The Olympics may be over, but the conversation about athletes’ diets is not. Everyone loves swapping statistics about how many calories or carbohydrates are ingested daily by the likes of Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, or Simone Biles. Meanwhile, media outlets espouse the importance of this immense caloric burn as a way to explain their taut, strong bodies (and make the rest of us feel better).
But for some reason, when the conversation turns to ballet, an activity just as physically and emotionally demanding (though decidedly NOT a sport), the general impression is of a delicate wraith-like fairy doll who subsists on celery and cottage cheese, at the most. This could not be further from the truth.
Ballet has always been a somewhat mysterious art form—something many kids (for some reason mostly girls) do as an after-school activity but eventually grow out of, a high-brow pretentious evening out, or the subject of numerous movies and TV shows making ballet out to be this dark, uber-competitive, masochistic pursuit that drives people to anorexia, drugs, or insanity. All this makes it difficult to keep a healthy image of the art form alive in the public sphere.
Nevertheless, without drawing too many parallels between competitive sports and this classical art form, the physical demands are similar—and diet plays a huge role in that. The main difference is that ballet dancers are much more concerned about the aesthetics of the body than athletes: “At some point, the diet between ballet dancers and athletes is similar, in that we have a balanced diet and eat a bit of everything, but because ballet is a high level art, we need to have a certain aesthetic to look good on stage. This means some of us might eat less carbs and fats to maintain that look,” explains Sasha Mukhamedov, soloist at Het Nationale Ballet in Amsterdam. The biggest thing to remember is that everyone is unique—different bodies have different metabolisms or different natural shapes that impact individual choices. The most successful dancers understand this. Julian Mackay, soloist at the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, is quick to mention: “everyone has a different body and a different diet that works for them.”
For example, female and male ballet dancers have to eat differently: “Generally I think men eat more,” says Sasha, “because they’re actually more athletic than the women. I mean, they do have to lift us above their heads!” Julian agrees, specifying that “it’s definitely more carbs and protein for muscle.” But he also thinks it depends on the role you’re preparing for—some require strength for lifting, others stamina that lasts you three hours of a full ballet.
And of course, dietary knowledge and needs change over time. Maureen Laird is a ballet professor at the University of Utah, and says she “can usually pick out the students that have a diet poor in nutrients and rich in calories and fat. Though slim, they’re often sluggish, lacking in speed and attack, and they tire more easily.” When she was dancing (in her career, she was a soloist at both Ballet West in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh Ballet), she remembers nutritional information wasn’t as readily available as today: “there’s so much more science that goes into dancing today, and that’s why dancers continue to advance and evolve.”
There might be more resources, but it’s also still a matter of trial-and-error. “As a dancer, you grow up learning a little more every day about what you should and need to eat and what fits best for your particular body,” says Matisse Love, a student at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. Now that Maureen no longer dances, her diet—and the way her body reacts to food—has changed. It’s accustomed to intense physical exercise, but it’s also changed simply due to the passing of time. “Because my metabolism has gradually slowed over the years,” she explains, “my portion size is smaller in general than it used to be, particularly on days when I haven’t done aerobic exercise.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about the stage. And it totally depends on the dancer—when asked their favorite pre-show and post-show meals, the answers varied greatly. Maureen remembers opting for something light and hassle free before a show, like chicken or half a baked potato. Post-show was usually quite late at night, so it was all about snacking, sharing an appetizer, or noshing on popcorn. Julian likes a hamburger or pasta before a show, and treats himself to Georgian food afterwards, which is heavy and satisfying with lots of meat. Matisse prepares for a show with a big breakfast and constant snacking throughout the day. Afterwards, she goes all out with whatever she wants, usually steak and ice cream. For Sasha, meat and vegetables are the go-to, and if the role she’s dancing is particularly demanding she’ll throw in some pasta. Post-show, she keeps it real with a glass of wine.
It’s a difficult path to choose in life—competition, pressure, and physical strain are a daily occurrence—but it’s important dancers stay grounded and take care of their bodies first and foremost. “Food fuels our body and gives us strength,” says Matisse. “We’re wired to crave sugars, fats, and salts, however it’s vital to understand what is beneficial for our bodies and what is harmful.” Whether dancing or teaching, diet is the common denominator in maintaining health and energy.
So if you hold the stereotype that ballet dancers don’t eat, let it go. It’s a demanding and rigorous career, but as Matisse says: “Reminding myself everyday how much I love this art form and could never live without it gets me through all the ups and downs ballet provides.” When you’re truly passionate about something, you’ll do all it takes to excel in it. And that includes a healthy, nutritious diet.