The internationally renowned ballerina and principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre on dedication and the art of downtime
From the moment I first danced, I fell in love. I was such an anxious child, but ballet made me feel safe and free. It’s been a grounding constant ever since that allows me to express myself. Striving for excellence is my responsibility as a professional. I wouldn’t have the life I have if I didn’t excel at my craft, so I train daily – either in ballet classes or rehearsals. The one exception is in spring, our busiest performance season, when I’m constantly exhausted and spend every Sunday at home in pyjamas. Even when I was on my honeymoon, I did ballet classes in my hotel room and the gym. Luckily, my husband, Olu [Evans, a lawyer], accepts my love affair with dance. We’ve been together for 12 years and he understands the responsibility I have right now, not just as a ballerina, but also as an African American female role model.
The physical intensity of a ballet dancer’s training requires fuel; if you don’t get enough, you can’t perform properly. Consistency is as important to my diet as it is to my training. For breakfast, I have granola and yoghurt with a black coffee to help fuel my morning class. I’ll then snack on fruit in my breaks to keep my energy levels up, and I rehydrate with plenty of water. At 2pm, I’ll have vegetable soup or a sandwich and then graze on a bag of unsalted mixed nuts throughout the afternoon. My biggest meal of the day is dinner – I’m a pescetarian, so it’s normally fish (I love roasted salmon) with plenty of greens. Taking time over my food, catching up with my husband and enjoying a glass of prosecco is the perfect end to a busy day.
Sitting in the make-up artist’s chair before a show, I watch as they transform me. It must be the way that professional athletes feel when they put on their team’s kit. Stage make-up is heavier than standard cosmetics and, along with all the late nights and travelling I do, it can take its toll on my skin. So I make sure that every bit is taken off with Proactiv+ lotion before I go to bed at night – I’ve used it for 15 years and it’s helped keep my skin clear. Off stage, I’m pretty low-maintenance: I’m not interested in experimenting with different products, and I only wear make-up if I’m going to an event. I sweat so much during the day that worrying about what I look like would be a total waste of time.
One lesson I’ve learned is that you can’t change yourself to be more like someone else. In the classical ballet world, there have traditionally been certain rules about what dancers should look like and where they should come from. As a working-class black girl with curves, I never did fit that mould. But ballet isn’t about looking a certain way; it’s about what you bring to the stage, and how you make people feel. Like everyone else, I have bad days. But instead of wishing I could run away, I go to bed and make a promise that I’ll try again tomorrow. I tell myself what I tell the dancers I mentor: that no boundary is impossible to break, and no challenge too tough to overcome.
Strike a pose