A Professional Dancer’s Health – True Story

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*I was fortunate to be raised by vegetarian parents. While I was teased and tormented by my peers for not eating meat, my physique was the epitome of good health. Healthy choices were always available in my household and we rarely ate processed or fast food.

When I left home to join Ballet Austin at age 19, things changed. Out on my own, living the life of a professional dancer in the real world was a big shock. Eating became about convenience as I was juggling ballet from 9 am – 3:30 pm and a part time job from 4 pm until midnight. This meant eating on the go and getting to bed late. (We ate a lot of pizza…) We were also always on tour. Needless to say, although my ballet technique was at an all time high, I started to put on weight. I was also getting frequent migraine headaches.

At 19 I had no clue that lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and weight gain could lead to the inevitable – an injury. It happened during Nutcracker. The snow scene to be exact. I rolled my ankle and tore a ligament in my foot. According to the doctors I had sprained my ankle multiple times throughout the season to get to my current condition. The physical and nutritional stress that I was putting on my body had taken it’s toll.

Soon after, I was called into the office to talk to the directors about my weight, but by then it was too late. At 5’4’’ my normal weight was around 105 pounds. I had gained roughly ten pounds and didn’t look like the same dancer that they originally hired. The solution that was offered? A dangerous one – fat burners. I went to older company members for advice. Their solution? Smoking. The wellness era had not yet started to boom and the uber thin look was still all the rage in ballet (luckily things have since changed) so I can’t blame the directors for not having a smarter solution. Companies had not yet developed cross training or nutritional counseling programs for dancers. This was right around the time when Pilates just started to enter the scene.

The last thing I wanted to think about was “dieting” while I was trying to deal with my injury. This made me even more self-conscious and depressed. Soon I stopped showing up for class altogether. Injured, self-conscious, and desperate for answers I left mid-season to recuperate and pull myself together in hopes of healing up before audition season.

When I look back on it, I know that it wasn’t about how much I weighed, rather how my body had started to change. I had no energy, I looked bloated, and my performance in class had started to suffer. Put all of this together with being home-sick and you have one unhealthy dancer.

What can you learn from my story? The way your body feels is directly affected by your nutritional habits and sleep patterns. The solution is not always at the barre or in your technique. While you can’t tell your ballet teacher or company director that you won’t be showing up for rehearsal because you are tired, you CAN do your best to recover between rehearsals or from day to day through proper eating and rest. If I had simply stuck with the healthy habits that I learned from my parents while I was out on my own, for example, I could possibly be telling you a different story!

*This is an excerpt from the Digital Book, Ballet Nutrition.

Nikol

Nikol Klein is a former professional ballet dancer turned Ballet Strength coach, author, mentor, and certified personal trainer.

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