Belly dancing on empty: Why you should eat before performing
Over the course of my dance career I have noticed a troubling trend that I would like to bring up. You may or may not agree with me and that is ok, but let’s talk about it. I know talking about food can be an emotional subject with painful baggage attached to it for some, so bear with me. This post has nothing to do with weight, just the value of food.
I am very concerned by the amount of dancers I have encountered who do not eat anything before a gig. How many times have you been a part of a belly dance show and you hear a dancer say “Oh I can’t eat until after I dance, I haven’t had anything to eat all day!” or “I never eat before I perform.” Do these words sound familiar? I guarantee at any given show at least one or more dancers will be dancing on empty. This is not good! Seriously guys, we have to take better care of ourselves if we want to perform to our maximum potential.
I have heard every excuse in the book for not eating before a show. “Oh I don’t want to be bloated in my costume.” Or “I can’t possibly eat or I will totally puke during my spins.” When I was a baby dancer I was guilty of the same thing. I was “too nervous” and felt nauseated at the thought of even putting a morsel in my mouth hours before going on stage. I was surrounded by other dancers who said much of the same. I saw them kill themselves over the course of a full set and have nothing left by the end. But now I am older and wiser, and I don’t care about the excuses. I’m pleading with you, fellow dancers. We have to set a good example and treat our bodies well.
As dancers we are athletes. We spend hours honing our skills in the studio. We are athletes whether our legs are shaking from the floor work, our arms fatigued from hours of veil, or sweat is pouring down our back from a monstrous shimmy effort. Dancing may be low impact, but it doesn’t change the fact that we work our muscles heavily. Here’s the thing about bodies, they can’t function without the proper fuel. I’m talking about carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each play a crucial part in your ability to perform.
When your body needs fast energy it first looks to carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are rapidly metabolized into glucose which provides quick fuel for both your muscles and your brain. In fact glucose is the primary source of energy used by your brain due to the restrictions of the blood brain barrier. Twenty percent of energy (ATP) derived from glucose in your body is consumed by the brain alone! (Mergenthaler et al. 2013) Think about this the next time you consider cutting out meals when you have to figure out a difficult 9/8 routine later. Skeletal muscle is what we rely on to generate our movements whether they are gooey arms or fast hips. Within our skeletal muscle is glycogen, a form of glucose storage which can be tapped into for fuel. This glycogen is rapidly consumed as you exercise and once it is gone blood glucose and free fatty acids become the primary energy sources for your shimmy (Hargreaves 2000). So don’t make life hard for your muscles! You may have heard of some athletes carb loading before a big event. I’m not saying that you need to eat an entire pot of spaghetti before a performance. Unless that is how you roll…then you are probably my hero! I’m just saying that having a healthy carbohydrate source before a gig is useful. Some simple whole fruit and whole grains can go a long way for your performance.
Protein is also important to the dancer who needs to maintain endurance. For those of us who have sets longer than 5 minutes this becomes particularly relevant. Proteins are composed of chains of amino acids. When broken down these amino acids can enter the TCA cycle where they become new sources of glucose. Not as fast as carbohydrates, but a great longer term energy source. When your blood glucose is running low and you have exhausted your supply of carbohydrates your body can rely on hydrolyzed protein as an energy source. Wouldn’t you rather be focusing on harmonizing with the taqsim section of your set rather than how you can barely keep your arms up? Protein is talked about a lot these days as an important dietary component and I would agree that a good source of protein is a dancer’s best friend.
As for fats, it seems that fats have gotten quite popular with the rise of paleo diets after all of the fat-phobic fad diets of the 90s. This is great because fat is not something to be afraid of! You’ve heard all about the bad stuff causing high cholesterol and atherosclerosis…but let’s think about good fats. Healthy fats found in foods like avocados, fish and vegetable oils are composed of chains of fatty acids. These fatty acids can be broken down by a process called beta oxidation to release an incredible amount of energy, much greater than the energy released from carbohydrates or from proteins.
When I was in high school I can still remember my biology teacher having us burn both a marshmallow and a walnut. We were to see how long each took to burn. The marshmallow, pure sugar, burnt out in no time. On the other hand the walnut, rich in fat burned for what seemed like an eternity. Do you want to be like the marshmallow or the walnut during your set? We should not underestimate the importance of fat to us as dancers. Fatty acids can serve as an energy source for our working muscles when proteins and carbohydrates are no longer available, and the ketones derived from fatty acid breakdown can also pass through the blood brain barrier and serve as a secondary fuel for our brains. When it becomes time for your drum solo and you are exhausted, you will for sure hope that you have some fat reserves on board. Not to mention fats are great for your hair, and what belly dancer doesn’t want to have great hair?
If you aren’t able to eat a lot before a gig, something like a handful of some nuts beforehand will surely help to keep you going while you whirl through the crowd. Nuts are a great source of protein and fat, fabulous for a dancer on the go. Other handy sources of protein and fat include cheese, yogurt and hummus.
I implore you to consider how adequate nutrition is important to you as a performer. Dancing without eating for a whole day will do you no favors. You might think it will keep you from feeling nauseated when you are nervous, but it is more embarrassing to pass out or deliver a sub-par performance due to a lack of energy. Without the proper nutrition you will not be able to make it through a full set with the energy to complete a drum solo as it is meant to be. An athlete does not go into a competition without giving their muscles the substrate they need to perform. Nor should we set foot on the dance floor famished.
Eat a good breakfast the morning of a show. One of my colleagues will not go into a full day of dance without having her breakfast sandwich! If you are feeling nervous during the day eat lightly, but eat something! Drink plenty of water and keep some snacks handy. I would also recommend avoiding alcohol before a performance if you don’t have much in your stomach. Everyone has their own dietary needs: diabetic, vegetarian, vegan, celiac and more. Know your body and treat it well. We spend so long training so that our moves are perfect and so long making sure our costumes and makeup are perfect…why ignore what is happening inside our bodies? If eating a meal before you head out to your gig is problematic you can start to put together a pre-gig routine that includes snacks that you enjoy, and plan on eating a full meal earlier in the day so that you don’t feel full when you perform. Whatever your needs might be, make sure that you are properly fueled so that you can shimmy the night away.
- Hargreaves, M. (2000), Skeletal Muscle Metabolism During Exercise In Humans. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, 27: 225–228. doi:10.1046/j.1440-1681.2000.03225.
- Mergenthaler, Philipp et al. “Sugar for the Brain: The Role of Glucose in Physiological and Pathological Brain Function.” Trends in neurosciences 36.10 (2013): 587–597. PMC. Web. 10 Aug. 2016.