I’m sitting in the waiting area at my favorite NYC dance studio, doing a gentle warm-up before my class, out of the corner of my eye I see a young male dancer pull a brightly colored container out of his dance bag.
He proceeds to twist open the lid and remove a small scoop overflowing with white powder. I’m a snoop, so I’m totally staring at this point.
I watch as he drops his jaw, flips his head back, and dumps the mystery powder down his gullet, choking on the chalky substance as it crawls down his gullet.
Before I can intercede another curious dancer, we’re all snoops, beats me to the question, “What did I just witness?”
He laughs and retorts, “It’s creatine, want some?”
With some trepidation, the young female dancer asks, “What’s creatine? What does it do?”
Smart girl. Always ask before accepting a stranger’s drugs, kids.
But, to my chagrin, the young male dancer confidently exclaims, “It gives you energy. In a matter of minutes you’ll feel so pumped up for your class it won’t matter how tired you feel now!”
The male dancer had the best intentions. Having the foresight to wonder “What else can I do to ensure I’m dancing to my fullest potential?”, but has fallen short with execution. And it’s not his fault.
The supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar industry oftentimes supported by erroneous claims and pseudo-science.
Which well-intentioned dancers and athletes, like this Creatine Kid, too often fall prey.
Why is this?
Simply, because no one is talking about it. More and more dancers are treating themselves like athletes (this thrills me, personally), but don’t always know where to seek the best information. Classical dance instructors, which only about 11% of dancers will reach out to regarding nutrition, aren’t necessarily privy to what’s best for aspiring dance-athletes and peers, where more than 80% of dancers claim to get their nutrition advice from, are often just as confused and misled.
So here’s some clarity on dancers and supplements.
It should first be noted that a supplement is just that, supplemental.
Meaning, it aids in any sort of holes your diet may leave. But reality check, without the base and foundation of a proper diet, supplements are essentially useless.
The more restrictive the diet, the more you may need to depend on supplements. For example, a vegan diet, while usually filled with whole foods, often leads to iron and calcium deficiencies. These dietary deficiencies may, therefore, need to be supplemented.
How do you know if you need a dietary supplement?
Track your food for a few weeks. Studies have shown that most Americans stick to the same basic 9-15 foods. If you’re not eating a variety of foods, you’re probably missing something.
Additionally, a few simple blood tests performed by your General Practitioner can help solve any imbalances. I recommend seeing a GP before grabbing an over-the-counter-drug and guessing at how much you need.
Because of how food is processed in the U.S., everyone should be taking a multivitamin. There just is not enough time in the day to eat the recommended daily amount (RDA) of vitamins and minerals.
So, dietary supplements like iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, and vitamin D, etc., are all super important in just being a human. Add in the fact that you’re an athlete and your craft depends on your body working in its most efficient way, I think you’ll agree that you should be doing the most when it comes to this sort of supplementation. But again, this is in addition to a well-balanced diet.
Back to the aforementioned Creatine Kid.
I classify creatine as an Ergogenic, a performance enhancing supplement. Your performance is missing SOMETHING so you’re supplementing that “thing”, trying to get an edge up, with this substance.
And it’s not a completely fallible idea.
A few other Ergogenic supplements include Caffeine (we’ll get there in a second), Omega -3,-6, and -9, Glucosamine/chondroitin, energy drinks, Pyruvate, and more.
Here’s the thing, many of these supplements DO work. However, you have to be a “responder”, meaning your body physically adheres to what that supplement is trying to accomplish.
The harsh truth that the supplement companies don’t want you to know, not everyone is a responder. Actually, most of us are not.
But our brains don’t know that. You’ve heard of the placebo effect, something works (or doesn’t) simply because you believe it to be so.
Oftentimes, supplements effect our bodies on this basis. There may not actually be any physiological change but because of the psychological power, we feel different.
Again, back to the Creatine Kid.
His intention was there, but ultimately he was a titch misguided.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that. But I’ll tell you!
Dancers don’t need creatine. Simple as that.
Creatine gives your muscles energy for stronger contractions. Yes, you want strong muscle contractions when you’re dancing, but creatine is optimal for short, intense muscular contractions done against resistance.
Your muscles squeeze MUCH harder squatting 6 reps with 205lbs than when you’re performing a 3-minute piece on stage. Agreed?
Those individuals who prioritize strong muscle contractions and larger muscles?
Almost every bro in the gym who’s just tryna be swoll and add some weight to his (or her) deadlift and bench PR. Creatine works over time. It needs to be taken daily for an exetended period of time before you see it’s results.
How do you know it’s working? Basically, you’ll get a couple more reps, with a few more pounds.
Dousing a scoopful down your throat will NOT make your battement any higher!
So Creatine Kid, by taking this supplement you’re acknowledging that you’re okay with the resulting water weight (3-10lbs if you’re wondering), you understand you’ll need to take ~2-5 grams every day forever in order to see and maintain strength results, and genius, by taking it dry (instead of mixing it with water like a sane person) you’re looking forward to the resulting belly ache.
Instead of committing to a substance for the rest of eternity, look at your diet. Are you eating enough real foods to provide energy and build strength? Chances are, probably not.
Before you throw your money away on magic powders and pills, fix your diet.
Real quick, remember that episode of Saved By The Bell where Jesse takes all those caffeine pills? Okay, I didn’t really have a point with that, it was just sort of related.
Dancers love caffeine. This one actually is an energy stimulant and an appetite suppressant. Meaning you feel like you have energy and you don’t feel hungry, double win for a dancer, right?
While caffeine can delay fatigue, improve mental sharpness, and keep you focused longer it does have some adverse effects when abused because it is, in fact, a drug.
In terms of a short workout, 10-20 minutes, having a shot of espresso beforehand won’t make much of an impact considering caffeine takes 1-2 hours post-consumption to fully kick-in. However, having it 30 minutes before rehearsal, class, or strength training may leave you feeling energized and focused, therefore improving your performance.
Here’s the thing though, as you probably already know, the more you drink the less it works. Just like alcohol, you can definitely build a tolerance to caffeine.
In college 1 cup of coffee before 8 am ballet could get you through the day, now you have a cup at 8 am, 11 am, 4 pm, and 6 pm?! That’s a lot.
But, like a true drug, quitting cold-turkey or implementing dramatic cutbacks, can have negative effects. Like headaches, nausea, and, of course, fatigue.
Again, check your diet. Something as simple as actually eating breakfast can help reduce your caffeine consumption for the rest of the day.
Protein and BCAA’s
I don’t consider protein powder a supplement, but technically it is. As a professional athlete, you have to be eating a lot of protein, 1 gram / pound of body weight. Oftentimes, dancing with a belly full of grilled chicken feels less than awesome, so in this case supplementing with powder is helpful.
Your aunt, who works at a sedentary desk job in Nebraska, may not need or want a protein shake. In fact, she does not need as much protein for muscle building, toning, and recovery that you, a professional dancer, needs.
Most dancers are grossly under-eating on protein and thus remain soft and doughy looking, injury prone, and constantly sore/ under recovered. Having a protein shake after every workout and / or dance class can drastically improve all of these areas.
But again, your body is better off having regular, whole, nutrient-rich foods and then SUPPLEMENTING any missing protein with a shake.
BCAAs, branch chain amino acids, are a bit of a different story.
Essentially, protein at its core is made of smaller molecules known as branch chain amino acids. The idea behind taking BCAAs, drinking them during or after a workout, is that you are replacing / strengthening torn muscle fibers before they have a chance to wear away. This microscopic tearing of muscle fibers, by the way, is what happens during an intense workout and dance class.
Unfortunately, the science is out…
If you’re taking in enough protein through your regular diet (1g/ lb), BCAA’s are not necessary.
You’re better off spending that money on a well-balanced diet of quality foods.
If you do want to supplement, invest in a collagen supplement, specifically designed to strengthen hair, skin, nails, and those oh-so-important ligaments.
Fat Burners and Water Pills
These scare me, and it makes me sad when I see dancers taking them or hear dancers recommending them to each other.
You’ve heard of fat burners, the magic pills that can make fat melt off your body like ice cream from a kid’s cone, right? Not exactly. It’s true they’re designed with ingredients that can give you an extra boost to help burn fat.
But they can’t replace a solid diet and exercise plan.
Like I’ve been saying for most of this article, your diet is the most important determinant of how you look and feel. Everything else is accessory or “supplemental”. In order to lose fat and get toned, you must adhere to the correct number of calorie intake vs. calorie expenditure.
These types of supplements will only help with the last 2-5% of fat loss, that’s why physique competitors take them. They’re already in the 90% range of how amazing their bodies can look, these supplements MAY help them get to the top 95%.
You’re a dancer. Not a physique competitor. You don’t need these.
Additionally, most of these work by, wait for it… caffeine. This may help slightly increase your metabolism for a few hours after you take them, thus resulting in the body burning more calories even when at rest. But it’s slight, y’all.
Save your cash or spend it by having a cup of coffee with a friend.
Water pills are even more scary because they directly effect a vital organ: your kidneys. By chemical response, pressure is applied to your kidneys, you end up flushing out excess water and salt through your pee.
So you take a bunch of these pills, put unnecessary stress on a vital organ, and look leaner for a few hours. But guess what, as soon as your stop taking them and rehydrate yourself, your body will go right back to where it was when you started- or because it’s been dehydrated- may look puffier and more bloated than when you started. Good job.
Save your kidneys, skip the water pills.
What I do recommend.
A daily multivitamin.
Physician prescribed dietary supplements.
A quality collagen supplement.
A greens powder.
A ton of water.
A ton of protein.
Taking a day off.
You’re a smart dancer, that’s why you’re here. Researching for yourself the best ways to improve the quality of your dancing. If you feel you’re already doing the BEST you can regarding your dance training, strength training, and nutrition and still need that extra 5% to push you over the top, please reach out below.
Additionally, comment or message if you have any comments, questions, or concerns!