I am definitely not
the most nutritious eater. But the diet that I have developed works for me, and has changed my life for the better. When I was a very young, naturally lean ballerina, I never thought that I would adopt a special or specific way of eating. I am a foodie, so living in New York City and touring around the world only developed my love for all things yummy and indulgent.
Pictured at right: Alicia with Jamar Roberts in the Ailey Studios
Photo by Taylor-Ferne Morri
My sense of nutrition did not develop overnight. In fact, it is still evolving as I age and as I learn to listen to my body. I will say, however, that some traumatic life occurrences opened my eyes to the power of good nutrition.
In 1999, at 20 years old, I discovered that I suffered from an autoimmune strain of arthritis. My knees and ankles would swell as large as melons and I had pain in my hips and elbows. In my early 20s, I went from being a young ballet dancer with star-power potential, to a nondescript history major at Columbia University, trying to make a career transition. I began a regimen of heavy medication that stripped my body of life. My hair thinned and fell out, and I found that I had less energy, even though my day was no longer physical. Something had to change, but I never considered food to be the key factor.
In my senior year of college, I decided that I was not ready to give up on my dance career. After overcoming two knee surgeries for cartilage tears, a reconstruction on my right ankle, and experimenting with arthritis medication, it was time to return to my first love.
Trying to get back in dancing shape forced me to reevaluate my relationship with food. I had to be smart about how I balanced intense training and finishing my college career academically strong. I distinctly remember auditioning for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in my last spring semester. I was wearing little booty shorts, which is typical for auditions, but dressed my legs in suntanned tights because I was not comfortable with the muscle tone (or lack thereof) in my legs. Needless to say, I did not join Ailey coming right out of college. The way that I felt in my body during that audition made me want to retract into a hole. I loved my newfound curves as a college student, but it just wasn’t going to work for the level of professional dance that I aspired to.
So, initially I changed my diet specifically for weight loss. I started reading workout magazines and experimented with different diet plans. I learned two things very quickly: Crash diets don’t work, and I had to adopt a regimen that allowed me to enjoy food, not be scared of or hate it.
I started eating small, nutritious meals throughout the day and I had more energy to push myself to the next level. I armed myself with nuts, fruits, vegetables, and good whole meals. With a lot of faith and hard work, I went on to dance with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, and then Ailey.
My body looked like it was in good shape, but I had a hard time keeping my energy up; I still suffered from pockets of swelling in my knees and ankles. In my first three years at Ailey, I even developed arthritis in my eyes. Out of desperation and curiosity, I started asking more questions.
Renee Robinson, a living dance legend (see “The Dance Magazine Awards,” Dec. 2012), would take me aside and talk about the benefits of food as if it were medication. I had never met a dancer who was so knowledgeable about the health properties of every fruit, vegetable, grain, and meat, and how those foods, combined in various ways, could combat many ailments and diseases. What I noticed was that her body was always in great shape, but she never deprived herself of enjoying the things that she liked. I wanted to live like that, too.
Pictured at left: At the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC;
Photo by Christopher Zunner, Courtesy Ailey
So I started imitating Renee. I juiced greens in the morning to give myself all the minerals and vitamins I needed. I ate less sugar and considered the effects of what I was eating instead of finding a quick fix for energy. I tried to eat foods in their most natural state so that I could get the full benefit of their nutrients. Even so, the arthritis got the better of me, and another cartilage tear in my right knee sidelined my dance career once again.
I moved to St. Louis to pursue a master’s degree; there I found an alternative-medicine doctor who could address the detrimental side effects of the large amounts of medication I consumed on a weekly basis. This time, I changed my diet because I felt that I had hit a wall. Weight loss had absolutely nothing to do with it.
The doctor gave me a food allergy test and found that I had sensitivities to gluten and dairy. Many studies show that there is a connection between joint inflammation and gluten. The thought of cutting out breads, pastas, cheeses, and yogurts was daunting, but I was willing to give it a try. Within two months of keeping a strict gluten-free, dairy-free diet, I felt like a whole new person. I did not wake up with the same stiffness in my joints, and my stomach, which had always been gassy and uneasy, was calm and comfortable. Other than fighting my occasional cravings for pizza and cookies, I had a fairly easy transition. The positive effects of my new diet completely outweighed the sacrifices.
Now that I am back with Ailey, I am extremely conscious of how I eat, especially when I am touring. I always start my day with a good breakfast—usually eggs, potatoes, and meat, or gluten-free oatmeal with peanut butter, nuts, and honey. I have cut out almost all dairy except for the small drop of cream in my morning coffee. That is one thing that will probably never change (I love coffee). During a busy rehearsal or performance day, I eat fruits, salads, and rice or potatoes throughout the day instead of eating a big lunch in one sitting. After a performance or a long rehearsal day, I enjoy a good dinner. In New York and in every city where I travel, I try to find a juice bar for green vegetable juices and organic, or raw, food options. Even Starbucks now carries a line of cold-pressed juices and salads.
Some days my body craves a burger and fries, so I eat it. If I am at a party and I want to enjoy some cake, I eat it. Like I said, I am a foodie and I love the experience of eating. But, for my well-being, the food that I eat is even more crucial than my medications or my morning ballet class.
Renee used to say, “Choose your foods wisely. They can be your poison or your medicine.” I am a living testament that fueling your body with the right foods can change your life. Learn about your body—not just about your turnout and extensions—but know yourself from the inside out. Eat and eat well, dancers. It will be the key to a long and healthy career.
Alicia Graf Mack is a member of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.