The ballet dancer’s life: strength training, strict diet, ice packs and constant pain
Ballet dancers are as fit as professional footballers and basketball players, a study has shown. We talk to three Hong Kong dancers about their workout, diet and maintenance routines
Xia Jun may look delicate, and his movements on stage may be graceful, but don’t be fooled by appearances. The soloist with the Hong Kong Ballet maintains a demanding regimen to stay on top of his game, and give his body the 24/7 maintenance his career requires.
That includes almost daily check-ins with the staff sports practitioner, and weekly trips for deep tissue massages and acupuncture on his legs. He spends at least two hours a day stretching to keep his muscles and joints limber, and regularly applies ice packs to his ankles or knees to keep swelling down.
He also abides by a strict diet. A slice of pizza or a burger with a small cup of sake once a week is his cheat meal, he says.
Xia, 23, who was born in Shanghai and joined the Hong Kong Ballet in 2013, says his feet in particular require constant attention, from managing blisters and calluses to regular strength training, right down to the toes. All cramps and cuts must be attended to, or he can’t do his job.
Xia Jun in rehearsal
Most days after Xia finishes rehearsals, or has performed the second show of the day, he has to take a taxi home because his feet are too sore to walk.
Xia started training at the age of seven and graduated from the Shanghai Dance School the year before he joined the Hong Kong Ballet, so experience has taught him that listening to his body is paramount.
“Sometimes I finish and I just feel so heavy and tight,” he says. “When I’m tired, I have to rest. I can’t not rest, I don’t have a choice.”
Vanessa Lai Nok-sze also joined the Hong Kong Ballet in 2013. The 23-year-old Hong Kong native is a member of the corps de ballet, meaning she dances within a group. Lai says her daily regimen revolves around core strengthening exercises, including planks, to make sure her body can handle the physical demands of the role.
She uses a foam roller ball each night to massage the muscles in her feet, usually while watching Netflix, eating and sewing slippers, of which she goes through two or three pairs a week.
Lai says she’s had issues with her hips, so she has to be aware of how her joints feel on a daily basis. She also takes part in regular training outside work, including pole dancing and aerial yoga.
“I’ve been working a lot on building up the strength in my upper body, my arms and shoulders,” says Lai. “Also, I just really like to keep busy. It’s who I am.”
The classical art form crossed over into mainstream Hollywood culture in 2010 in Black Swan, a psychological thriller starring Natalie Portman that portrayed ballet as a tough, cutthroat profession. Many aspects were cast in a negative light, including the demands of the job, potential issues with eating disorders, and stress.
According to Lai the film was inaccurate, although she gets asked about it all the time. One thing not up for discussion is the comparative fitness levels of a ballet dancer and a professional athlete.
A 2008 study by the University of Hertfordshire in southern England found that ballet dancers are in better overall shape than international competitive swimmers. Numerous other studies have shown they have aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels and muscle strength on par with professional soccer and basketball players.
To achieve such high levels of fitness, Both Lai and Xia spend the majority of their days in studios, practising and rehearsing relentlessly for performances.
Xia’s day usually starts around 7.30am with a trip from his home in the New Territories to the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui, after a small breakfast of noodles, egg and pork. His daily exercise begins with stretching and warm-up moves with his cohorts at the ballet (the Hong Kong Ballet employs nearly 50 dancers, split into five different levels).
Class starts at 9.30am; after about an hour they move into rehearsals. That lasts until 2pm, and involves moves such as the grand jeté – a long horizontal jump, starting from one leg and landing on the other while doing the splits in mid-air. Another challenge is the flying pas de chat – which looks like a move only video game fighters could accomplish. Most moves are done on the toes with feet wrapped in ballet slippers that have hardly any padding for comfort.
Depending on whether he’s performing that day (one show in the afternoon and another in the evening), Xia either slips into a costume or heads into more rehearsals. Somewhere in between, he grabs a quick lunch, usually a salad, and wraps up at about 7pm if he’s not performing that night.
Then it’s more stretching, a cab ride home, maintenance for his legs and feet, a huge meal of meat and protein, and off to bed.
Xia Jun rehearses a role
Xia, who has also danced professionally in New York and Switzerland, says he doesn’t have much of a private life outside ballet, because the job essentially requires 100 per cent of his body and mind. On top of maintaining peak physical shape, he’s also memorising moves, and working with other dancers on choreography. Once in a while he gets a day off, which he usually spends at home resting.
“It’s hard,” he says of the commitment and sacrifice to the professional lifestyle. “But I love it. I want to do this until I’m 40.”
The years of extreme physical exertion required of a ballet dancer take their toll physically and mentally.
Nicola Volker, a 25-year-old South African who teaches at the Twinkle Dance Company (which has four schools in Hong Kong), danced for the Cape Town City Ballet Company professionally for four years.
Volker says she has a lot of great memories, even though it was the “most challenging thing I’ve ever done”.
“Mentally it is an exhausting career … remembering all the different choreography on top of thinking about all the general ballet knowledge that is used on a daily basis,” she says.
“As a career, I loved it. Yes, the highs were incredibly high, especially with all that adrenaline, and the lows were so very low, but I feel they create a beautiful balance and I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience that.”
Volker recalls she had a few injuries during her career, including a torn hamstring, sprained ankle and broken toe, and considers herself lucky she never had a “serious” injury.
“Feeling pain in the body day in and day out eventually becomes the norm,” she adds. “And as a dancer, you just need to make sure you take care of your body by warming up and stretching out your muscles every day.
“Having an injury is a very frustrating thing for a dancer because you know you should rest but your heart does not want you to take time off. This is where injuries become prolonged because dancers, myself included, continue to dance with the injuries.”
During each show, a ballet dancer often performs as a number of characters, which involves many costume changes. For Xia and Lai at the Hong Kong Ballet, they must also master different styles, ranging from classical productions such as Romeo and Juliet, to Hong Kong Cool, a recent contemporary show in which Xia had a leading role.
Lai, who has performed in roles as varied as an Egyptian doll in Terence Kohler’s The Nutcracker, a lead pirate woman in Anna-Marie Holmes’ Le Corsaire, and Bolero in Nina Ananiashvili’s Don Quixote, says she loves the artistic side of ballet as much as the physical.
“Trying to find our characters, I really enjoy that,” she says. “I’ll go back and watch the videos of other performers who were in the same role as me and then I look to add my own personal feel to the role as well.”
She’s also been a white cat in Cynthia Harvey’s The Sleeping Beauty and in Pär Isberg’s Pinocchio.
“The cat roles suit me the most I think,” she says with a grin. “It’s very similar to my personality.”