BY SHANNON LEYPOLDT; PHOTOS BY WEI CHANG
Everything changed for me one day while I was on a walk, listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Walk Home Podcast. Kayla Nielsen was interviewing Alisa Vitti, a women’s health expert who was discussing the mythology we’ve been told about our periods, when she said “It’s supposed to be painful, there’s nothing to be done, that it’s mysterious and unpredictable… all lies, flat-out lies.” My jaw hit the floor. I, like most people who bleed, have accepted PMS, cramps, and other menstrual-related symptoms as par for the course and something to suffer through or, at the very least, live with.
I am a freelance contemporary dance artist based in Berlin, which means I am jumping between a multitude of different jobs, from rehearsing, teaching, touring, conducting personal research sessions, giving massages, teaching private fitness classes, taking German classes, to navigating bureaucracy in a foreign country. My period mirrored this unpredictable chaotic rhythm. My cycle would change in length and duration, and included various symptoms over the years: cramps, headaches, moodiness, acne, ovarian cysts, as well as many symptoms I didn’t know were related such as anxiety, difficulty sleeping, migraines, IBS, and chronic bowel inflammation that my doctors were monitoring for possible Crohn’s disease. I had visited many doctors over the years as each of these issues surfaced but hadn’t found any lasting help. It seemed that the solution was to try to numb the symptoms with pain pills and wait for them to pass. I was so overwhelmed and frustrated, since it is my job as a dancer to understand and be in control of my body. It felt like my body was spiraling out of my control.
When I heard Alisa Vitti talk about menstrual health, I finally felt a bit of hope and a feeling that there was some underlying cause which might explain many of my health struggles. I wasn’t sure it would solve all my problems, but I knew I needed to learn more, not just for myself but also after witnessing all the fiercely strong colleagues around me suffer. I was fortunate to have received a grant from DIS-TANZEN des Dachverband Tanz Deutschland, Fonds Darstellende Künste and Neustadt Kultur Darstellende Kunst, to devote the past nine months to learn about the infradian (menstrual) cycle, how to live in relation to and support this cycle (also known as cycle syncing), and how to apply this knowledge to my dance practice as a performer and teacher.
I first addressed my pain and tried to correct my hormonal health by taking the “What’s your V-sign quiz” on the Flo Living website, where I entered my symptoms and information about my period, length, color, and regularity. It revealed that I had low progesterone levels resulting in estrogen dominance which was causing my symptoms. I learned that not only is my reproductive system affected by my infradian cycle but also my brain, immune system, metabolism, microbiome, and stress response, so it is important to support these systems as well. I began by adding two key supplements to my daily routine, a prebiotic/probiotic and a high-quality multivitamin which included key micronutrients and B vitamins, particularly B6, which is important for progesterone deficiency.
While supplements are extremely helpful, I learned it is also important to aid my cycle by getting these nutrients through food as well and recognizing that I need different nutrient support at different times in my cycle. For example, in the first half of my cycle (follicular and ovulatory), it’s important to focus on supporting my digestion with lots of fiber, light grains, and fermented foods, while in the second half (luteal and menstrual), my metabolism rises, and I need more slow-burning carbohydrates, cruciferous vegetables, and healthy fats. There is much more information regarding nutrition and specific vitamins and nutrients that aid in each phase. Both Berrion Berry and Flo Living provide sample grocery lists and recipes that can help you learn more about which foods to eat throughout the different phases of your cycle. Lastly, I began to put more of an emphasis on regulating my stress levels, which impact my hormonal system, by building a more regular meditation practice. With these minor lifestyle and nutritional changes, I was able to reduce my period-related problems in just a few months. I am not a medical professional or an expert in this field. These solutions worked for me, but each individual’s health needs are different. For more information, please see the resources at the end of this article.
Through this process of learning about my infradian cycle, and once my symptoms reduced, I began to understand the shifts in energy levels, brain function, and physical changes that were happening throughout my cycle. Not only did this help me feel more connected to my body but it also changed my perspective. I went from viewing my infradian cycle as a hindrance, a deterrent from achieving my goals, to a driving force that offers specific strengths at different times throughout my cycle. It became a superpower, a lens to deepen my understanding of myself and thus my artistic practice.
I tailored not only my physical training regimen and nutrition but also my approach to tasks given by a choreographer, and how I organize my freelance administrative tasks around each specific phase of my cycle. For example, I learned that in my ovulatory phase, my energy levels are at their peak, and I can push intensity and cardio training. During this phase, my verbal skills are also at their highest point. I use this time to write applications, ask for feedback, network, and negotiate contracts. Whereas in my menstrual phase, when my energy levels are lower, I honor my body’s desire for recovery and rely on outside forces such as music to drive and support my performance or training, a hot tip I received from integrative health practitioner Berrion Berry. This is also the time when my brain is primed for evaluation and reflection, so I lean into my intuition. This tailored approach has allowed me to work optimally and get the best results for my efforts.
Here is a brief overview of each phase and how it can be utilized specifically in a dance practice. Note that the number of days are approximations as healthy cycle length can vary.
Follicular Phase: Creativity and Exploration
Duration: 7-10 days after your period ends. Metabolism and reproductive hormones are at their lowest. Estrogen increases later in this phase as the ovaries prepare to release an egg.
Focus: Experiment with different approaches to choreography, try new classes, brainstorm ideas for classes/workshops, explore collateral research, and watch performances.
Training: Energy increases throughout this phase so gradually push intensity and cardio while focusing on creativity (exs: connect to imagery, ideas, conceptual approaches).
Ovulatory Phase: Community and Communication:
Duration: 3-4 days. Estrogen and luteinizing hormone peak during this phase. The uterus releases an egg into the fallopian tubes.
Focus: Utilize your heightened verbal skills. Write applications, class descriptions, letters of intent, ask for feedback, negotiate contracts, network, discuss processes, and watch new performances.
Training: Energy peaks during this phase, so push intensity and cardio training while connecting with and taking inspiration from others.
Luteal Phase: Focus and Deep Work
Duration: 10-14 days. Metabolism increases and progesterone levels rise. Later in the phase estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone peak and then drop to their lowest levels.
Focus: Utilize your task-oriented focus during this phase to organize your work, book studio space, send invoices, and plan the next month. In the second half of this phase, focus on self-care, recovery, and nourishing yourself.
Training: Energy levels begin to decrease so continue higher-intensity training at the beginning and taper it later in the phase. As your bleed approaches, focus on strength training and recovery while thinking analytically and focusing on details.
Menstrual Phase: Reflection and Integration
Duration: 3-7 days. Progesterone levels decrease and the uterus sheds its lining.
Focus: As Vitti states in her book In the FLO, during this phase is when the right and left hemispheres of your brain communicate most (Vitti, p 75). Utilize this to evaluate, assess, visualize, listen to your intuition, and journal. Your energy levels are at their lowest, so sleep, nourish, and treat your body.
Training: Look inward, listen to yourself, and prioritize your needs and energy levels. When performing and during intense work periods, choose self warm-up when possible. Focus on rest and recovery.
Throughout my time dancing, teachers and choreographers have told me to listen to my body. I really felt that I had honored this and was in tune with myself, but I had never considered the hormonal aspect of my body, although it has such a tremendous impact on my physical and mental condition. In today’s Western patriarchal society, there is still a stigma around menstrual cycles. Hormones are blamed for causing women and people who bleed to be unstable, moody, or emotional. On the contrary, because our bodies are not the same from day to day, we can provide an enormous range of strengths, dynamics, and understanding to an artistic process. I used to think it was incredible and that we were making progress in the field when I would work with a director who had understanding for the pain I experienced during my cycle and would give me some leeway or pity. But what if it didn’t need to be like this at all? What if we didn’t have to suffer and push our pain aside? What if all dancers had the knowledge to transform and utilize menstrual health information in order to thrive the way we are meant to?
Cycle syncing and information about menstrual health are critical for taking charge of health and well-being. I would be lying if I said that all my problems magically went away and never returned. I’ve strayed from my regimen and had flare-ups from time to time. I have no shame in this either, as bodies and lives are always changing and adapting, but now I have the knowledge and a toolkit to return to, to get back on track.
To learn more, I’d suggest some of my favorite experts in the field:
Alissa Vitti – www.floliving.com @floliving
Alissa Vitti is a functional nutritionist, women’s health expert, and pioneer in the field. Her website contains great online information, articles, quizzes and more on menstrual health.
Berrion Berry – www.optimizeyourflo.com @optimizeyourflo @berrionlberry
Berrion Berry is an integrative health practitioner who offers online courses. She provides some of the easiest-to-understand information about cycle syncing and easy ways to integrate it into your life, including recipes and product suggestions.
Hana Miller – www.thebalancedwomansystem.com @thebalancedhealer
Hana is a certified holistic health practitioner and acupuncturist.
You can also find helpful information about cycle syncing and its relation to dance on my Instagram story highlights titled Cycle Syncing @sley_poldt.
Nielsen, Kayla, host. “Alisa Vitti of In The Flo: Biohacking, Infradian Rhythm & Balancing – Hormonal Health.” The Walk Home Podcast, iTunes app, 6 October 2020.
Vitti, Alisa. In the FLO: Unlock Your Hormonal Advantage and Revolutionize Your Life. HarperOne, 2020.
Shannon Leypoldt (she/her) is a dance artist, teacher, and sports massage therapist based in Berlin. Shannon received her BFA from the University of California, Irvine and studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance under the direction of Summer Lee Rhatigan. Shannon has performed with wee dance company at the Gerhart-Hauptmann-Theater, Görlitz-Zittau, Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Dorky Park, Theater Bielefeld, Itinerant Dance Ensemble, and the KDV Dance Ensemble. She has performed choreography by Shlomi Bitton, Hillel Cogen, Maxine Doyle, Lisi Estarás, Constanza Macras, Kiani Del Valle, and Sommer Ulrickson.