Dancers, Go out in the Sun!

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Summer is here! Dancers, what are your plans? To many of us who are in love with the barre, the prospect of taking a summer break without any dance class is just a torture, isn’t  it?

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Well, let’s take a look at the issue from a different perspective. Dancers spend most of their waking hours indoors, inside the studio, away from exposure to natural light. Without the benefit of the sunlight, our skin would not be producing enough Vitamin D, which is a vital hormone that aids the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc, among hundreds of other benefits it brings to the body. I referred to Vitamin D as a “hormone” instead of a vitamin, because it functions differently from vitamins,  in that it can actually be manufactured by the body itself without the help of food. Its production is triggered by exposure to sunlight. Knowing that it helps the absorption of the important minerals that contribute to bone health, it is therefore of utmost importance for dancers to get adequate amount of Vitamin D.

A study presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s Annual Meeting has linked too little vitamin D in the body to an increased risk of muscle injuries in athletes. While the study involved football players, you have probably seen the list of the most demanding athletic activities, in which ballet ranks higher than football (sorry I can’t find that list now). So the warning from the research can definitely be applied to ballet dancers and students alike.

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Practicing barre on the rooftop

By now, you probably have guessed what the best way to get Vitamin D is. Yes, get out in the sun! But do so without those horrendous “visors” ubiquitous in Asia, and sans the carcinogenic sunblocks. In case you haven’t heard, most commercial sunscreens contain questionable ingredients that could lead to cancer or hormonal disruption and other terrible long-term health issues. In the reference section below the article, you can find a link to how to choose sunscreens that are safe. Personally, I do not use any sunscreen at all, except for a thin layer of tinted moisturizer by 100% pure on my face. My body likes getting the tan. I have a lot of natural pigments (melanin), which protects me from the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays. I also eat a lot of vegetables in a rainbow spectrum on a daily basis, which serves as a natural protection from sunburn. I have read that people in tropical countries apply coconut oil to protect their skin (http://bit.ly/1gHJJfL). I haven’t tried it myself but you might want to give it a try (best to use extra virgin coconut oil).

I have once overheard a conversation involving the parents of a girl who hopes to become a professional dancer when she grows up. The parents were asked about the summertime activities they have planned for the girl. They replied: “She wouldn’t be going outdoors much. It’s best for her to keep her skin color fair, as it would be ideal for ballet dancers. She’ll be swimming in indoor pools and mostly playing indoors.”

I balked at such a suggestion. Not only is this a most unscientific approach to their daughter’s health, it also reinforces the stereotype that ballerinas should have fair skin (read David King’s blog post about the idea of “passable white” in ballet, http://bit.ly/1SuWrdC). Why can’t we, Asians, maintain our natural skin color and create our own ideal for ballet dancers?

Well, I’m way past the age of becoming a professional dancer, but in my whimsical way, I like to think of myself as an “outdoor ballerina”—having fun in the sun—and I am not ashamed of my brown skin. Let’s have some fun in the sun this summer, shall we?

 

 

References:

Vitamin D: Health Benefits and Recommended Intake

Vitamin D Deficiency Links to Risk of Uterine Fibroids

Lack of Vitamin D Leads to Muscle Injuries

The Environment Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens

Classical Ballet: An Art or a Sport?

Dancing Fixes It All

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“Sometimes I hurt because I dance.

Other times I dance because I’m hurt.

Either way, dancing fixes it all.”

I have come across this quote in social media quite a few times. Perhaps only dancers would really understand the pain behind such a statement.

The first line is easy enough to understand. Dancing, especially professional dancing, brings with it certain perils. Bodily injury is a common occurrence. The second line gives a more complicated picture of the psychology of dancers. Dancing expresses our joy; it also expresses our sorrow. It helps us channelize feelings that are not easy to express through words or any other forms. On both the artistic and psychological levels, dancing provides such an outlet for expression. Dancing is emotional therapy. I wouldn’t say it “fixes all.” But it does fix quite a few things, especially when you are stuck in a funk.

My earliest memory of dance as a therapy was more physical than emotional. At the age of 14, I suffered from muscular pain similar to arthritis. It was so bad that I limped along as I walked. But somehow I got the idea of joining the aerobics class in a dance studio in my building. After taking the class for some months, my pain was completely gone. It was then that I realized the power of physical activity—and more specifically, dance—in healing.

The other time when dance came to my rescue was when I was living in New York in my late 20s. I became terribly depressed after a relationship breakup. I searched and searched for something that would lift my mood and take my mind off from the pain of separation. It so happened that the gym that I worked out at, right in the same building as my office, started to offer a ballet workout class by New York City Ballet. I remembered how dance made me happy in my youth, so I immediately enrolled.  Despite the physical strain I felt in my stiff body, the joy I obtained through the challenging moves and the beautiful music played in class helped me go through one of the toughest times of my life. The instructor talked in such an encouraging and uplifting way, that just being in her presence made me happy—if only for that one hour in class.

Another critical juncture in my life where I needed a fixing was when I suffered from a frozen back at the age of 35. I mentioned in my first post “Diary of an Adult Ballet Student” how going back to ballet class has helped me heal that back pain.

Then, one day when I was 39, my dad was diagnosed with acute leukemia. I flew to New York to visit and care for him. During this time, I became emotionally downtrodden and stressed, which later turned into depression. My only light of the day was those evenings and weekends when I sneaked an hour or two into ballet lessons at Alvin Ailey’s Annex, joining a big group of adult students just like me, in Finis Jhung’s adult beginners’ class and workshops. Being able to get “lost” in the moment and focus my attention on all the details of executing a movement while enjoying the pure pleasure of dancing had allowed me to forget about the grim reality outside the studio. It had meant the world to me.

And today, eight years after I restarted ballet, I’m still going to class and going through the process of healing—this time from a major abdominal surgery. The journey goes on. Ballet may not be able to fix it all, but it is my faithful friend through thick and thin.