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The Sugar Plum Shift: Exploring the ballet world’s changing approach to food, nutrition and body image

Sheila Dillon considers how, in recent decades, attitudes towards food, diet and nutrition have undergone a major shift in the world of ballet dancing

Sparkling lights, twinkly music, frothy tutus and perfectly pirouetting dancers: what could be more magical – and festive – than ballet?

This is an art-form that’s been revered over generations, romanticised by books, magazine and movies… but it hasn’t always had the best of reputations when it comes to health and well-being.

Ballet dancers are ethereal, elegant, poised – and were, traditionally, often tiny. Over the years, around the world, there have been stories of ballet dancers having unhealthy diets, eating disorders and mental health issues.

In more recent decades, the ballet world has recognised this – and a shift is well underway, in attitudes towards food, eating, diet and nutrition… one that’s seen the big ballet companies employing dedicated nutritionists and strength training coaches, training their dancers like professional athletes. The evolution of the art-form has seen ballet become more demanding - and as a result, the ideal ballet body image has shifted to strong, lean and toned; meaning dancers need to be on top of their diet and nutrition, in order to perform. Today, the industry says its focus is on education, and building positive relationships with food and body image right from the start of a dancer's career.

So how far has the industry come - and what more could yet be done? Sheila Dillon dons her tutu and ventures into the world of British ballet, to ask: does playing the Sugar Plum Fairy still mean sacrificing any hint of a sugar plum?

Presented by Sheila Dillon, produced in Bristol by Lucy Taylor.

PICTURED: Yasmine Naghdi, principal dancer with The Royal Ballet, dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty.
©ROH, 2017. Photographed by Bill Cooper.

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Special thanks to The Royal Ballet for letting us attend and record their rehearsals for Coppélia, featuring dancers Laura Morera in the role of Swanilda and Bennet Gartside as Dr Coppelius - with coaches and former Royal Ballet dancers Leanne Benjamin and Stephen Wicks, accompanied by pianist Kate Shipway.

Also thanks to the staff and students of Elmhurst Ballet School for letting us watch and record one of their dance classes, taught by Gloria Grigolato and accompanied by pianist Dominic Mason.

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