‘Ahh so I suppose you don’t eat much?’
‘Do you live on salad?’
’You must be so hungry?’
‘Do the male dancers hide the food from you?’
‘Have you been on a life long diet?’
‘Should you be eating that cake?’
Socialising as a ballerina can sometimes be tedious. Once I’ve mentioned that I’m a ballerina (and believe me, I try to stay away from the subject!) I’m constantly asked one or more of these questions. It’s almost as if people are desperate to confirm their impressions of a ballerina and once they get past the introductions its just a matter of waiting a polite amount of time before they feel they can ask.
Lets be honest, there is a certain aesthetic that is desirable for ballet. I’m incredibly lucky, I had parents who raised me in such a way that I would never have felt that I needed to diet because I wanted to be a ballerina. Like most young women there was a stage in my life when my hormones were going crazy and I was a bit plumper, but I never considered any of the fad diets of the day. Its because of this I think that I’ve got such a healthy metabolic rate, I never starved my body and in return it doesn’t stockpile bulk when I eat.
I’ve come up with what I think is a possible contributing factor. During the 50’s and 60’s women were a similar shape to other women of the day but something changed in the next few decades. I think that George Balanchine, (choreographer and artistic Director for more than 35 years with New York City Ballet) has a lot to answer for. From what I hear he was an over-bearing and emotionally manipulative character. This resulted in countless women spending years trying to live up to his idea of a perfect ballerina. In my opinion this gradually shifted the shape of ballerinas of that time in the US and of course what started in the US at that time eventually reached Europe and Asia.
Back to the questions in hand. Do you like to ask them? Does it satisfy some voyeuristic fascination? I only ask because when I answer and explain that I eat like a horse to be able to dance the hours I do, what I see in some eyes is not satisfaction but maybe a slight disappointment? Maybe the image they really want is of a dancer sitting at home, sewing her pointe shoes, watching a ballet film and eating celery sticks. What’s funny is that I do do these things ! I need to sew my pointe shoes, I have to watch ballet after work to learn up-coming repertoire in the season and I do eat celery! However alongside this, I also eat curry by the bucket, love a glass of Malbec and when I eat celery it comes with a mountain of hummus balanced on top! I also make clear when people ask, the sheer amount of dancing that we do. In terms of hours per day I can’t imagine how many calories we burn, we don’t sit around plaiting each other’s hair in the studio, our work is unbelievably strenuous and the days are very long ! I joke about what will happen when I stop dancing. Probably then I’ll have to rethink my portion sizes !
In fact, I think I’m like every other young woman I know including my ballet friends - I’ve known literally hundreds of ballerinas from my time as a student and now as a professional and while we can never truly know what goes on behind closed doors I can only think of a handful who I was sure had some kind of problem with food. Were their problems anything to do with ballet? Or were they the usual problems with self-image that all young women seem to struggle with and they just happened to be ballerinas?
Whats also interesting is that there are men and women in the ballet world and the aesthetic requirement for both genders is the same, but its only women who are asked those questions. I cant help feeling that there’s a touch of misogyny at play....
I do receive a lot of questions from young students about my diet and when I teach at summer schools or masterclasses I always emphasis the importance of a happy relationship with food. Our body’s are our instruments and unlike a violinist who can probably change their violin during their career, a dancer can’t. You gotta learn to love your body and respect it, eventually, it could pay off your mortgage !
One time, while cycling home after a show of ‘La Fille Mal Garde’, I hit a pot hole on the road and flew over my handlebars landing on my chin with full body weight ! I had a huge gash so deep you could see my chin bone. A couple who saw the accident called an ambulance and I was taken to a&e, I was absolutely fine considering the impact and just got stitched up. The reason I’m telling you this is that I also had an X-ray and the medics couldn’t believe I didn’t break a bone, not even a fracture. I felt really proud ! I think that my healthy diet had a part to play in this outcome. No frail delicate ballerina there,
So if it’s ok, could you stop asking a ballerina about her diet please ? Maybe talk about her favourite ballet or what pointe shoe brand she wears, there are so many interesting aspects to a ballerinas life, dive in ! Your response will be warmer, trust me !
To all my dancer buddies out there, you’re welcome!
Now you know that I do eat cake, the men don’t hide food from me, I don’t just eat salad and I’m not hungry, we can take a look what I do actually eat!
In next weeks blog I’ll show you inside my fridge and meals I like to cook !