 7 columns: one for each day of the week.
  • 4 rows: one for each more-or-less arbitrary division in my day (I don’t like to use an hour-by-hour schema at this stage; I get too hung up on how things don’t line up visually the way I want them to).

Then I realize that I need a header row for days of the week, so I add that, and probably a label column so I can label the different sections of the day, so I add that too and spend a few minutes dithering over what I want to call the different parts of my day.

Once those rows and columns are in place, I start copying data into the individual cells for my company day, then by data for classes other than company class, then data for my teaching job(s).

At some point in this process, I realize I want color blocks to help me visualize my week without reading, so I start adding those. And then once the color blocks start coming together, I realize that a visual breaks for lunch would probably help, so I add a row (columns merged, text aligned center-center) for that. And, hey! It does help!

I briefly decide that I need a separate row for my potential second teaching job, so I add one. Then I change my mind, since adding the row in question will make the whole schedule less meaningful visually, and I remove that row and decide that I’ll just add a note at the top of each work cell (and probably make them different colors if I teach at more than one place).

For now, since I’m not 100% sure I’ll have an extra teaching gig, I’ve filled in the space it would occupy with question marks (???). It could take place on Thursday instead of Friday, but Friday seems more likely, and so the overall shape of the week in this draft is settled.

Then I realize I’m going to need another visual break between the end of the company day and … everything else, even though I technically consider additional classes part of company life. So I add one of those, formatted just like the lunch break, and label it accordingly.

The line for breakfast was kind of an afterthought. I actually thought about leaving it out: I mean, I actually do tend to eat breakfast every day, because when I don’t, I’m typically unfit for human company until I do eat something. But I liked what it brought to the table visually, and in all honesty, it’s useful in helping me imagine how I need to use my time.

Which, for me, is the whole point of doing this.

What this little visual layout really does is help me stop myself overcommitting.

Without it, I tend to imagine all of the time that I’m not actively in the studio either dancing or teaching as “free” and thus available for teaching or whatever, or even just doing side projects. And then, unsurprisingly, I wind up burning myself out.

There will always be seasons (NUTCRACKER) in a dancer’s life in which a little burnout (NUTCRACKER) is more or less inevitable (N U T C R A C K E R!!!!).

“WHAT?! Seriously, dude, I’m on break!” (Luis Quintero via Pexels.com)

That’s why we have breaks in our company calendars. We need that time to literally rest, so our minds and bodies can recover from the strain of long days rehearsing and performing (and living on pizza because we’re artists and thus broke).

Last year, I overcommitted myself, and wound up creating a situation in which I wasn’t eating well enough or resting enough during rehearsal weeks, so by the time performance runs ended, I was not simply cooked, but overcooked. I did finish the year a better and stronger dancer than I began it, but I could’ve made more progress if I’d just taken slightly better care of myself.

Likewise, just as it is with our hearts and minds, we can only take more out of our bodies than we put back for so long. If my goal is to have staying power as a dancer, I need to take care of my instrument. Part of that is feeding it well and giving it enough rest to make up for the crazy demands I place on it.

Nobody pursues a career in dance because it’s easy: if you think it’s going to be easy, you’ll either drop out before you get anywhere near a career, or you’ll realize how wrong you were and embrace the challenge.

That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to make it harder for ourselves.

And one of the best ways to prevent making it harder for ourselves, of course, is to plan. And while I try not to overuse this phrase, I am sufficiently bad at planning on the whole that I want to say, “If I can do this, you probably can, too.”

Swan Lake. By Paata Vardanashvili from Tbilisi, Georgia (Nino Ananiashvili "Swan Lake") [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
It worked for Odette! Or, well. Maybe that’s the wrong example? YOU GET THE POINT.
(PC: Paata Vardanashvili [Nino Ananiashvili “Swan Lake”] [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Caption mine ^-^)

PS: my decision to arrange my schedule Sunday-Saturday is a purely pragmatic one. That way, since my company week runs Tuesday-Saturday, my least-scheduled days are grouped together, which I find visually useful. You should organize your week in whatever way works best for you.

DancerLife: Food (Part 1)

Upfront disclaimer/disclosure thing: I am definitely not a nutritionist, as you’ll probably realize if you read the rest of this post, which is mostly about stupid food-related mistakes I made last season. This post is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, nor should it be taken as advice, unless the advice is: If you have questions about feeding yourself as a dancer, maybe go ask someone who really knows their stuff.

I’ve written about food before. Probably a lot. I like food, though I struggle with food sometimes. I also generally quite like eating[1].

  1. Except, apparently, when I don’t. I’ve recently experienced a baffling lack of interest in food itself: I’ve been in this place in which I would be perfectly content to live on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or really whatever requires the least thought or effort, day in and day out.

On the whole, I’ve felt like I’ve had a pretty good grasp of basic nutritional science (hard to get through a Bachelor’s of Science degree that includes Anatomy & Physiology without understanding at least a bit).

I’m sufficiently equipped that I mostly manage to steer clear of trends based on junk science or poor data and to regard with equanimity the ones that might, in terms of their originators’ ideas about science, be based on shaky logic, but which still work well for people in practice because they’re motivating in whatever way and manage to get the various nutrients in.

What I haven’t had, as I discovered over the 2019-2020 ballet season, was the slightest shade of an idea as to how to actually feed myself for performance while dancing 30 hours per week, teaching about six hours per week, and driving an extra 80-90 minutes per day 2-3 days per week between those two gigs.

This was especially difficult on days when I left my teaching job at 8:30 PM and didn’t arrive home until after 9, chronically underfed (though I usually didn’t realize that) and with little time to eat, shower, prepare food for the next day, and wind down before I had to be asleep.

The best lunch decision I made all year, probably. Too bad I kept forgetting to buy more.

To a great extent, this was my own darned fault.

I extrapolated as follows:

  • P1: I have a fairly sound working knowledge of basic nutritional science.
  • P2: An awful lot of the nutritional advice I know how to find runs contrary to basic nutritional science.
  • P3: I am broke and can’t afford to go see a nutritionist.
  • Therefore, I should just stick with what I’m doing.

Or, well, something like that.

Yes, y’all, I am an idiot. Sometimes, anyway. Even often.

I think I also wasn’t sure who to ask: like, let’s be frank. Dancers are mostly paid what is known, in the technical language of economics, as “bupkis.” Or possibly “peanuts.” (In fact, since I have volunteered at events where one of the perks was free access to peanut-based trail mix, I can literally say that I’ve worked for peanuts. Hmmmm.)

Against a background of grass, a squirrel eats a peanut while sitting next to a squirrel feeder full of peanuts.
A dancer making a withdrawal from the bank. (Via Pexels)

Regardless, dancers be broke, and qualified nutritionists who have adequate knowledge of the nutritional requirements of full-time ballet dancers be … not cheap. (Nor should they be. They train for years to master their specialty, just like we do.)

So you had better believe that when I learned that LouBallet’s MindBodyBalance program was hosting a Zoom-based nutrition workshop with an actual qualified person who actually understood things about how to feed dancers, I jumped right on that enroll button.

Anyway, today, Becky Lindberg Schroeder of Lindberg Elite Nutrition (she’s also on Insta!) gave us a really solid talk, with time for discussion, about how to feed ourselves for performance as dancers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I realized I’d been going about things … well, not all wrong, but wrong enough.

The two most important things I’ve been doing were basically:

  • Not eating enough
    and
  • Not eating often enough.

Somehow, I felt like I shouldn’t be eating during the 5-minute break between class and the beginning of rehearsal. I would usually surreptitiously scarf an apple, but I felt like I shouldn’t.

Why?

Honestly, I think I just noticed that few of my fellow dancers shoved a snack into their faces during that interval. Outside the studio, I’m fairly resistant to peer pressure, but life inside the ballet studio is different, especially as an apprentice who doesn’t feel super confident about his place in the company.

Now that I’m writing that “out loud,” of course, it seems kind of dumb.

You can’t stuff yourself with a huge breakfast before class if you want to get through class without, at best, being miserable or, at worst, puking … but if you eat a lighter breakfast at 8:30, by the time class is over at 11:30, it seems entirely reasonable to assume that you’re going need to top up your fuel tank.

If you try to hold out until lunch break at 1, you’re likely to be hangry before you get there. (Regarding which: yes. On days that I’ve failed to eat any kind of snack at all, I’ve usually been deeply hangry before lunch break rolled around.)

A carnivorous dinosaur silhouetted against a night sky.
Me, just before lunch break. (Photo by ~ swinone on Pexels.com)

Becky’s suggestion that we eat every 3-4 hours made that all make sense. In fact, it makes so much sense that I’m now wondering how I failed to grasp it before. Then again, that’s why she’s a high-performance nutritionist, and I’m not.

Perhaps even more importantly, I don’t think I really understood the effects of chronically low blood sugar on both performance and body composition.

Becky showed us a diagram illustrating the point that the range in which the human body works best falls between 80 and 100. My fasting blood sugar is rarely higher than 70 (I forget what the units in question are right now, sorry). I’m impressed if it’s 72; the one time in my life it was as high as (GASP!) 74, I wondered if I’d randomly awakened and eaten something in the middle of the night and forgotten about it.

Anyway, <70 is low. The typical response that garners during a medical exam is basically, “Cool, no need to worry about diabetes!”

But it turns out that when your blood sugar level is low, your body really does burn muscle and hold onto fat. I kind of knew that: we’ve all heard of “starvation mode.” What I didn’t know was that your body doesn’t wait around for a couple of weeks before heading down that road.

So, in short, I probably wasn’t doing myself any favors by avoiding carbs in the morning.

This certainly explains why I’ve felt better on the rare morning that I impulsively threw a donut into the mix because I happened to stop for gas, or had to use ACTUAL SUGAR in my coffee because I ran out of stevia, or whatever.

If you’re starting with basically an empty tank, putting anything in it is going to help. It’s not like you’re body’s going to ignore fuel simply because it’s not Eleventy Octane Super Premium Ultra Plus, Now With Scrubbing Bubbles.

Your body, at that point, just wants ANYTHING. And if you don’t give it something, it’s going to assume that it should hold on to its emergency stores and tap the muscles instead.

That might also explain why basically surrendering to chronic disorganization, purchasing an immersion blender, and just making huge smoothies with some protein stuff (usually pasteurized eggs) and a handful of trail mix (peanuts and almonds … protein and fat in one happy little package) for breakfast and packing more of said trail mix to eat with lunch correlated with an unexpected drop in my body fat percentage.

Obviously, without a controlled experiment, causality is danged hard to determine–but in retrospect, it seems like maybe one way of accidentally starving myself was worse than the other. The one that gave me some carbs, protein, and fat, while still not ideal, was probably less bad.

I also made the mistake of thinking that my other frequent snack choice–inexpensive protein bars, because broke–was somehow … not good enough. Again, that seems silly now. The protein bars in question may be fairly processed (though they’re still mostly made of things that are recognizeable as food, albeit in small chunks), but they do the job of being quick and easy to eat when “quick and easy” are probably the most important criteria. You might have the best apple in the world, but if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t finish it in 5 minutes, it’s not going to do the job.

Anyway, the most important takeaway for me was that I need to eat more, and to eat more often, than I did last season. Well, that, and to not eschew nutrition in bar form, because that’s often going to be my best bet.

My breakfasts, snacks, and lunches were uniformly underpowered last year (I’m not going to say “too small”), while my dinners were … spotty. I didn’t have time for a full meal between rehearsal and teaching, so by the time my classes let out, I was both incredibly hangry and in no position to drive for 40-50 minutes without eating.

Since I would, inevitably, have also run through the woefully-inadequate supply of food I had packed for the day, I typically resorted to drive-through dining, but usually (in an effort to reduce the artery-clogging effects of fast food) I’d get the smallest meal I could find.

Then I’d be mad at myself when I was starving at 10 PM, or wonder why I was so hungry at 1 AM that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep without eating something.

You guys. In retrospect, I’m really trying to figure out … like … how I didn’t figure it out -.-

Part of the problem was my tool set. Basically, I was whacking away with a hammer, mentally screaming, “Why is it so hard to saw through this log???!!!!” I kept focusing on how to eat better at dinner time, when I would’ve done better to just eat a little more and a little better across the whole day.

Anyway, one of Becky’s smart, actionable suggestions was to literally write out your daily schedule (not too obsessively: sometimes lunch break is at 12:53; sometimes we get really into rehearsal and at 1:30 Mr D looks up and goes “OMG, sorry, you guys! I haven’t given you a lunch break!”) and figure out how to feed yourself around it.

Which … oh, my G-d. That’s brilliant.

Becky’s presentation also introduced Team USA’s Athlete Plates[2]–three useful visual guides to adjusting nutrition for the demands of your day. They’re less about telling you specifically what to eat than suggesting how to proportion your meals to keep yourself well-fueled. This is exactly the kind of information delivery I’ve been yearning for: visual, so you can use it at a glance, but with lots of deeper information readily available.

  1. You can find PDF guides to the Athlete Plates, along with lots of other great information about nutrition for athletes, on Team USA’s Nutrition page.

In short, I came away from this workshop with a much better sense of how I, a broke-ass dancer with ADHD and time-management challenges, can make a plan to keep myself well-fueled that actually fits into my life.

So that’ll be Part 2 of this post … because right now it’s dinner time, and I’m hungry.

DancerLife: A Series

Okay, while the world is (justifiably) exploding, it turns out that I do need to prepare myself to go back to work in the fall: my contract has arrived, and with it the knowledge that all my efforts to plan and implement plans between now and then are likely to go awry, but that it’s still worth attempting to plan and to apply lessons from last season to making next season better.

Since writing this blog is part of how I think about things (indeed, that’s more or less its primary purpose), here we are.

Anyway.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned that, for many of us, ballet isn’t so much a hobby or a job as an all-encompassing avocation that basically asks everything of us.

As a dancer, you reach a point at which either you’re like, “Nah, I’m good,” and just go on doing a recreational class once or twice a week, or you’re like, “I AM CALLED” and you basically hand Ballet (or Modern, or Hip Hop … whatever your idiom is) the keys to your life and it moves in.

That might happen when you’re six or when you’re sixty, and other things might try to get in the way, but when you’re called, you’re called.

(Quick note: whether dance is recreation or vocation, you get what you need out of it. No shade from me for recreational dancers. For that matter, honestly, they’re probably the saner demographic anyway.)

In everyday English, we mostly use the word “vocation” to mean, basically, “job.” For many, it’s that thing you do so you can do all the other things you’d do anyway (and that’s fine, too, though our work culture tends to make it feel unfulfilling -.-,).

In other contexts, the word “vocation” means “a calling:” the thing you do because your soul, or whatever, is irresistably drawn to it. It’s why people become monks and nuns and solitary ascetics that live in the desert. (And probably also physicists and mathematicians and academics in general.)

The lives to which such people are called can’t be neatly divided between “work” and “life.”[1] To be a monastic or, for that matter, any serious practitioner of Zen, is to live a life in which there is no division between religious/spiritual/philosophical and secular life (qv Jack Kornfield’s After The Ecstacy, The Laundry or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step).

  1. Hypothetically, this is equally true for everyone? But in terms of lived experience, these tend to be quite different animals.

Being a dancer is very much the same. Dance as a vocation demands wholesale devotion.[2] It sets up shop in your kitchen, your bedroom, your wardrobe. It decides when you can hang out with friends who don’t dance, when you can stay up late, when you need to spend three straight weeks lying in a hot bath because #Nutcracker has just ended.

  1. This is largely true for artists in general, come to think of it–but dance, because it is so physical, is really good at making its demands felt. It’s also one of the rare artforms for which solo practice is an exception, rather than a rule.
The author dancing in the living room of a shared apartment, with one leg atop the back of an office chair.
You may think that dance won’t find a way to take over your living room.
If so, you are mistaken.

Anyway, we toss about the hashtag #DancerLife all the time (and often in jest), and I think it’s a useful idea. DancerLife is all-encompassing.

And since there’s a learning curve involved in figuring out how to make it all work, I’m going to spend some time writing about how I’m learning to make it work for me.

I was also going to write only one post today–one about nutrition, preceded by a very brief introduction to the idea of DancerLife: The Series. But since it seems I’m constitutionally incapable of discussing an abstract concept in fewer than a jillion words … here we are.

So consider The Series introduced, and I’ll go write the first “official” post, which will be about nutrition and eating and not becoming ridonculously hangry in the middle of one’s workday and stuff like that.

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