Ballet Bodies: Better Fed Than You Think
By Anne Levin
In a video that is part of a series on the New York City Ballet, dancers are asked to name their favorite foods.
“I want grease, and, like, salt,” says corps de ballet member Gretchen Smith, who munches on a chip. “I’ve gotta go with fried chicken, mac and cheese, and curry,” enthuses principal dancer Amar Ramasar. “Cookies, sugar, chocolate,” announces petite principal dancer Megan Fairchild. Retired dancer Jenifer Ringer, who documented her struggles with weight in her autobiography Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet, confesses in the video to her passion for ice cream with peanut butter.
While it isn’t likely that these sleek creatures indulge themselves in their fat-laden favorites on a regular basis, the video’s message is clear: Dancers love to eat. And these days, it seems, they are more encouraged to do so—within reason.
In professional dance companies and ballet schools, the emphasis is on being healthy, fit, and strong, rather than waiflike. Yes, dancers have to be slim, and the women light enough to lift. But protruding bones and concave physiques are out. Cross-training is in. Dancers swim laps, run on treadmills, and do Pilates. Ballet companies have physical therapists on staff for on-the-spot treatment of the aches and pains that, left untreated, can lead to injury.
Consider the case of Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre dancer who was the first woman of color to be named a principal dancer. In the reams of publicity surrounding her rise to the top, race was not the only focus. Copeland’s naturally sinewy body, originally considered a detriment to her career, has turned into an asset. Her striking musculature is the focus of an ad campaign for Under Armor underwear. And she stars in a television commercial for the health benefits of Oikos yogurt.
Back in the days when choreographer George Balanchine was revolutionizing ballet, many aspiring dancers were nearly starving themselves in an effort to attain his reed-thin ideal. Risa Kaplowitz, co-founder and director of Princeton Dance and Theater Studio and artistic director of Princeton Youth Ballet, recalls weekly weigh-ins by her ballet teacher when she was a young student.
“It was mortifying to have the scale go up in front of my friends,” she recalls. “In order to avoid such an embarrassment, I became one of those young dancers who suffered from an eating disorder.”
Thankfully, Kaplowitz continues, the pendulum has swung in the other direction. “The trend these days in ballet is to be fit and strong rather than waif thin,” she says. “Today’s ballet companies require much more stamina and high level skills than in the past, and a ballet dancer simply would not survive physically in a company unless she is eating enough. Of course, a ballerina must still be able to be lifted by her male partner and body lines are an important aspect of the art form, so excess weight is still not tolerated well. But the good news is that dancers are expected to be healthy.”
Christine Taylor, director of the North Jersey School of the Arts and the New Jersey Civic Youth Ballet in Hackettstown, affirms that proper nutrition is a focus for today’s dancers. “But I don’t agree with the perception that a dancer’s body is an athletic body,” she says. “One of the things that is so amazing about a ballet dancer is the long, lean look. An athletic body moves in a different way. When muscles are over-developed, they don’t move in the same way.”
Taylor isn’t afraid to let students know that taking off some weight will help their careers. “When we have a dancer who is overweight, we tell them to put away the cookies and start eating correctly,” she says. “If you’re a wrestler, what does the coach say? I think that in general, society today is more aware of healthy living. And we do have a nutritionist who comes in and gives lectures to our company and school. It is very important to know about proper nutrition.”
Douglas Martin, artistic director of New Jersey’s American Repertory Ballet, has his own theory about why dancers’ bodies appear to have more meat on them than in years past. A former football player who was a member of The Joffrey Ballet in the 1980s, Martin credits the artistic vision of that company’s late artistic director Robert Joffrey. “I think this is evolving rather than randomly happening,” Martin says. “Mr. Joffrey put an emphasis on dancers’ physiques in a slightly different way from what the dance world, especially in New York, had seen. He wanted the very best dancers he could get his hands on. There were certainly Joffrey icons who didn’t have that ‘perfect’ body. And this facilitated an understanding of what ballet could do, without those ‘perfect’ bodies.”
Martin also believes that the AIDS crisis, which saw the death of several ballet choreographers, allowed some known more for contemporary dance— Twyla Tharp and Mark Morris among them—to get a foothold in classical ballet. “Contemporary dance bodies tend to be different from the iconic ballet bodies. So it was no longer about sleek, long lines,” he says. “The look began to change.”
That said, American Repertory Ballet and its affiliated Princeton Ballet School take nutrition seriously. “We try to help them think about how to take care of their bodies,” Martin says. “When I see a girl getting too thin, I stop her. We do talk about it. Aesthetic value is important, but you have to do it by using your brain and having a good diet.”
American Ballet Theatre has had physical therapist Julie Daugherty on staff for the past decade. These days, she says, the company’s dancers are well educated about eating healthily and taking care of their bodies. That means augmenting the daily ballet class. “They see that in order to jump higher and turn better, they have to do more,” Daugherty says. “They follow a sports model a little bit more than they did before. A part of that is cross training. We have a gym here and they use it all the time. They’re in here doing Pilates type stuff, lifting weights, and doing cardio. Part of what they see is that in order to reach higher and higher levels, they have to add to what they did before.”
At the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and regional companies, dancers of today are better educated on taking care of their bodies. “You hear them talking about juicing, going vegan, or vegetarian, but the main thing is they want to eat healthy,” Daugherty says. “It seems like this movement is happening also in the general population. But dancers take it to a further extreme. These guys have amazing bodies already, and they’re going to take it to the next level. A lot of them eat really well, and they make sure they’re getting good food. Most people don’t realize that dancers can eat big meals. Many of them eat quite well, because they’re working really hard.”
In a recent issue of the magazine Coveteur, several dancers detailed what they eat in a day. New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild said she starts her day with an English muffin with goat cheese, prosciutto, sautéed spinach and two poached eggs with a banana and coffee (with milk). Her fellow principal dancer Sara Mearns revealed late-night, post-performance meals of filet mignon or honey-butter roasted chicken, and pasta if she knows she has a lot of rehearsals and performances the following day.
Gretchen Smith eats an avocado every day, and doesn’t deny herself during a grueling schedule of class, rehearsals, and performances. A sausage, egg and cheese sandwich, a BLT, and Mexican food might be part of her daily intake. And all three women include dark chocolate in their diet.
Ballet being ballet, the push to be thin remains. Professional companies and schools just try to keep it within reason. “Some dancers just have issues,” Daugherty says. “Even if it is not full-blown anorexia, which we haven’t had in our company, there is still some disordered eating. We worry about it. We have a program in our school, and we screen them yearly to check that they’re growing and that the girls are getting their periods. It’s still out there. But there are plenty more healthy dancers.”
Martin says American Repertory Ballet rarely encounters a dancer with a full-blown eating disorder. “It is very unusual these days,” he says. “The information in general, while it still leaves a lot to be desired, is getting better and better. It’s not so much about being thin. It’s about learning to maintain the weight you want as a dancer and doing it in a healthy manner.”