When I first started out in my professional career, I remember being obsessed with obtaining the ballet aesthetic - the long, lean, almost fragile lines everyone associates with the ballet body. Being born with the genetics of a lumberjack with short, stocky limbs and a sturdy torso good for chopping down trees and surviving harsh winters, I knew I was in for an uphill battle.
I couldn't do anything about the length of my limbs, but I could lose weight…go for that skeletal look to make it appear that I had long, lean dancer lines. Without knowing how to manipulate the shape of my body in a healthy way, I just started eating less and less until I was practically starving myself. At the same time, I was trying to perform at a high level, compete for roles, and climb ahead in my dance career. Obviously, the two goals didn’t compliment each other, and the skinnier I became, the worse I performed. But, I was convinced that as long as I looked like a ballerina, I would succeed. And, eventually my desire to be skinny trumped my desire to improve my dance technique.
For years I struggled with this sick mindset, only allowing myself to eat what was absolutely necessary to prevent myself from passing out. Sure, I was skinny...but I was also weak, miserable, and barely alive. At 22 years old, when I should have been at the peak of my vibrancy, I was questioning if my body would survive the next rehearsal. I remember my heart beating erratically and being out of breath during Nutcracker Grand Pas...fearing being unable to finish the variation and coda. I remember the terror creeping in as I woke up each morning knowing the pain and torture I would put my body through in the hours ahead of me. I remember worrying that my limbs would collapse in a heap any second...and maybe this was the day I wouldn't be able to pick myself up again.
The suffering was intense. I was not friends with my body. It was something I abused carelessly and constantly...and I feared it would betray me at any moment.
Once reality sunk in and I realized that it wasn’t just me that was suffering but my dancing as well, I set on a path to heal myself. Through the process of nourishing my body, I noticed my performance actually improved. That is when I started to address this whole other aspect of dance – the athletic performance potential - that I had been neglecting in my obsessive pursuit of thinness.
So began my cross-training experiment – training for performance like an athlete while nourishing my body to fuel that performance and maintain the ballet aesthetic as an artist. It would have been easy to turn into a fitness model or gym buff…but the ballet aesthetic was still important to my goals…I just had to find a way to achieve it without destroying my body and dance performance in the process.
Now, a decade later, I am almost 20 pounds heavier than when I was starving myself. I still look like a ballerina (or at least am a far cry from my lumberjack genetics…no offense Mom & Dad), but I have more power and control over my body than ever.
Perhaps most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m going to keel over and die when performing lead roles in full-length ballets. I don’t have to spend months building up the stamina to make it through grueling variations. The base level of power and strength achieved through cross-training gives me the confidence and ability to handle the physical demands needed in the ballet world, freeing me up to work on my artistry.
This is the importance of dancer-specific cross-training. It’s not about burning calories to get skinny. It’s not about getting your required amount of exercise in for the day. It’s about gaining control over your body in a healthy way. You learn to work with your body to optimize it for both performance and aesthetics. It’s what allows you to be both an athlete and an artist.
I know the grueling demands you face as a dancer. I feel it myself every day when I step on stage or rehearse in the studio. I know what you need to excel on a physical level as an athlete. I also know the extreme aesthetic you are judged against (that is, for better or worse, very much a part of this career we have chosen) as an artist. I’m here to tell you that you can be both an athlete and an artist…without killing your body and vibrancy in the process.
Photo credits: Steve Vaccariello