Let me start by saying that I am devoted to coffee.
Most dancers are. It comes with the happy side effects of serving as laxative and pick-me-up, but neither of these is the main thing. The main thing is the ritual of the coffee, and ritual is what my life as a dancer is all about.
We as professional dancers take on the lovely mandate to maintain and improve our techniques over the course of our careers. Whatever the genre (ballet, modern, jazz, improvisation, etc.), we must stay on top of our skills. This happens by taking class. Most days we put ourselves into situations of learning that are separate from engaging in choreography and/or working toward a performance. The dailyness of this becomes ritualized, from the moment the alarm goes off. Dancing is a lifestyle in which food awareness is inherent and food intake is very, very personal.
Because dancers come in many breeds, the characteristics of which I could rattle off like a Dr. Seuss book: some are fat, some are thin, some are short, some just grin… I only profess to know about the eating habits of my immediate corner of the dance community. And to be honest, I can only really knowledgeably talk about me: what I eat, what I don’t, when and why.
As a ballet dancer, it is the most comforting thing on the planet to have my thermos of coffee in the studio with me. It represents home and warmth. It is a comfort amid discomfort. Taking a sip is an instantaneous lift, a melding of this warm comfort with an often-unpredictable environment. I can control my coffee, and returning to it throughout my dancing day makes me inexplicably happy. I can likewise control my food, using it to refuel and then, later, to mark the wind down of my day.
Never battle with food again
What I eat is of paramount importance to me and is constantly on my mind. Years ago this was a burden. I gained weight at the formative age of seventeen and from then on was Aware. That time was a plague, a nightmare. I was a dancer with someone else's body, and I was not happy. I binge ate, but blessedly that’s as far as it went. At eighteen I moved to NYC and slowly, methodically began an eating routine that became sustainable. My goal was to never battle with food again, but to be able to thoroughly enjoy it. I learned about nutrition and how to make intelligent choices. I subsequently lost some pounds and reshaped others. Patterns I established then still adhere today. And by patterns I mean rituals.
My food rituals are relative to rehearsals, performances and days off. Days on tour are another matter, no less ritualized but certainly more effortful and requiring of forethought. Usually it’s like, “What’s open after the show? What time do they stop serving and, more importantly, can I get a drink?!”
Here are some main facts:
I eat meat.
Milk makes me gag and always has.
I decrease gluten during performing times.
I let myself spend a lot on groceries.
Typical foods when I’m rehearsing and performing:
Nut and/or protein bars like In Kind or Larabar
Now, these are all what I eat during the day and leading up to a show. What I eat at the end of my day and after performances is another matter entirely…
Here is where the ritual comes in. My evening meal must be when I am done for the day. This means that if I work till 10pm, I don’t eat dinner till after that. I want to relax into my food and let it fill me. I want to savor a glass of wine and unwind. I do not go for eating and running or eating and returning back to work. I like to go to bed with a full stomach. I deserve it. Contrary to popular suppositions and warnings about this, it works for me. I mindfully guide and measure what I eat during a full day of dancing (there’s nothing worse than dancing on a full stomach!) and so at the end of all that temperance, I need to let my hair down. This is how I’ve come to negotiate the balance between food and dance: I don’t eat much during the day, and I pig-out at night. Seriously. What can I say? To me and my body this is balance, and it took years to strike. My evening ritual is precious to me. And it drives my husband bonkers.
All this is to say that as a professional ballet dancer, I eat. Though the timing by which I do it may be perverse, eating happens, as it does with my colleagues. And while some are vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant or have celiac disease, we all eat well and plentifully. Our patterns are based upon our work schedules, which can appear alarming. Case in point: my husband eats lunch at 11am. I eat lunch at 2:15pm. That is a scheduled lunchtime for me. It is not random on my part or the response to some whim.
I dance a lot and my body is a reflection of that. It is a product of what I am blessed to do for a living. And so while there is preciousness and mindfulness, there is also a sense of ease: I eat, I work. Eating allows me to work effectively and well. At the end of the day I reward myself with big food. The next day I get to dance, and I have the capacity and energy to do it.
One more clarification, while I confess to “pigging-out” at night, it is usually with very good stuff:
Gluten-free pasta w/tuna, tomatoes, artichokes and/or whatever else I may have on hand.
Mixed green or kale salad w/chopped apples and feta and/or whatever else I may have on hand.
Black bean and chicken tacos w/avocado, salsa, tomatoes and shredded cheese.
Corn meal crust pizza w/sausage, mozzarella and basil and/or whatever else I may have on hand.
Poached or broiled salmon over brown rice w/roasted broccoli.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It’s mostly-good-for-you food, usually accompanied by greens. I am beyond liberal with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, also with salt and pepper. There’s always chocolate around. Also the aforementioned wine, sometimes beer, the occasional martini. Lately there’s been ice cream.
As I said before, food is very personal. I have found what works for me, and I derive great pleasure from contemplating what I’m going to have for dinner. But with all balancing acts, you need to shuffle around under objects to keep them vertical. My husband and I are in the process of reevaluating my late-night habits. My dancing schedule is changing, and it would be lovely to now strike a better balance between us. It would no doubt be healthy to challenge my food rituals and in that process become more open to change.
I’ve needed my structure until now, but perhaps the time has come to dismantle the scaffolding. All rituals need dusting off once in awhile. But seriously, I don’t think I could ever forgo the coffee…with half and half and honey.