Ballet's emphasis on litheness stems from aesthetics and practicality; long limb extensions and overhead lifts are intrinsic to classical ballet. The archetypal image of a thin ballerina with long limbs, a short torso, narrow hips and a slender neck was popularized in part by famed choreographer George Balanchine in the 1950s.
Reportedly encouraging his dancers to pursue a very slim physique, Balanchine and others perpetuated an emphasis on extreme thinness in ballet. The pursuit of this body type has perpetuated some ballerinas' entwinements with eating disorders. But ballet culture is changing and the "Balanchine body" is not the only figure gracing stages today.
"While thin dancers are still in high demand, there is much more emphasis on being strong, lean and healthy versus achieving a certain number on the scale," says Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, dietitian with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. "In fact, dance companies now go out of their way to encourage their ballerinas to fuel up on menus filled with nutrient-packed food so they can perform at their best."
According to "Guidelines for Professional Dance Companies on Healthy Nutrition," a report issued by Dance/USA, a national association for professional dancers and its Task Force on Dancer Health, dance companies should discourage extreme thinness. "Dance is a visual art form and relative thinness is a functional requirement of artistic directors and choreographers," states the report. "In no way, however, should we encourage the ultra-thin look that has become fashionable in recent decades."
Lacking proper nutrition guidance, some dancers turn to extreme calorie restriction, purging, laxative abuse or other disordered behavior to maintain their dancing weight. Compounding the issue is the fact that ballerinas typically don't burn as many calories during a workday as other professional athletes because of the start-and-stop nature of dance.
According to Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, dietitian for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, a ballerina might expend about 200 to 250 calories per hour-long class. "Contrast that with one hour of running or soccer for comparison, which burns about 600 calories per hour," says Bonci.
Some companies screen dancers and refer those who exhibit signs of disordered behavior to the appropriate resources. Young apprentices selected into professional companies often complete a nutrition evaluation before their first pay period. In addition to recording a dancer's weight, the Task Force on Dancer Health recommends a comprehensive approach for assessing a dancer's health, including measuring her percentage of body fat, bone mineral density and selected serum electrolytes, and conducting a physical that includes evaluating menstrual history. The female athlete triad of under-fueling, poor bone mineral density and irregular menses is common in weight-specific sports such as dance. Ballerinas who experience frequent stress fractures, dizziness and fatigue may have poor nutrition.
Enter nutrition education, which is reforming some dancers' unhealthy relationship with food. Results of a recent study called "Body Mass Index, Nutritional Knowledge, and Eating Behaviors in Elite Student and Professional Ballet Dancers," published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, suggest that dancers with disordered eating also display lower levels of nutritional knowledge. To help educate dancers, the Task Force on Dancer Health recommends that companies provide access to a nutrition specialist, preferably one who is part of the in-house team, and that companies facilitate cooking demonstrations and workshops on healthy food preparation.
"In the past there was much less food around [the studio]. The mentality was dancers were there to dance, not to eat," says Bonci. "Now [some studios] provide Pilates equipment, treadmills, bikes, weights, a lounge area to eat and refrigerators to keep food. Dietitians are teaching dancers that food is fuel and a friend rather than an enemy, and dancers are seeing the effects of eating right in that it could prolong [their] careers."
"It's a balancing act for the dancers to get enough fuel to perform at their best, without eating so much volume that they feel bloated and heavy," says Bauer. "It takes some trial and error, but once they figure out what works for their individual body, the dancer knows exactly what, how much and when to snack."
Sports Nutrition Strategies for Ballet
The following are some strategies that sports dietitians use to help dancers maintain strong, healthful bodies.
- Maintain Energy Balance
Some companies have invested in equipment and provide scheduled breaks during which dancers can work out, expending additional calories without resorting to strict dieting for weight management. Male dancers who build more muscle mass also are able to lift ballerinas with higher body weights.
- Plan Meals Strategically
A typical work day for a ballerina is about eight to 10 hours, six days a week. Dancers will have morning warm ups and technique classes, and afternoon rehearsals or performances. The long hours and scheduling can lead to irregular meal patterns. Spacing small meals out during the day gives dancers a consistent supply of energy, which delays muscular fatigue and prevents dips in focus.
- Promote Brain-Boosting Foods
Dance requires strong concentration and accuracy, and improper fueling negatively affects brain function. Athletes should boost their intake of fatty fishes and plant foods high in omega-3 fatty acids to improve focus, mental clarity and sleep quality.
- Emphasize Fluid Intake
Hydration can be tricky on performance days because drinking too much liquid leads to frequent bathroom breaks and puffiness in costume. Hydrating two to three hours before a performance gives the fluid time to clear the kidneys before show time.