Royal Danish corps member Carling Talcott's long struggle with her weight nearly cost her a ballet career.

As told to Laura Cappelle

Growing up, food was a non-issue. I had long legs and a short torso; I could eat whatever I wanted without losing my figure, and I loved milk shakes and chocolate. There was always food in the refrigerator, and I was allowed to go to McDonald’s once a week. There were no rules: It was just “Eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full.”

I began dance classes when I was 3; by the time I was 6, I wanted to focus on ballet. Eventually, I started taking classes at New York’s Ballet Academy East. Then I went to a School of American Ballet summer intensive and was invited into the full-time program. When I heard crazy stories of dancers surviving solely on crackers, I thought: “That’s not real life.” And then it happened to me.

I was a teenager spending all day on my own in New York City, and I didn’t take very good care of myself. I liked easy food. I would choose pizza over salad because it tasted better. I put on a little weight, but I knew that I had solid technique, so I didn’t give it too much thought.

A family vacation to Disney World, of all places, was the trigger. I’d turned 16, and because I was traveling with my parents, I didn’t eat as much junk food. I lost a couple of pounds, and when I came back to school, people said, “Did you lose weight or something?” No one encouraged me to keep going, but I suddenly became very self-conscious.

I’m an extreme person. At first I just tried to have a healthier diet, but soon I was eating only fruits, vegetables or sushi in small quantities, and drinking a lot of coffee. I went from 130 to 110 pounds very fast.

At first everyone thought I was trying to be healthier, but soon it got to a point where my teachers were asking me if everything was all right. I told them I was fine, and left for Miami City Ballet School’s summer program. There, the teachers were very surprised, because I was half the person they had auditioned, and they had a firm talk with me. It helped, and over the summer I got my eating more or less under control.

A Love-Hate Relationship with Food

I decided to stay in Miami for my final year of training in the hope of getting a job with the company. But when we started learning Nutcracker, I felt that since I was working with the company, there was no room for error. I started to control everything I ate. I would have just enough to get through the day. I wanted to be perfect, and felt I needed a superlative: I’m not the most flexible, I don’t have the best feet and I thought being the thinnest could be my thing.

Not eating didn’t feel like a big deal, but it’s extremely dangerous. Down the line, it can lead to heart problems  and organ failures. I lost the color in my face. Looking in the mirror, I could see my bones; I looked tired and sick. I was cold all the time, and my muscles would cramp easily because I was dehydrated. I didn’t like how I looked, but I couldn’t stop: It was this love-hate, mostly hate relationship where I loved the control and needed the results.

I hit my lowest point that year. I was 17, and I was down to 96 pounds. The company took me off Nutcracker and had a chat with me. My teachers reached out to me too, and stopped giving me corrections to avoid sending the wrong message to my classmates. I didn’t understand why people couldn’t just leave me alone. I hated myself but I also hated everyone else for trying to help.

One night my mother called me. The school had been in touch with her, and she was really angry. She said that she didn’t want me to end up in a coffin. After that conversation, I remember waking up and thinking: “This isn’t worth it. I’m just going to eat.”

A Second Chance

I put on enough weight to look healthy, but anorexia doesn’t go away so easily. I became a student apprentice with Miami City Ballet, so I managed my weight very carefully. One day, I learned that I was among the dancers being let go because of financial cutbacks. I half-expected it. I went on an audition tour to Europe, and ended up being offered a job with the first company I visited, Royal Danish Ballet.

I should have had a good last summer in the U.S., but I thought I had to be perfect if I was to dance in Europe, so I began restricting my food again. My parents warned me, and yet I didn’t realize what I’d done until I moved to Copenhagen and got to the RDB’s pre-season maintenance classes. I tried to hide, but I saw the surprise in the other dancers’ eyes. I was so uncomfortably thin to look at, one of them told me afterwards that people didn’t want to get to know me out of self-preservation, because they thought that I would leave.

As soon as the season officially started, I got called in for a meeting with director Nikolaj Hübbe. He was very clear: “I really like you,” he said. “But you don’t look good, and we don’t want you to look like this. We don’t want to have to send you home.” He reminded me that the first six months of my one-year contract were a trial period, and gave me until Nutcracker to turn things around.

It scared me, because moving to Denmark was my chance to start over. I realized I was throwing away my fresh new start in Europe, my second chance, and life doesn’t hand out lots of those. I also knew that I had to make a decision: Keep living miserably or learn to love my physical self and realize that my body was the reason I could do what I love most: ballet. The frustrating thing with eating disorders is that there is no “cure.” The person with the problem has to want to change first.

I met with the company nutritionist, who devised a program with me. She was very pragmatic about it, which helped immensely—I didn’t feel like I was going to the doctor’s. We talked about the Danish food I wasn’t used to, and she would tell me how much rye bread I should eat to put on weight properly. I had to write down what I ate. She would weigh me, but the fact that it was in kilos helped: It made no sense to me; I had no reference point. And slowly, step by step, I got better.

Anorexia is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life, however, and truly getting over it is a long process. When I’m dancing now, I don’t think about it anymore, and class has been my safe place through it all. It used to feel like a competition when I was a student, but now I’m in class just for me: It’s a constant, calming routine.

Eating disorders are a very delicate subject, which people often sweep under the carpet. They don’t know what to say, but we need to talk about it. I’m extremely lucky that I didn’t get injured, or lose muscle function. It affected my dancing, however. Everything was harder; it became difficult to fully straighten my knees. I was exhausted all the time. I lost hair. I still have to take vitamins to this day.

There’s this long-standing idea in the ballet world that being in shape means being thin, and when you’re 17, you don’t realize that you’re in the best shape of your life as you are. Pop culture references like Black Swan haven’t helped. My generation also grew up idolizing the old ideal of the 1970s or 1980s, dancers like Gelsey Kirkland or Suzanne Farrell, with their willowy, waiflike bodies. But the days of living on cigarettes and Diet Coke are over—the sheer amount of dancing that dancers now must do means that health must be a priority or injuries are inevitable.

Anorexia’s an infectious disease. It may not be contagious, but it will affect everything and everyone in your life, for a long time. It ruined a lot of relationships for me. You get to dance until you’re 40, maybe, and then you probably have about another 40 years left. It’s not worth it. Weigh in your mind what you love more: dancing or being thin. Then make a choice.

Video still by Nel Shelby Productions, Courtesy Dancio.

"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."

For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.


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New York City Ballet in "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker." Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Lincoln Center.

Nutcracker season is upon us, with productions popping up in on stages in big cities and small towns around the country. But this year you can catch New York City Ballet's famous version on the silver screen, too. Lincoln Center at the Movies and Screen Vision Media are presenting a limited engagement of NYCB's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at select cinemas nationwide starting December 2. It stars Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz as the Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier.

While nothing beats seeing a live performance (the company's theatrical Nutcracker run opens Friday), the big screen will no doubt magnify some of this production's most breathtaking effects: the Christmas tree that grows to an impressive 40 feet, Marie's magical spinning bed, and the stunning, swirling snow scene. Click here to find a participating movie theater near you—then, go grab some popcorn.

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Artists of Pennsylvania Ballet rehearsing for "The Sleeping Beauty" for the 2017/18 season. Photo by Arian Molina Soca, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

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See our list of sensory-friendly performances, and check out each site for all of the details regarding their offerings.

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The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

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Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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At just 16 years old, the Bolshoi Ballet's Maria Alexandrova already had the makings of a great artist. In this variation from Coppélia, she portrays the carefree Swanilda with blithe, youthful ease.

When she bounds on stage in her perky pink tutu, you immediately notice her legs–they just go on forever. In the first sequence of steps she keeps her jetés and développés low, but then the phrase repeats and she lets her gorgeous extensions fly. She sails through Italian fouettés and whirls around in piqués en manège that get faster and faster. While she nails all the virtuosic movement, Alexandrova also pays beautiful attention to detail throughout the variation. Even the simplest steps become something exciting, like her precise pas de bourrées beginning at 1:03 that sing with musicality.

Swanilda has been one of Alexandrova's signature roles throughout her career. For a fun side by side, watch her perform the same variation almost 20 years later in this video. Although Alexandrova formally retired from the Bolshoi in February, she still performs frequently in Moscow and internationally as a guest artist. Happy #ThrowbackThursday!


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