Misty Copeland is a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, one of the top classical ballet companies in the world. Misty was kind enough to take time out of her demanding schedule to share her thoughts on training, nutrition, and balancing the intense performance and aesthetic demands of ballet.
Joel Minden: During ABT’s performance season, how much time do you devote to different activities to maintain your conditioning and prepare yourself for the demands of performance?
Misty Copeland: During a performance season there isn’t time or energy to do much else. I take class from 10:15 AM to 11:45 AM. Rehearsal begins at noon. That can entail spacing on stage, rehearsals in the studios, preparing for the upcoming ballet, and then a tech/dress rehearsal after for the ballet we are doing that evening, usually spanning from 12:00 PM to 5:30 PM. The shows start at 7:30 Monday through Friday. There’s a matinee at 1:30 on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We may still have rehearsals in between shows on the two show days. Now, being a soloist, I may not be in every show. So if I have the time, I take Pilates mat classes, Gyrotonic privates using the reformers, and occasionally will run on the elliptical machine. I also like to do floor barre classes with my private teacher.
JM: Dancers are expected to display incredible strength and power, but training strategies used to develop these abilities can increase muscle mass. Is there a role for resistance training in the development of a dancer? How do you approach training for strength and power without sacrificing the ballet aesthetic?
MC: I think this varies with each individual dancer and body type. I build muscle mass very quickly, so I stay away from weights and resistance machines. Diet is a huge part of staying lean and long. No sugary drinks. I pretty much stick to water and wine on occasion. I eat fish but no other meat. No white flour, white bread, white sugar, etc. But ballet is really enough, especially in season, to keep our figures aesthetically appropriate.
JM: Research on the fitness levels of ballet dancers has revealed that, even among elite dancers, power and mobility are excellent, but aerobic conditioning is a relative weakness. When you consider the nature of dance performance (intermittent explosive movements), it’s less surprising that aerobic fitness is not as developed in dancers as most people would expect. Are endurance training workouts (running, cycling, etc. for 30+ minutes) a part of your training? Do you believe it’s important for ballet dancers to devote time to improving aerobic conditioning or is this somewhat less important than other dimensions of fitness?
MC: Ballet calls for a different stamina. This is why there’s no real way to train your body other than dancing, rehearsing the role, and learning to pace yourself at the right times. There may be some slow adagio type movement that is a stamina in its own right that can lead into standing quite still in a position that takes strength and mental stamina. And then you will have spurts of intense jumping and turning repetitively that may go on for two to three minutes intensely. So running or doing aerobic exercises are somewhat useless to us or not important.
JM: What is your approach to nutrition for a) energy to support training and performance and b) maintaining a dancer’s physique?
MC: I would say that diet is 80% of what it takes to stay in dancer shape and to have the energy needed. I eat little before a show. Maybe fruit, bananas, grapes, yogurt or a salad. I eat after the show. Fish. In the mornings I have coffee and a muffin and yogurt. After class I have a snack, sushi or salad. I eat nuts and dried fruit throughout the day. I think that diet plays an even bigger role in how you feel and look than working yourself into the ground exercising does.