Prodijig is leaving its audiences gasping, let alone its dancers, so Ellie O’Byrne was intrigued to hear how Nelly Elbadr prepares for the highly demanding show
Anyone who’s seen Prodijig: The Revolution, the new Irish dance show that’s been taking audiences by storm with its high-octane blend of Irish traditional dance moves, hip-hop, and contemporary dance, will have marveled at the enviable physiques and fitness levels of the dancers.
For Nawal ElBadri, the female lead in the show at Cork Opera House, keeping herself in form for eight physically demanding performances a week is surprisingly simple.
Nawal, known as Nelly, doesn’t have a team of personal trainers, coaches and dieticians and has no personal fitness regime to speak of.
She doesn’t play sports and gets bored in the gym.
Apart from her life as a professional dancer and the rehearsals and performances it entails, Nelly’s only fitness secret is that she doesn’t own a car.
“I walk everywhere,” she says.
“Sometimes it means setting off a little earlier for things, but it’s great exercise and really clears the mind. We’re living about half an hour from the Opera House while Prodijig is running, so I walk in; it warms up my muscles. ”
Growing up in Swords with an Irish mother and a Libyan father — she was born in Libya and still has family in the war-ravaged county, including her grandmother — Nelly is one of four sisters, three of whom followed their mother’s footsteps into Irish dance.
Nelly started dancing at five, and after years of competitions, she left for the US with her elder sisters, Mariam and Amal, to work as a professional dancer at just 16.
The eldest sister, Mariam, now runs the ElBadri Academy in Swords.
After seven years in the US in popular theme park shows Irish Thunder and Emerald Beat, Nelly toured Europe with shows like Gaelforce and Titanic Dance.
“Then in between, I’ll have corporate gigs,” she says. “I’ve been dancing since the end of January this year.”
With so little downtime, Nelly’s fitness is kept permanently at a peak.
The Prodijig dancers attended a bootcamp at the beginning of their rehearsals, with personal trainer and former Lord of the Dance star Owen Joe McAuley teaching the team exercises to stay in shape, but Nelly says the nightly performance is a work-out in itself, and warming up and plenty of stretching to prevent injury is all that’s really needed.
Assistance for the dancers, like physio in case of injury, or deep tissue massage when muscles feel the strain, is arranged as needed, with the help of choreographer and male lead Alan Kenefick.
“Alan is our personal trainer,” she says.
“He motivates us to stay fit and healthy and avoid injury.”
One of Alan’s ideas was a recovery strategy of ice baths for the dancers’ legs after each show.
Although Prodijig shies away from the traditional immobile arms of classic Irish dance in favour of hip-hop moves that use the arms and torso, it’s still a high-impact dance for the legs, and taking care of them is as important as for any athlete.
Ice treatment has become popular in football and GAA training, with research showing that cold water immersion for 15 minutes post exercise improves recovery times.
Vats of ice up to the waist may sound more like torture than a fitness regime, but Nelly says you get used to it.
“You’d be screaming for the first couple of minutes, but you’d be surprised: it actually feels really good and it’s amazing for muscle recovery,” she says.
Nelly will take a break for a few days with family in Dublin before travelling with six other Prodijig dancers to Hong Kong in September for a corporate gig, and she’s looking forward to unwinding.
“I’ll slouch around my Mum’s house alright,” she says, “But I’ll get a walk in once a day as well and spend around two hours a day in the studio practicing.”
Diet-wise, her high-energy lifestyle means she doesn’t have to curb her appetite to stay trim.
“Irish dance is very different from something like ballet, where the girls all have to be a very particular body shape,” she says.
“When you see the Prodijig dancers, what you’ll notice is that while everyone’s incredibly fit, we all have our own body type. I can’t speak for all the girls obviously, but I never see any calorie-counting going on, just sensible healthy eating.”
For Nelly, that simply means no junk food… mostly.
“I say no junk food, but I still have it sometimes,” she laughs, “just not very often.”
When fatigue hits, she might occasionally have a Berocca or a couple of squares of chocolate before a show to give herself a boost.
“The matinee is the hardest show, but when your adrenaline hits, all the tiredness goes away. I’m never tired while I’m dancing, but as soon as I get home after the show and my head hits the pillow, I’m out like a light.”
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