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."
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.