Working with Overweight Dancers

This week’s newsletter tackles the very sensitive and tricky topic of overweight dancers.  A reader writes…

You may have already discussed this issue in the body series but I just wondered if you had anything specific on over-weight dancers.  It is so tricky discussing weight issues with students and parents that I thought if there was a general article that I could send to all students regarding the problems with joints, etc. that it would be better coming from you or another source so that they would know it is not just me having this issue.

I worry so much about these girls who love to dance and want to perform full out but just don’t realize how large they are.  I wish the parents could indiscretely put them on “diets” by planning meals, portions and grocery shopping lists without even mentioning the word “diet”.  I would appreciate anything that would help get my point across in a good way.


Weight is such a tricky topic.  I’m going to start on safer ground and first talk briefly about the ramifications of extra weight on the body.  The weight of our bodies is carried through the boney skeleton and of course pass through the joints.  It makes sense that carrying 10 or 15 extra pounds is going to put more of a working challenge on the body, but Dr. Jonathon Cluett estimates it increases the forces by 3 on the joints. Meaning if you are 15 pounds overweight you will be putting 45 extra pounds of force through the knee joint with every step you take.

If the overweight dancer has good posture and alignment they will absorb the extra force better than if they have poor alignment.  What I often see in the younger dancer is weak abdominals, a anteriorly tipped pelvis giving them a slight swayback.  In this scenario the knees are more vulnerable to injury and adding the extra weight increases potential for muscular strain and ligamentous injury.

There is research showing that being overweight leads to arthritis at an earlier age.  You want your BMI (Body Mass Index) to be in a normal range.  Exercise is essential to the health of the body – and dance class is a good place to develop extra strength and flexibility, but not necessarily increase your cardiovascular fitness.  I’m not sure that kids today are biking and running and playing on the playground in the same way we did 20 or 30 years ago.  We are becoming a more sedentary society and it is showing up in the increasing numbers of injuries in our children who only move in significant ways during the hour or two of PE class (if they haven’t already cut gym from the curriculum)

The self-esteem of the child who is overweight is a huge problem.  They begin to define themselves as someone who is overweight and if their parents are also overweight may decide at an early age that they are doomed to always packing on extra pounds.  It’s really hard to work with that situation – when the way the family eats.. and exercises… or not… can be at the foundation of our young dancer’s weight problems.

So what to do?  If the dancer is old enough (10 or 11) they may be able to start making their own choices about food.  When the studio owner is vocal about healthy dancing practices they could choose to have a nutritionist come talk to the students all together about good eating practices.  I love having outside people come in to talk  to my own students because it gives me an opportunity to talk with my students at the next class about what they heard.  It allows for a good group conversation or even some one on one conversations without making it seem like you are targeting them specifically.  Also, the majority of  parents will appreciate having a studio wanting to create healthy dancers!

Even a younger child needs to decide that they want to lose weight because they believe it will give them something positive in return.  So many of us who carry a few more pounds that what is ideal use food to give us something…  a feeling of security, a ‘sweet’ moment, a break, a reward. I believe instead of focusing on not eating sweets or bread or whatever might be your over-indulgence it makes much more sense to focus on what you can give yourself in other ways.

For example, when I get to feeling overwhelmed I tend to overeat.  When I stop to breathe or to take a short 10 minute walk around the block, or take the time to make a cup of tea… any of those activities will act to calm me down.  I have a choice about what strategies I use to alter my emotional well-being (or lack of) The challenge is it takes me planning out alternate strategies before I go on automatic pilot and reach for the muffin or cookie or whatever is around to placate my overwhelm.  Not always easy.

The older I get and the more in control I feel about my weight the more I focus on my internal dialogue – the thoughts that I say to myself all the time.  I’m going to share a quicktime clip that is part of the Inner Dance of Success Weight Loss Program.  The program focuses less on specific dietary advice and instead gives lots of options and choices for different strategies for weight loss – starting with changing your thinking.


“Education is the key to injury prevention”

5 replies
  1. Luis Martinez
    Luis Martinez says:

    Dear Deborah,

    Great insight and info on “Working with Overweight Dancers”, but do you have a blog on how to approach the opposite problem on “underweight dancers”? Really appreciate your work!


  2. George Ou
    George Ou says:

    This is a very tricky subject especially if we’re talking ballerinas. Some people unfortunately just have very thick bodies even if they are very fit, run fast, jump high, run long distance, etc. Unfortunately, this includes some ballerinas who would probably be dancing as soloist in a premier company if it weren’t for the fact that they were born into a stocky body (this affect men to a lesser degree). I’ve known dancers like this and I’m sure everyone in the dance world knows someone like this.

    I also think we need to make it clear that when we talk “overweight”, we must be clear that we’re talking about the problem of high body fat percentage. If the dancer is too stocky, that’s simply an unfortunate tragedy and the only thing a dancer like this can do is teach, or pick another passion. Another distinction that must be made is that simply being heavier is not necessarily a bad thing. Some dancers are very tall, or they have very strong dense muscles and bones (which is a very healthy thing), but they’re lanky enough so that they still look thin enough. I’ve had girls ask me what’s a correct weight for dancers and I tell them to worry more about body fat percentage. I also tell them that dancers (and athletes in general) can be thin but still weigh more than “normal” people.

    The point is that I don’t want dancers feeling bad about themselves because they weigh more than someone else. This is crucial knowledge because research has shown that half of all high level teen aged female distance runners and ballerinas miss most of their periods which leads to severe bone density deficiency. This is caused by low food intake relative to very high levels of cardiovascular activity. This has caused competitions like Prix de Lausanne to institute warnings to prospective ballerinas that they have to turn in their gynaecological records and be above a certain BMI to compete. I’ve heard that ABT even does bone scans to check bone density.

  3. George Ou
    George Ou says:

    “Meaning if you are 15 pounds overweight you will be putting 45 extra pounds of force through the knee joint with every step you take.”

    I’ve studied Vector Mechanics as an engineering student in college and I can say with 100% confidence that this statement is not true and I can draw the static diagram to prove it. I can also speak as a retired dancer who has been 40 lbs heavier than my professional weight (currently 20 lbs over). Yes the extra weight is very problematic (not to mention ugly) but I could still obtain nearly the same vertical clearance, but with a lot more effort and a lot fewer repetitions.


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