Five years ago, Misty Copeland, the first African American principal ballerina in the American Ballet Theater, endured grueling pain when she suffered six stress fractures in her tibia, the large bone below the knee. She had injured her leg months earlier but the condition worsened because she maintained an arduous schedule of rehearsals and performances to prepare for a career highlight—a starring role in Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House.
As it turned out, Copeland’s first performance in that run of The Firebird was also her last in it, and her last performance of the season. Dancers often endure injuries, and she had had fractures before. But this was her most serious. She had surgery to install a plate in her leg, and she had no idea what her future held.
“But I did know that I couldn’t allow the ballerina in me to die,” she writes in her new book, Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You (Grand Central). “I had to summon all the mental and emotional strength I could muster to keep my inner fire going. I could barely walk, let alone dance, but I began to visualize myself healed. And I danced inside my head.”
Visualization techniques, which the dancer writes about in a section headlined “Visualization: Seeing is Achieving,” are among the more inspirational methods Copeland sheds light on in Ballerina Body—part memoir, part “how to”—that she has drawn upon to sculpt her physical shape as well as her positive outlook. In 226 pages, Copeland turns a spotlight on the balance of exercise and nutrition that she says took years for her to perfect.
Seemingly aware that the book’s photos of her might intimidate even the most motivated among readers, she makes sure to put them at ease. The first chapter is entitled “Your Body is Perfect for You,” and she makes clear that, just as she found what works for her, “you will likely experience your own trial and error along the way.” To that end, Copeland says her book speaks to a diverse group of women—college students trying to stay healthy despite the stresses of dorm life and midterms, the GenXer balancing work and motherhood, and the retiree trying to stay active.
Copeland believes strongly in the ability of our thought processes to influence our bodies, and her remarkably toned and limber frame—she can move her limbs in ways that would break an ordinary human—is testimony to the link between mind and body.
“Balance, so central to ballet, is even more crucial in life,” she says. “Our minds, bodies and spirits are intricately connected, and we are our best selves when all are in sync.”
The mind-body connection is an area in which she employs many tools. For instance, in addressing the search for sources of inspiration, she encourages readers to keep a journal as a way to chart progress, help dissect bumps along the way and reflect on the past and present when reaching goals.
“Adagio” refers to slow movement in the ballet technique. As much as the adagio is about flexibility, strength, and fluidity in the movement, learning this exercise on the floor will give you an advantage before approaching it standing. On the floor you acquire a sense of balance and where your weight should be in order to leverage it to make your legs appear higher and more extended in opposition to your upper body.
This exercise should be done slowly to improve balance, alignment, abdominal strength, and stamina.
A. Start by sitting with your legs together on the floor in front of you.
B. Lift your legs into the air by bending your knees, holding the backs of your thighs with your hands, with your legs still bent and parallel to each other.
C. Leaning back, with your back straight and the backs of your thighs (hamstrings) leaning into your hands, slowly lengthen both legs into the air until they are fully straight, making you into a V shape.
D. Bend your knees so the tips of your toes touch the floor. Now do the same with each leg, alone, keeping the tips of the toes of your other leg poised on the floor.
E. Repeat the sequence, beginning with the other leg when doing the single-leg section.
Copeland also recommends creating a so-called vision board—an “aspirational collage” of images, photos and quotes that visually depict the goals you visualize yourself achieving or that you’ve written about in a journal.
Ritual, whether a prayer, a deep-breathing exercise, or a lapel pin worn for special moments, boosts your chances of achieving balance, she asserts. Before performing, Copeland spends an hour on makeup and hair while listening to music through earbuds, a ritual that helps distract her from everything else going on around her and puts her at ease.
The ritual, she says, is “as much a part of my performing life as ballet class or rehearsal.”
She encourages others to tap into the power of their intuition, and, addressing mothers and other caregivers, confronts the guilt that might come with looking after your own needs. “You should never feel unworthy of self-nurturing, but in case you do, remember this truth: When we achieve our own dreams,” she says, “we carry others with us.”
The visualization technique Copeland used to recover from her injury five years ago was not new to her. She urges readers to “have clarity” about their goals, recalling how she used to imagine herself standing in the American Ballet Theater studio at 890 Broadway in Manhattan.
As a teen a short time later, Copeland tried out and won a spot in ABT’s summer intensive program. “It was the first significant milestone in what would be a long, sometimes difficult, professional journey,” she writes. “But I had reached my goal.”
Overcoming the stress fractures in her tibia, the injury that could have sidelined her for good, involved a combination of tough physical work and visualization. After her injury, Copeland worked out each morning with an instructor, Marjorie Liebert, who was skilled in a technique that let Copeland exercise on the floor and mimic movements normally done standing at the barre, or handrail.
Alternating between laying on her stomach, back and sides, Copeland imagined herself dancing. She would gaze at the ceiling, gently lifting her arms above her head to practice port de bras arm exercises. She saw herself onstage executing complex turns called fouettés. “I worked on strengthening my core, my back, my legs, all the while envisioning myself already back at ABT, stronger, more graceful, a better dancer than I’d been before,” she writes.
Copeland is convinced the visualization hastened her recovery. The images she thought of kept her focused, boosting her stamina and helping to block out the depression and fear associated with the possible end of her dance career. “If you can manifest what you want mentally, you can achieve it physically,” she writes. “I have learned from personal experience that our emotional selves are so much stronger than we know.”
Copeland eschews the idea that a workout should come at the end of a day of being sedentary in an office. She urges others to bring physical activity into their everyday lives throughout the day, whether in the office or waiting at a bus stop, and Ballerina Body offers stretches, torso turns and shoulder rolls to do just that.
Many readers of self-improvement books will be familiar with concepts like visualization and advice such as climbing stairs whenever possible. Copeland finds her most distinctive voice in Ballerina Body when she instructs on ballet moves that double as exercises: for instance, a plié (in which the knees are bent outward and the back held straight) and a dégagé (when a dancer moves a leg off the floor from a position with a pointed foot and straight leg to the front, side or back). (See box on page 20 for a Balancing Adagio exercise.) She divides these into two sections: exercises done on the floor and those executed while standing; the former aim to help develop muscle memory and coordination to help advance skills in the standing positions.
Copeland devotes about half her book to nutrition. Her meal plans (meal choreography, she calls them) are sensible; her recipes, simple yet nourishing. Despite their simplicity, many of her recipes are almost gourmet: Moroccan Scallops with Quinoa, for instance, or Black Bean Lime Soup. She capitalizes on current trends, too, as in a Zoodles Primavera recipe that relies on spiralized zucchini (see right). She opens her section on meals on a counterintuitive note: that fat—at least the good kind found in fish, nuts, avocados and seeds—is beneficial. She sees these fats as crucial for providing energy and building calorie-burning muscle.
In her Ballerina Body Eating Guidelines, common sense prevails. But it’s the kind of common sense that it can’t hurt being reminded of now and then, especially by someone like Copeland, who has proven it pays off.
She makes meal planning easy, providing lists of what she calls Act 1 (animal proteins, dairy and plant fats, among them) and Act 2 (fibrous vegetables, fruits and fibrous starches are included) foods. Rule No. 1: Try to stick with the listed foods. She also cautions against skipping meals and, conversely, stuffing yourself to the point of discomfort. Try to eat a variety of foods, she also suggests, to help ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs.
To see Copeland’s finely tuned body, and the movements it is capable of, can be a bit daunting, as can her description of a ballerina body, one that is “lean but sinewy, with muscles that are long, sculpted, and toned.” But Copeland is down to earth and writes engagingly, and her holistic approach offers something for everyone to try or at least ponder. You may not end up with a ballerina body exactly like Copeland’s, but you’ll be healthier if you adhere to some of what Copeland offers.
“We all hold the power, strength, and focus to become the person we want to be, to create the body we want to have, and to carve the path we want to take,” Copeland concludes. “It’s about being your best self—empowered, focused, healthy, and joyfully you!
Copeland says, “This dish allows you to satisfy your pasta cravings but substitutes delicious vegetables— zucchini, spinach, and broccoli—for the pasta. With the addition of Italian seasoning, garlic, and Parmesan cheese, I don’t think you’ll miss the spaghetti!”
4 medium zucchinis, ends trimmed
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped
(about 1⁄2 cup)
1 cup broccoli florets
2 cups spinach, tightly packed
1⁄2 cup sliced mushrooms
1⁄2 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1⁄2 cup)
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon dried Italian spices (typically a medley of basil, oregano,
rosemary, onion powder, and garlic powder— available in a jar)
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Special equipment: Spiralizer
To create the “zoodles,” insert the zucchini into the spiralizer, one at a time, much like you’d sharpen a pencil. (Please follow the manufacturer’s instructions.) Set aside the vegetable noodles. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and onion, and cook until translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the broccoli, spinach, mushrooms, and bell pepper. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook on medium, stirring frequently, for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the vegetables are just tender. Add the spiralized zucchini and dried Italian spices. Continue cooking for another 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Top with the cheese and serve.
EXCERPTED FROM THE BOOK BALLERINA BODY BY MISTY COPELAND. COPYRIGHT ©2017 BY MISTY COPELAND.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION OF GRAND CENTRAL LIFE & STYLE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Makes 4 servings