The false perception of reward in ballet, a conversation with Jenny Accettura founder of Center Stage Nutrition.


August 27, 2021


Jenny Accettura is a registered dietician and the founder of Center Stage Nutrition. With a 17-year history in dance that included ballet, contemporary and Scottish dancing, she understands the unique challenges that dancers face in fueling for performance with unrealistic body image expectations.

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The false perception of reward in ballet, a conversation with Jenny Accettura founder of Center Stage Nutrition.

Who is Jenny Accettura

Jenny Accettura is a registered dietician and the founder of Center Stage Nutrition. With a 17-year history in dance that included ballet, contemporary and Scottish dancing, she understands the unique challenges that dancers face in fueling for performance with unrealistic body image expectations. Her passion is helping aspiring professional and retired dancers fuel for optimal performance and build a healthy relationship with food through one on one counseling and nutritional workshop.

How my Journey Began

I started dancing when I was really young. I started at three. So, I started in highland dancing; Scottish dancing. I got into ballet pretty heavily, probably in my early teens. So, I fell in love with it at that age. I had a really great Russian teacher who just knew how to get the most out of me. I did a couple of different styles. Like, I did a jazz contemporary tap, but ballet was always my favorite and some of my friends struggled with the eating disorder piece, and that spiked my interest in nutrition. I did my undergrad and nutrition, and then I became a dietitian from there. I have had a couple of different jobs since then. So, my path is definitely not a straight line. It’s a bit all over the place. I was a dietitian in the hospital for a couple of years, made some great connections there. but I always knew I wanted to do private practice and dance nutrition on the side just to combine my passions. I did end up completing my Master’s in Quality Improvement and had a couple of jobs in the healthcare sector too. But I think COVID really pushed me to make the final leap into doing something on my own in private practice. So that’s what I did earlier this year. So, I do one on one counseling for dancers throughout their careers, so whether it’s aspiring, professional, retired, and really just help them to feel better for performance and build a healthier relationship with food. I kind of see those, those two sectors have definitely a lack of knowledge in the area and that struggle with body and food.

A healthier perspective about food

I’d say it’s twofold. I think it’s a mixture of the culture of ballet, and how they put such an emphasis on weight and the way your body should look, that dancers automatically go to that space of, food is one thing I can control to control the way I look. I think the second piece of it is, I think we dancers have specific personality traits of obviously very high achievers, determined, perfectionism, all of those things kind of can run very similar. I think that causes us to hold on to food as something to control and perfect in our lifestyle to make that outcome happen in our bodies.

 My previous work with dancers

I have worked with a couple of retired dancers that have gone through that journey throughout their professional career. Some have even quit the industry because their disorder got so bad, and working with them now, as a retired dancer, what does their relationship with food look like? What does that healing process look like? I remember, one of them mentioned to me that she felt a sort of accomplishment for what she was able to control in the food in her body before and she recognizes that she’s come so far, she doesn’t feel that way. But I think it’s a long journey to get there. I have been working with her to build that healthier relationship, and what does balance look like at this stage for her because it’s very different than when she was a professional dancer.

I remember when I was just starting out and kind of validating my idea, I spoke with quite a few dancers and all of them, at least 10, were able to recall a time when they were told something like that or told something about their body that they needed to change. So, it’s just, it’s all too common. I think it’s obviously really widely accepted, because of what the culture has been for so long. But I hope I think even in that aspiring dancer’s stage, trying to educate them earlier on, it’s such an important time in their career, to learn more about nutrition, and to bring that awareness into that group. I really try to do that more recently in my business. So, I think that’s definitely a different point to target.

How depriving oneself of food becomes consistent

As a retired dancer, it was so hard for me to accept at the beginning. I thought my body was going to change so much and being scared of that, what’s it going to look like? It’s been this way for so long. But if you think about all the different changes of your life and how your body can never stay at the same weight for years. Think about different stages, different life events that you go through. Like with pregnancy, there’s so many things and your body can’t stay at that same weight. But I think with that restriction, what ends up happening, is we’re teaching ourselves that we can restrict ourselves for a certain period of time and then go back to regular eating when that regular eating is so skewed because we want those foods so badly after restricting ourselves, we often overdo it and then we will probably gain weight, and then we go back to restricting ourselves even more. It’s almost like a punishment thing for a body because we haven’t stayed along that path. In the end, we end up messing up our metabolism and we’re teaching ourselves those really restrictive skills earlier on and it’s hard to break over time as an adult. It takes years to break out of that and make peace with food.

I worked briefly in a pediatric clinic that was helping kids achieve a healthier weight, but more through the Health at Every Size approach, so not for the goal of weight loss. We saw that a lot where, kids pick up these cues from their parents or family members, and it’s really hard for them to break, even at a young age they’re so impressionable. Even as dancers at a young age, to be exposed to those messages, it’s a very similar thing. When they’re told constantly over and over again, or they hear other dancers talk about it. They’re just so impressionable and I think it lives with them for a long time. We need to change those messages which is an embedded culture thing.

At the end of the day, it bleeds into other aspects of our lives, says, when you are a retired dancer, and you’re a teacher, maybe or you go into a different line of work. Those kinds of work ethics do bleed into those other areas of our lives. I’ve seen that in myself, in different jobs, where that perfectionism thing came into play and it doesn’t really help you get much further ahead. So, it’s funny how it stays with you and it’s better to tackle it when you’re younger.

Recovery and the importance of sleep

Recovery is not just about nutrition and my recovery plan goes into more detail about it. But it’s about making sure you actually have rest days making sure that you have adequate sleep. Self-care, what does that look like for you? There are so many components of recovery and if we don’t let our body go through that period, then we can get to our most optimal performance or working our best in the studio. I think looking at it on all those different components is so key, but especially sleep, it affects so many things. For example, when it comes to nutrition, it affects our cravings, if we don’t get enough. It affects our ability to think. I often encourage people to establish a bit of a sleep routine, because if we don’t have that, how can we focus on anything else?

Advice for dancers with poor sleep habits

Looking at what are the practices at night that are kind of leading you to those behaviors in the morning? What does your routine before bed look like? Are you getting adequate sleep? or do you have a bit of a routine in place? Are you having enough relaxation time before bed? I would say it depends on so many things because I think looking into all those different factors really helps to paint a bigger picture and help to target specific recommendations. Is it something going on through your mind that you can’t get adequate rest? But what do those practices look like at night that is causing you to feel that way in the morning? Building an adequate nutrition plan before you get into the studio is also important. So, you need to make sure we have enough time for that before we start training. There’s a lot of different options out there. I just don’t think people are educated enough about that and what adequate fuel is before we start, what does that look like? and we need those carbs. We can’t restrict them before we start.

Somebody posted about this the other day, but you don’t have to fit into a specific mold, especially when it comes to dancing, but also, when it comes to nutrition, and your routine, or self-care behaviors. Some people say, you have to be a certain way in the morning, or that’s the most optimal time, that may just not work for you. So, I’ve struggled with that for years, a consistent sleep routine and being more productive in the morning. I think I just started getting there, I don’t think there’s a mold to fit when it comes to that. Some people are way more productive later on in the day and I think that’s fine to accept as well. It just may not be your time, but there’s different ways, obviously, we can fuel before the dance in the morning to make sure we get enough nutrition. It doesn’t have to be, look a certain way that maybe somebody else’s is more optimal in the morning. I think it’s just finding what works for you.

The need for an experienced nutritionist

Everyone’s a nutrition expert. There are so many people, there’s so much noise out there. Bringing awareness to the fact of having an expert like a dietitian in that field, to advise dancers is so important because the other way of listening to all that noise can do such harm. I think when you’re counseling dancers, I think it makes a big difference. Even when I was talking to them before I started, they all really appreciated the fact that I had that 17-year experience as a dancer and had that background knowledge. You can understand them at a deeper level, so I think I think bringing both you know the nutrition expertise and previous dance experience into it.

What is Self-Care?

I think, going back to the fact that there’s not a one size fits all approach, and then going into the depths of, what helps them to feel more at rest or rejuvenated? What’s something specific to you? It may not be all of those lists of things that people encourage. It may be something completely different. It may just be something simple as, for me, it’s going out being outdoors all the time, throughout the whole weekend, I come back and I feel super rejuvenated and have that kind of creative energy. But I think diving into the fact of, what helps to make you feel rejuvenated, but also, not just those little activities, but also, you know, what does your self-talk look like? On a daily basis? What are you saying to yourself? Sometimes those negative thoughts- how to reframe those. If we’re just focusing on those little activities, but not the daily thoughts that are going through our head, that’s self-care, too. Reframing those thoughts, what we say to ourselves.

I even catch myself doing that now, and I think people especially my partner calls me out on this. Why did you just say that about what you just accomplished? Why are you focusing on the negative? and what could have been like, focus a bit more on the positive? Would you say that to somebody else? That’s the other question, too. I’ve caught myself many times and if somebody would repeat it back to me, I’d be a bit shocked. I think that’s where that building awareness and challenging those thoughts throughout the day. Even challenging yourself to, what are your food rules that go through your head throughout the day? Maybe jot those down. What do those look like? Is that something that we can live with long term? Do we want to make peace with that? Or what does that look like in the future? Will it be a constant battle? For example, a food rule could be, I can’t eat this, because I haven’t danced enough today. Or I can’t have carbs, or I’m injured, I don’t need as many calories. All of those things, I think we need to challenge those and take some time to bring that awareness. I do have a good worksheet that kind of goes through that. What is that food rule? How often is that coming up for you? And you know, do we want to live with it long term?

It takes all the enjoyment out of food, of which, food should be enjoyable and it’s affected by so many different factors. It’s not just, what we think it should be. It’s affected by our emotional state, our culture, socially, what we do. You can’t fit it into a box, it’s not a one size fits all approach, and it’s not always going to be the same for you and that’s okay.

I think when you get older, you place a lot of that self-worth on outcomes that you can see instead of looking internally to see what’s important. But you know, like that weight measure, it’s so evident, even I worked in the hospital. We look towards that as one outcome even in a hospital setting as well. In the healthcare industry, it’s something so widely used as a marker of health. But as we all know; I think we’re becoming way more educated than that. There are so many different facets of health that we can look at, including mental health, which hasn’t been given as much attention and I think it’s becoming a bigger piece to look at. But I think we still have a long way to come when it comes to the healthcare industry as well and those are the people that are treating dancers too.

Our body’s intuition in nutrition

I think that could look like actually tuning into your hunger-fullness cues, which is something that we all have, but a lot of us have ignored it for years. Even when I was in that pediatric clinic, I taught kids about that, listening to that hunger-fullness cue and responding to it. Just as a human, it doesn’t have to be as complicated, but we’ve restricted it for so long. That’s one thing to kind of start with is listening to your body. I think that’s the most important thing, instead of listening to external validation and external factors of what you should be doing.

Where are you at the end of the day? Exhausted, burnt out, not recovering properly. I think we need to reframe the way we think about nutrition. Constantly training and pushing ourselves, nutrition is often ignored in those kinds of circumstances and I think if we look at nutrition as a tool, to help us be better in the world of dance instead of something that we restrict and blame ourselves for, I think it could do us a huge service in the industry and making us a better dancer, but certainly not to push ourselves to the limits of burnout and a non-functioning state.

The false perception of reward in ballet

I think it’s just been ingrained in us. Like if you lose weight, you get to a certain weight, you’ll be happier. It’s always that that thing, right, that cycle of if you do this, you’ll be happier and so much praise is based around weight. I don’t know if you’ve ever had periods where you’ve lost weight as a result of stress or things like that, people will still say how you look really good, but really what’s going on, behind closed doors in your mind? Why have you lost 10 pounds? We get that external validation when those things do happen, but really don’t know how it’s happening or why it’s happening. I’ve definitely been obsessed with weight at certain stages too and when you get to that, you think your goal weight, maybe through some unhealthy measures, it’s odd, but you do feel that sense of accomplishment. I think reframing that too, making it more long-standing instead of a quick kind of good feeling that you have with weight, like being more comfortable in yourself and accepting yourself for the way you look, instead of always striving for that perfection or something that you once were. I think there’s that challenge as a retired dancer, you always have that previous body that you compare yourself to. It’s a hard state of mind to get out of and being comfortable in your own skin now for what you look like.

Where to find/work with me

My business is called Center Stage Nutrition, so you can find me on Instagram, on Facebook, and on my website. But if you are interested in working with me, we can always start off with the discovery call, which you can book on my website. I do one on one counseling with aspiring professional and retired dancers. So even if it’s just education around feeling better or if you want to work on your body and food relationship. Offering workshops is something I’ve done more recently to aspiring dancers, to really help them be educated about the world of nutrition and dance and how it’s related to each other. So, if you’re interested in workshops, as well, for a group of dancers, that’s something I can also offer.

Advice to my 16-year-old self

Definitely start that self-love journey earlier on. Encouraging myself to talk to myself a bit nicer. Give yourself a break. That’s what I would tell myself.

The value of having a coach

That’s where my conversations with a lot of company directors have been recently to talk about the relationship with food and dance and offer these workshops. They’ve been surprised by the interest in nutrition from their students when we do surveys before the workshops to see what they’re interested in. Sometimes over 80% of students are interested in learning more. So, I think that speaks volumes and hopefully, that will bring more awareness to it and more offerings in studios and companies.

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There is a better way to pursue ballet at the professional level. Instead of dancers pushing beyond their body’s limits, there is a healthier way to train your body, your mind and your spirit to soar. To become the best at your craft, you must be healthy. The mentality of surviving to make a performance perfect is an old paradigm that needs to change. As athletes, dancers must thrive in order to shine and connect with their audience. This new approach, leads to fulfillment, strength and longevity. It allows you to give more of your heart and soul on stage, creating an unforgettable experience that moves your audience. And that’s the whole pointe.