Why Dancers Need to
Diet -- You Can't Fool
Anyone When You're
The number-one reason dancers have to diet is the merciless exposure of their bodies in class and onstage. Even certain costumes can work against them, making them appear heavier or revealing an unattractive feature, and that's especially true of tights.
You can't fool anyone when you're wearing tights. Ounces become pounds under a leotard. Any extra weight is as easily noticed by the people in the back row as it is by the people in the front.
No question about it, a leotard is probably more revealing than nudity. A dancer can look pretty terrible in tights unless she's pared her weight down to the absolute minimum. There's no in-between.
That's why I worry less about my weight when I'm dancing the roles that call for nightgowns as costumes instead of tights. There is nothing like an upcoming performance in a leotard to put the fear of fat into you!
If a dancer really needs a reason to diet, tights will do it every time. Peter Fonseca, a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, says, "Suddenly I'm feeling ten pounds overweight and there's a performance coming up and they say, 'You have to wear tights.' You have to be skinny and you have to appear even skinnier, or you're going to look fat onstage.
"The management tells you this, you know. They'll say, 'You have to lose weight.' Even though I've already been trying to lose and maybe have lost about five pounds, getting down to the low hundred-forties, I'll just have to get down to rock bottom, which for me is about one hundred thirty-two."
It's pretty tough for the poor dancer who works hard to stay slim and look good, and still feels fat in a white leotard.
But it isn't just the fear of tights that makes dancers try to be as thin as possible. The pressure to stay slim comes from everywhere: the audience, the management, even fellow dancers. In the New York City Ballet that encouragement came from George Balanchine and the teachers, but always as an unspoken wish. Dancers often know without being told that staying slim is what is required of them.
Isabel Brown, who danced with ABT in the 1940's and whose daughter Leslie, star of The Turning Point, is with the company today, talks about the differences in appearances. "When I was in the American Ballet Theatre, most of the dancers were really quite chunky, and in those days it was considered okay not to be skinny-skinny. But about ten years after I left American Ballet Theatre it was actually Balanchine who started with 'the stick' -- you know, the very thin dancers."
Often the look of the modern ballerina is attributed to the influence of Balanchine. "In the early days, you know, everyone thought Mr. Balanchine wanted a string bean with a leg all the way up to here...." says Muriel Stuart, pointing somewhere near her shoulder to show what she means. As the last protegee of the legendary Anna Pavlova and an instructor at the School of American Ballet, Muriel is in a unique position to observe the comings and goings of ballet fads. "Well, of course, that wasn't even partly true. After all, he had to use the material that was at hand. But he wanted a body that was supple -- a long, thin body. It can be the most beautiful."
Isabel Brown agrees. "That look still prevails today, and it's really a wonderful look, if they aren't too, too thin. I think that a heavy dancer onstage -- not even heavy, but a normal 'heavy ' -- takes away from the illusion of beauty that you expect from a dancer with great grace.
"Particularly with females, you expect them to look superior. A man might carry a normal weight. Because they're men, they don't have to be too thin."
(Unless of course they're wearing white tights!)
A new principal dancer with ABT, Cynthia Harvey, says, "Even though it's easier to know I'll be in a romantic tutu instead of a leotard, it really doesn't change the pressure much, because the line always looks better when it is long and thin."
But some dancers have an easier time of it than others. People with certain body types, those that naturally possess a long and slender line, can be casual about watching what they eat and still keep the right look, while the rest must constantly work to lower their weight and get rid of the fat that seems to cling to those terrible problem areas.
It isn't always just a matter of weight, either. A short, chunky girl, for example, might weigh less than a tall, thin girl. But the poor short dancer will have to diet twice as hard as the tall one to get a ballerina's ethereal took.
Cynthia tries to take that fact into account when she is dieting. "Even though I'm thin-boned, it doesn't always spread evenly when it comes."
Like most other dancers, Cynthia is practical and frank about her weight. She is conscious of any extra pounds and sets her own weight-loss goals accordingly.
"I still want to lose five pounds," she says. "My ideal weight would be ninety-nine to a hunded one pounds. I'm five feet four and a quarter inches -- I look taller, but am not all that tall -- and I usually have a working weight of a hundred six pounds. I feel strong at a hundred six.
"My partners might be more appreciative if I were thinner even the strongest of them. Baryshnikov lets me know without saying anything. He'll groan a little, or he'll grab at the area in question. That lets you know! And if you're going to be dancing with him, you certainly want to make yourself look good."