“Skinny” doesn’t necessarily mean healthy. And, it definitely doesn’t guarantee success in your dance career.
In today's society and especially in the dance world, we place so much emphasis and value on body aesthetics. When a dancer walks in the room with the ideal Balanchine proportions, most of us get intimidated and assume she’s a great dancer before she even does a tendu (I’m totally guilty of this!). But, thankfully, dancing isn’t just about body aesthetics…it’s about performance, as well.
Contrary to what your mental demons might tell you, your peak performance state demands that you feel vibrant…not look skinny. This requires you to optimize both your body aesthetics and your athletic ability. And, being skinny doesn’t fit into either of those categories.
First of all, being skinny or having super low body fat doesn't automatically make you a great athlete or ensure you will reach the top of your sport. This is a huge misconception in our culture. With ballet in particular, it becomes the skinnier you are, the better ballerina you will be. You assume the more you look the part, the better performance you will yield. But at a certain point, the sacrifices made to achieve a certain aesthetic can actually detract from your performance. If you are too weak and undernourished from trying to achieve an unnatural level of leanness, you’ll struggle just to have your limbs support you while trying to make it through a variation without passing out. That doesn’t exactly make for a vibrant, entertaining performance for either you or your audience.
There are a few athletes (i.e. thoroughbred dancers) that can be extremely lean and still perform at their highest capacity. But, they are most likely not operating on a super restrictive caloric deficit or even trying to be lean and cut…that is just their body’s natural set point. Our bodies store fat very differently and attempt to maintain homeostasis at a comfortable body composition that is unique to each of us. Anytime you vary from this set point either by losing fat or gaining muscle, your body interprets this as a stress. When your body gets stressed, there are consequences - hormonally, physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. And those consequences can negatively affect your performance.
This goes along with the concept that you can't serve two masters at once. As a dancer, you can’t deny that you have both aesthetic and performance goals. Both are essential to your art…but you can't optimize both at the same time. If you want to focus on body sculpting...your dancing is going to suffer. If you want to maximize your ballet performance, you might have to sacrifice certain aesthetic goals. You can meet somewhere in the middle and still get good results in both, but when you push for extremes in either area…there is going to be a trade-off.
In some cases, focusing on fat loss could absolutely lead to optimized performance (remember the size to performance ratio?) and vice versa. But, we are talking about extremes here and managing your expectations for your unique situation. Your ideal aesthetic for peak performance may not look like the ripped, perfectly proportioned elite ballerinas of the world. When you push for an extreme aesthetic that is outside the reach of your genetics, you realistically can’t also expect yourself to operate at your highest performance potential.
I experienced this firsthand when I struggled with my eating disorders. I was so concerned and focused on looking skinny that I had nothing left to put into my ballet. I was weak and fragile. I couldn’t concentrate in class and rehearsals because my brain wasn’t being nourished. I couldn’t retain choreography. I had no power behind my dancing. And, I had no passion in my life. Ironically, the harder I tried to be a “good” ballerina (which to me meant being skinny), the worse my dancing became.
No, "skinny" certainly doesn't solve all your dancer problems. So, if that is your aim, you might want to change your mindset. Instead of holding the skinny aesthetic in such high regard, focus on “vibrancy.” A vibrant body allows you to be lean enough to fly through the air but also powerful enough to control and manipulate your body at your whim. A vibrant aesthetic also places value in enjoying life and letting yourself off the leash once and a while. Instead of being haunted by rigid standards as you try to maintain an unrealistic level of leanness, you open your dancing up to a whole new level of performing – where the focus is on the art…not being skinny.
No matter how much your mental demons try to convince you that being super shredded or skinny will maximize your performance, ask yourself this:
Will being drawn out and depleted both physically in terms of nutrition and mentally in terms of restricting your passions in life have you performing at your best?
Maximizing your performance potential as a dancer requires vibrancy…not being skinny.