Fitness and diet play important roles in the life of a ballet dancer

Ballet dancers have to be stronger than GAA players yet exude the physical perfection of a model says Ailin Quinlan who went along to Cork City Ballet’s rehearsals of ‘The Nutcracker’

THREE years ago Alan Foley answered his insistently-ringing phone.With no preamble, a loud male voice bellowed:“There are no pink tights in Skibbereen!”It was the father of one of Foley’s tiniest ballerinas. Charged with the purchase of the tights for his six-year-old daughter’s upcoming appearance in Foley’s Opera House production, Dance Offering, the man was frantic.It’s just one of the many gems the charismatic Foley (who later managed to source the crucial garment) has collected during his years as artistic director of the dynamic Cork City Ballet, which later this month stages a spectacular performance of The Nutcracker.

The production features prima ballerina Erina Takahashi from the English National Ballet as the Sugar Plum Fairy and around 70 dancers in total. The cast includes child dancers from Foley’s popular dance classes around the county. The Opera House performance – which boasts costumes made at the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg, and choreography by Yury Demakov from the Bolshoi Ballet – will go ahead despite years of recession and no funding from the Arts Council since 2011:

“We seriously considered not putting on a production this year; however, despite the setbacks, we’re determined to forge ahead,” says Foley. Somehow, between box office takings, sponsorship, sponsorship-in-kind and a small amount of funding from Cork City Council, this small, professional ballet company, founded by Foley in 1992, manages to keep going.

“We have a lot of public support and interest in what we do, and I would say that’s why we’ve managed to stay afloat. It’s about bringing joy and life to people in bad times – that is essentially the real testament to an artist.”

Watching the dancers – 12 female, four male – being put through their paces by Demakov during day-long rehearsals at the Firkin Crane Theatre is fascinating. They make for an eclectic mix, hailing from the Netherlands, Ireland, Japan, America, Russia, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdon. It’s all done in silence, and, as they effortlessly execute pirouettes, jetes and pas de deux wearing flats (flat ballet shoes), leotards and tights, it’s hard to believe Foley’s description of the lifestyle as physically and psychologically demanding. But it is.“It can be very stressful,” he acknowledges.“You always have to stay on top of body shape, body size, and how the body looks.“You’re being watched and auditioned at all times,” he says, adding that dancers must always have their makeup on properly and their hair done in a strict bun..

And indeed, here at the Firkin Crane the lithe ballerinas wear make-up and sport immaculate buns. Male dancers, says Foley, must develop the sort of strength which enables them to be ready to lift a woman above their own heads at a moment’s notice.

“The lifestyle is very demanding. How many professionals do you know who are standing for eight hours a day wearing very little clothes in front of a mirror? I once brought in four very fit footballers to do ballet training as part of a pilot programme for RTE called Footballers in Tights.

“They were very fit and within 10 minutes they were in bits!”

“It’s a tough lifestyle which requires a very healthy diet and lots of sleep he says. “The women need to be very thin – they have to be lifted up over the male dancer’s head and the level of movement is so extreme you cannot carry excess weight. Spare tyres are frowned upon.”

What’s the ballerina lifestyle like?“Imagine that you’re getting married every day of your life,” chuckles Foley. But he’s not joking. While it’s not true that ballerinas live on a diet of lettuce and fresh air, Anouk Nelemans, 23, from the Netherlands, who started ballet school at age 10, watches her diet and exercise regime carefully. Even when she’s not dancing in a production like this, she says, she practises several hours a day and is sensible about what she eats.

“I have to be very careful with my diet. I have the kind of body which can put on weight, but it’s really a way of life – you teach yourself how to eat.”

Anouk eats a lot of vegetables and Chia seeds, consumes red meat a maximum of once a week, and drinks a minimum of two litres of water a day. Eggs – for protein – are an important part of her diet, and she also eats a lot of fish and chicken.

Like Anouk, fellow ballerina and Dubliner Claire Skelly, 33, who has been dancing ballet since the age of five, trains for eight hours a day, five days a week in the run-up to a production. In between she’ll routinely train for up to four hours a day – ballet practise, yoga and swimming make up her daily regime.

Cross-training to ensure all muscles are worked is important, she explains, as is her eating plan – she has porridge and fruit for breakfast, brown bread and an egg at lunch, while dinner would be chicken or salmon with a lot of boiled egg. She likes quinoa and couscous, and when the need arises, will snack on nuts or dried fruit.

She’s not averse to a glass of wine or some beer, but this 5’7” dancer is careful about splashing out. “If I go outside my normal eating plan I’d notice it the week after. I’d be struggling and my digestive system would be a bit off,” says 5’ 7” Skelly, a corps de ballet member with Cork City Ballet.

Foley says the women are extremely strong: “Some ballerinas are tiny but they have muscles of steel – there is an extraordinary level of ballet strength needed to work at this level and that only comes from years and years of repetitive work – every dancer must practise every day until the day they stop dancing.”

It’s a tough lifestyle , he says, but very rewarding. Although the profession’s top stars could earn up to €20,000 for a single performance, ballet dancers generally earn about €400 a week plus accommodation, although principals can get anything up to €1,000 per performance. Any dancer who wants to train further and progress in their chosen career must go abroad to get the necessary experience, says Foley. Ex- students have studied at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York and performed from London’s West End to Russia, Spain and Amsterdam.

“Right now I have 16 former students dancing in the West End in London,” he says.

A former student, Kevin Hayes from Skibbereen, who started with Alan Foley at age 10, went on to train in London and New York and has just graduated from the London Contemporary Dance School. Now 22, he’s based full-time in London, where he plans to work full time as a professional ballet dancer, though he is returning to Cork to perform in The Nutcracker.

Hayes is just one of many children who discovered ballet through the rural dance-schools run by Foley around the county – in Clonakilty, Bantry, Skibbereen and Carrigaline. Foley is passionate about bringing dance to rural areas, and giving talent an opportunity to shine.

“I also love the fact that a farmer will come into the Opera House to see his daughter on stage and be exposed to ballet – and love it!”


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