Adrienne Stevens, Founder, Performing Health

Tuesday, Mar 31, 2015
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Earlier this year you launched a new company called Performing Health.  What prompted you to do this, and were your fellow Juilliard alumni helpful or inspiring along the way? 

Among all performing artists, dancers face the highest risk for poor nutrition, eating disorders, depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and preventable, career-ending injuries. Unfortunately, most clinicians are unschooled in the characteristics that set dancers apart from their “regular” patients. This is one of the reasons why dancers turn to fellow dancers, friends, dance teachers, and the media for advice. When a dancer faces illness or injury, s/he deserves professional healthcare, provided by a specialist who understands both the rigor and the aesthetic of a dancer’s lifestyle. Hopefully Performing Health can bridge this divide through education, nutrition counseling, and health guidance.

Although my initial plan was to work exclusively with pre-professional and early-career dancers, young athletes heard about Performing Health and we soon received calls from ice skaters, wrestlers, and even soccer players. Dancers are definitely at the heart of our mission, but we are glad to help other athletes as well.

From the very beginning, my Juilliard colleagues have been incredibly supportive. Many have opened up and shared personal experiences about disordered eating, negative body image, and a number of other health issues that just weren’t discussed openly – at Juilliard or anywhere else – years ago when we were students. Jennifer Muller (BS ’67, dance) is one of America’s best advocates on the need to integrate nutrition education into dance curricula. She serves on the Performing Health advisory board and we benefit greatly from her expertise.

In your experience, are dancers’ health and healthcare handled differently in the US from how they are handled in Europe?

Of course the dance community globalized long before many other sectors of society, so the differences between Europe and the US aren’t as stark as you might imagine. Food pricing differs from country to country, as does the availability of prepared foods. Cultural factors and labor laws influence everything from smoking to contract negotiations. Given the large volume of medical and scientific research that takes place in the US each year, American dancers might be a little quicker to experiment and reap the benefits that science has to offer. Here in New York, we are early adopters!

What is a typical day like for you, and what are your summer plans?

I am so fortunate to be doing what I love – working right at the nexus between art and science. Although I’ve always been a “morning person” – by dance standards, anyway – rising early is essential because Performing Health does business internationally as well as in the US. Working with people in multiple time zones requires flexible scheduling! After I’ve caught up on international correspondence, I like to start my day all over again with a movement class or a run through Riverside Park. In the summer months, I take a cue from Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, in which she advises creative thinkers to begin each day with a ritual. Weather permitting, my ritual is terrace gardening. By mid-morning, I’m back at my desk, writing and working with clients until dinnertime.  In the evening, my favorite way to unwind is to attend a live performance in NYC with friends.

For me, “summer mode” is mostly about writing and laying the groundwork for the year ahead. At the moment, I’m working on several articles for scientific journals and also drafting the first set of nutrition guidelines for an international dance medicine organization. I’ll be doing some teaching too, which often gives me new ideas for clinical research and always brings me great joy.

How is your current career influenced by your time at Juilliard?

After Juilliard, I danced with various companies in and around NYC. After having children, I transitioned to arts administration, followed by the fitness industry, then graduate school and eventually academia.  While working as a researcher at Columbia University, I became really concerned about America’s obesity epidemic. So I went to work for WebMD. It was a great career, but one day I realized how much I missed working among dancers. That’s how Performing Health was born.

Someone advised me that starting a company would feel like jumping off a cliff and then building an airplane during the free fall. Looking back, I realize that Juilliard really prepared me to put myself in challenging situations. Thanks to my dance education, I’m almost fearless, and also comfortable receiving criticism. All of these qualities came from Juilliard, and they have prepared me to become an entrepreneur.

Which Juilliard teachers and mentors have been most influential in your life?

That’s a tough question, because I’ve been blessed by so many wonderful teachers! In terms of dance technique, Anna Sokolow, Hanya Holm, Alfredo Corvino and Ethel Winters were all truly remarkable.  Doris Rudko, who taught choreography and composition during my time at Juilliard, also had a profound impact on me.

Although I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, today I’m truly grateful for the music education I received at Juilliard. Apart from music theory classes, which were required for graduation, I elected to take advanced classes with composers like Stanley Wolfe. Thanks to him, I have a much deeper appreciation of music. I can understand musical structure and complexity in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Have you kept in touch with your classmates?

Absolutely! In my experience, the ties between Juilliard classmates seem to grow deeper and stronger over time. When the documentary Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter was released last year, the NYC screening reunited many of us who had studied with Martha [Hill] at Juilliard during the 1980s. A number of my contemporaries have retired from performing and are now pursuing second careers in the healthcare sector. It’s been fascinating to watch these transitions, and I take great pride in our collective achievements. At some point in the future, I would like to find a way to galvanize all of this expertise.

What advice would you share with our current dance students and recent grads?

First and foremost, learn to take extraordinarily good care of your physical body as well as your mind. Always be mindful of what, when, and how you eat.  By building good eating habits right now, you might actually lengthen your dance career and you will certainly enjoy better health over the course of your lifetime.

Invest the time it takes to befriend your colleagues as well as your teachers. Try not to be baited into competing with classmates. The brilliant people who surround you at Juilliard could become lifelong friends, colleagues, or collaborators. This is a priceless opportunity: seize it!

Explore interests beyond dance and have confidence that your Juilliard skills – creativity, tenacity, and stamina, for example – will serve you well during a second or even a third career. Once you are no longer dancing, you can still have a meaningful voice in the arts or sciences. Approach life as a journey, and remember that your performing career is just the beginning of your travels.