Real Life Dance: Eat To Dance

With so much information on nutrition out there, deciding on what constitutes a healthy diet can be a little confusing, especially for dancers who need to consume enough food to fuel a day of dancing.

The effect of too little nourishment can become evident early in the day, says Marie Elena Scioscia, a Manhattan nutritionist and former dancer. Energy drops, mood starts to plummet and the ability to make decisions diminishes. “Injury prevention goes right out the window," she says. “The brain and nervous system need a constant supply of energy from blood sugar—which can only come from food. The body will start to break down even over the course of the day."

Long-term results are even more grim, Scioscia warns. “When dancers consistently undereat over the course of their careers, they set themselves up for muscle loss, impaired immunity, thyroid disorder and other hormonal disorders." She recommends sticking to a well-balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates and good-quality fats.

With that in mind, we asked four dancers to tell us what they ate in a day of rehearsing and performing. (Our thanks to the dancers for recording their meals for our readers.) We looked at how each dancer approaches diet. Then, without meeting the dancers and knowing only their heights and weights, Scioscia evaluated the diets and made suggestions that dancers at all levels can use.

SAMUEL POTT
American Repertory Ballet
Age: 28

Breakfast
1 shot espresso
1 large bowl raisin bran cereal with banana
1 fried egg on 1 slice toast with butter
Lunch
2 sandwiches: turkey, swiss, mayo, lettuce
1 yogurt
1 apple
1 grapefruit
Snack
1 large coffee
1 chocolate-chip cookie
Dinner
Tofu with broccoli, soy sauce
Rice

Samuel Pott works at maintaining his weight. “I eat a lot," says Samuel. But “sometimes I have to drink a protein drink at the end of the day to not lose weight." That's when he whips up a 700-calorie concoction he buys at a vitamin shop. He also tries to eat a lot of protein at breakfast, to make his energy last, and avoids fast food and junk food like potato chips, high in saturated fat. A splurge? Coffee and a chocolate-chip cookie.

Samuel would do well to consume his special protein drink every day. He's not eating enough, Scioscia says. He needs approximately 3,000 calories to maintain his energy and body composition, not 2,028. His diet was a little low on dairy, very low on other proteins and low on vegetables. “I would suggest bringing some yogurt to rehearsals, or for a snack, having a protein bar or peanut butter sandwich rather than a cookie. At lunch, I would add a side salad or some vegetable soup."


RACHEL HOLMES
Joffrey Ballet School
Age: 19

Breakfast
1 pumpernickel bagel, toasted with butter
1 Naked “Immunity" juice drink
Snack
1 banana
1 pear
Lunch
2 slices of turkey breast on a roll with lettuce, pickle, mustard and 1 slice of American cheese
Dinner
1 cup pasta with broccoli florets
1 cranberry almond muffin
1 15-ounce can of iced coffee

An active ballet student, Rachel Holmes leaves home at 8 am, takes five hours of classes, and then rehearses with a modern company or works a night job before she returns home at midnight. Rachel often eats on the go but doesn't skip meals. “I don't think I could," she says. “If I had more time, I'd probably eat more, especially at lunch."

Rachel needs approximately 2,300 calories to maintain her weight; her diet shows only about 1,893 calories. In choosing refined starches like a bagel and muffin, which each weigh about 8 ounces, she consumed 15 bread servings, where the average should be 8 to 10. In addition to eating more whole grains, Scioscia advises Rachel to consume at least 5 servings of vegetables a day and increase her protein to 110 grams.

She also missed out on the recommended 1,200 milligrams of calcium. “Dancers should shoot for at least 2 to 3 dairy servings from low-fat sources like skim milk or yogurt. Fortified soy milk is also a good choice, as soy is good for bones."


SAVANNAH LOWERY

New York City Ballet
Age: 20

Breakfast
Light yogurt, orange juice, coffee
Lunch
Chicken salad
Snack
Almonds
Dinner
Soup, chicken, crackers, orange

NYCB corps de ballet member (and part-time college student) Savannah Lowery is the first to admit her seven-shows-a-week schedule can be “pretty grueling." Fitting in nutrition is difficult, so she tries to pack in her nutrition during days off. On a recent day when her mom was visiting, she ate three meals: eggs, chicken and salad, and spaghetti. She also occasionally indulges in M&Ms.

Scioscia says Savannah needs approximately 2,200 calories every day, not the 1,421 shown here. “She is an athlete, and so it is very important for her long-term career that she consume enough each day."

A protein-heavy diet can also lead to sugar cravings. Eating a healthy mix of protein, good-quality fats and carbs will help her feel full. Carbohydrates like oatmeal, sweet potatoes and brown rice give athletes the fuel that is needed to drive muscular endurance and strength, Scioscia explains.“Without carbohydrates, muscle must be broken down for fuel—not good for dancers or anyone long-term."


MELISSA MORRISSEY
Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY
Age: 29

Breakfast
2 pieces of toast with peanut butter and jelly
1 glass of chocolate soy milk
Snacks
Luna bar, dried fruit or nuts
Lunch
Sandwich with cheese, avocado and tomato
Dinner
Sautéed vegetables with tofu

“I feel really strongly about eating three meals a day," says Melissa Morrissey. With six hours of rehearsal a day, she's also the one with the Luna bars, dried fruit and nuts in her bag. “I need that snack to keep my energy up," she adds.

Melissa likes to read up on nutrition, but admits, “There are so many things out there it's hard to know what to believe. I try to listen to my body." Paying attention doesn't mean she doesn't treat herself. “I will eat dessert sometimes," she says.

Melissa needs at least 1,600 calories a day. Her diet turned out to be about 1,439 calories. Her carbohydrate intake was on the low side, but adequate. She also consumed too little calcium, fruits, vegetables and protein. “Without adequate protein," Scioscia warns, “it is impossible to maintain muscle and keep the immune system going." Melissa, who doesn't eat red meat, chicken or pork, could eat more fish or try a protein shake for an afternoon snack or before performing.

Susan Chitwood, a former apprentice with Virginia Ballet Theater, has an MS in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.

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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

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