Courtesy of Naked

The first African-American woman to become a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre spoke to Food & Wine about her diet during performance season.

Elisabeth Sherman
March 01, 2018

As a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland works in the studio eight hours a day, training, rehearsing and preparing to perform. Her longest break often comes during the five-minute walk she takes between studios. That doesn't mean, however, that she doesn't make time to cook. 

“I am happiest when I’m on stage or in the kitchen," she tells Food & Wine.

Known for her lean, muscular physique, Copeland, calls her body a “machine,” and treats it with respect. That means roasting Brussels sprouts and carrots, mashing cauliflower, sautéeing kale with garlic, broiling salmon (she's a pescatarian), and baking tilapia. 

“I learned [how to cook] from watching the Food Network. Rachel Ray’s 30 Minute Meals was one of the first cookbooks that I bought,” she says.

Well aware of the negative stereotypes associated with how dancers eat, Copeland hopes to lead by example.

“There is this stigma attached to being a ballet dancer that we don’t eat and that we aren’t athletes,” she says.

But Copeland shows that it's all about balance. In addition to all the vegetables she eats, she also makes her own pizza at home, enjoys the occasional glass of wine, a tuna melt for lunch, and cookies and cake for dessert. She's more than earned the credit she's given for changing the way the public sees her profession.

“Showing me behind the scenes, in the studio and showing my muscles,” she says, “is really changing the way Americans view dancers.”

But finding the right diet and becoming comfortable in her body didn’t happen overnight. It was a journey that took time, patience, and in the case of her diet, experimentation.

“It took me so many years to learn what works for my body,” she says.

Copeland says that she ate like a “bird,” as a child constantly snacking on the sunflower seeds. Growing up, her family struggled financially, so “nutrition was not something I was knowledgeable about.” When she became a professional dancer, Copeland had to transform her diet—one that keeps her energy up and maintains her stamina and strength—into a mature version of what she ate as a kid.

These days, during the performance season, Copeland brings grapes, cherries, and dried fruit like apricots, all mixed together with peanuts, pistachios, and almonds, into the studio. Copeland also recently partnered with Naked Juice because she often eats their Naked Fruit, Nut & Veggie Bars throughout the day.

Snacks alone are not enough to sustain her, though. In the morning, she eats yogurt and oatmeal, and dinner tends to be her biggest meal of the day because she avoids performing on a full stomach. Ballet requires lifts, leaps, and turns, often high into the air—a routine that differs from almost all other athletes. So, dancers tend to “fuel the night before," she explains. Any meal they have the day of the performance is focused on maintaining their energy levels.“Our aesthetic is so much a part of what we do,” explains Copeland. “We have to physically get through a three-hour performance, but also our bodies are our instrument. That differs from the football players, who would eat steak or pasta before a performance.”

Copeland stresses that over the years, she’s tailored her diet to fit what makes her feel best, and she encourages other young women entering ballet to eat what makes them feel healthy, satisfied, and strong. It takes work, but it's worth it.

"This isn’t some easy thing that I have stepped into,” she says. “Figuring out what food works for my body—it’s not a quick diet or a fad. You have to make the decision to approach your life in a healthy way.”

She encourages other dancers to embrace the structure and discipline that is already in their schedules and apply to it their diets, eating consistently throughout the day and finding meals they love. Her biggest plea for young people entering the profession? “Respect your body for what it is.”