A Professional Ballerina On Food And How It Shaped Her Second Career


It's no secret that ballerinas and food have an unusual and uniquely complicated relationship. While they rely on nutrients to keep their bodies going during long dance sessions, practice and shows, food can also be their biggest enemy in terms of taking the stage in skin tight, revealing costumes synonymous with the art form.

Photo: Broadway World

2010's movie Black Swan brought to light the many serious issues professional ballerinas are faced with - including those to do with their oftentimes tempestuous relationship with eating. SWAAY talked to professional ballerina Natasha MacAller formerly of NYC's Joffrey ballet and the cast of Phantom of the Opera about life after ballet and how food came to define her second career.

“Ballet is the only art form that has a sell-by date," she says.

Given ballet's competitive nature, Natasha admits - "I was very fortunate to make it into a company that I could pay my bills and make a living out of it. But alas, ballet is a live art form that you can simply cannot sustain for your entire life. "When the time came and I finished my career with the Joffrey Ballet with The Phantom of the Opera," in what was "an incredible experience" - she had a choice to make.

For Natasha, there were two avenues that appealed to her after her 30-year ballet career came to close - she would either become a physical therapist, or a chef.

"I was greatly relieved that my brain still worked after - you know, ballet, ballet, ballet"

Having reviewed the prospects of what would be ten years of study in physical therapy, she set her sights on culinary school, for which she now owes her career as sought-after pastry chef and author.

“I was always fascinated with cooking and food, as is every ballerina I think," Natasha fondly recalls, “I've loved my second career in food - I love the creative aspect."

Having focused her efforts on pastry, where women are most commonly found in a restaurant kitchen, Natasha still noticed the disparity in gender balances in the industry. “I was fortunate to work in some amazing restaurants after culinary school," she says, "but it is still a man's world."

“I've had some good and some not so good experiences being a little blonde in a kitchen full of big guys," she says.

“Women do tend to lean more toward pastry," she recognizes, and I suggest that it's perhaps because it's more of an art form, to which she underscores - “the liquefiers and the dry ingredients have to work together in perfect symmetry." In the other parts of the kitchen there's more freedom to test and theory - where measurements must be precise, recipes delicate, and focus extremely attentive to receive optimum results. It is perhaps the most volatile and easily spoiled part of the kitchen."

She is positive, however, about women's future in the industry - “the food industry has changed enormously, as women are more frequently found leading restaurants and heading kitchens." Leading by example, she has headed pastry stations and opened restaurants with fellow female chefs she met through an organization called Women Chefs and Restaranteurs - a global network of females in the food world.

It's through this organization that she has accumulated a few of her 33 contributors for her first book Vanilla Table published back in 2013. The group serves as an “active resource for culinary advancement, education, networking." While not necessarily a huge organization, at around 800 members Natasha says she has reaped the rewards of membership.

Her success from Vanilla Table produced the prospect of a second book, and inspiration came in the form of her book publisher, Jacqui Small, who suggested a spice book might be of use to the public. It was also a topic that would be right down Natasha's alley, as the former dancer was very familiar with the properties of spices, spanning right back to her ballet career, when she would meticulously cook all her own food.

Coming together to make the second book possible, Natasha accumulated a team of women around her that would make putting the book together in a mere 10 months possible. Working seven days a week and researching extensively the properties of each individual spice meant her team would prove integral to the success and quick release of the book.

Photo credit: Manja Wachsmuth

“We called ourselves the spice girls or spice ladies because it was only women - designer, editor, Jacqui and the photographer."

Natasha remonstrates about the importance now of going back to the kitchen and "starting from scratch." She worked with many nutritional scientists and experts in the field of culinary medicine closely whie producing the book. It wasn't merely about the food, or the spices, but the spices ability.

“The nature of spices - they all have health-affirming nutrients in them"

“Adding a simple spice to your food not only makes it taste better but it adds nutrition and value to our daily lives," she says chuckling. It's something very simple that people can forget, especially perhaps millennials living in a 'quick meal' era - turmeric, cardamom, cumin are something lacking in the standard youth's kitchen.

Currently in talks for her third book, we can expect Natasha to replicate the success of her first two books. Having also opened two restaurants with a close friend, she still works intermittently creating new pastry menus for the restaurants - “I still get to be really creative in the kitchen even though I'm not there everyday."

3 Min Read

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.