Dance Health

Bouncing Back after Baby

How real life ballerinas return to a life of leotards and tights after having children.

By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD.
The Centre for Dance Nutrition.

“You’re Pregnant”!  What two words elicit a more joyful and terrifying feeling than those?   It’s only natural to wonder about getting your body back, having a life again and possibly getting back to work after baby arrives.  Real life principal dancers Julie Diana, Pennsylvania Ballet, and Christine Winkler, Atlanta Ballet, talk about returning to the stage after having a baby (or two).

“Remember the beauty of what you are doing (mothering). If you put too much energy into worrying about your body, you might miss out” says Diana who Dance Magazine called “The Audrey Hepburn of ballet”.   This real life ballerina had moments in her pregnancy and post-pregnancy days in which she felt unattractive and not totally herself.  Pregnancy is beautiful, but even the most glamorous women have moments when they ask themselves ‘what happened to me?’ When that baby comes there is a big sense of loss of control and you have to work to regain your sense of self.  Diana said that even though she was back to the stage within a few months, it took time to lose the weight and a year to regain her full strength and flexibility.

Julie Diana, Pennsylvania Ballet. Photo by Candice Detore.

Julie Diana flies through the air in rehearsal for ‘La Sylphide’ one year after having Riley. Photo by Candice Detore.

Every mother is different and every pregnancy is different.  Don’t compare yourself to others.   It’s common for women to question themselves when they see that someone else has gained less weight or is energetic when they just want to sleep.   Recommendations are to gain 25-35 pounds for most women, but everyone is different.   Women need to gain weight during pregnancy for the health of the baby.   Diana was pregnant at the same time as another company member.   It was tough feeling compared, but it was easier with her second baby.  She still gained the same amount of weight, but she was more calm and forgiving of herself. It was easier to enjoy the newborn days knowing how fast they go.  Diana had C-sections with both her deliveries.  She gave herself a minimum of six weeks with no strenuous exercise, then gently started back with barre, then a shorter three hour rehearsal schedule.  It took 6-8 months to regain the use of her lower abdominals again, but slow, steady, hard work paid off and she came back as a principal with Pennsylvania Ballet and guested with the New York City Ballet.

Christine Winkler, a principal with the Atlanta Ballet, started by lying down with baby on the floor and doing gentle exercises.  It took three months to feel like her energy was gradually coming back.  She says “Really honestly give yourself time to rest because it will pay off down the road when you will be able to push yourself harder”.  It’s hard not to feel frustrated at first says Winkler whose first performance back was in a unitard only four months after having her baby boy.  Sleep deprivation has been shown to impair weight loss, but the upside is that breastfeeding uses an additional 500 calories per day.  Every woman is different, and the most important thing is taking care of yourself and your baby.

Christine Winkler. Photo by Jason Meek

Christine Winkler performs at the High Museum, Atlanta, only four months after having her baby. Photo by Jason Meek.

Both dancers didn’t diet, but instead focused on making smart food choices.  Stock up with healthy choices that can be grabbed and eaten one handed.   Choose fruit, oat bars, nuts, rice cakes with peanut butter, tortillas with veggies, carrot sticks and hummus.  Food choices affect the nutrients in breast milk.   Eating veggies affects the flavor of breast milk and has been shown to help kids be more open to them later in life.  Some babies might be affected by dairy. Winkler noticed her son felt terrible after she had mac and cheese.  Get calcium from diverse sources like fortified plant-based milks like almond, soy, and flax milk.  Leafy greens, broccoli, sesame seeds, beans and tofu are good sources of calcium and other important nutrients.  Have helpers stock your fridge with washed fruit and chopped veggies/greens, pre-cooked beans/lentils, pre-cooked containers of rice and quinoa. Freeze in small glass containers for quick reheating.

Ballet dancer’s tips for bouncing back after baby:

Snack on healthy foods, and eliminate sugary foods and beverages.

Stock up on “quick-fix” choices with little prep

Hydrate well with water, almond and soy milk, not juices or soft drinks.

Think of your food choices as nourishing your baby and yourself

Allow yourself rest

Exercise once your doctor gives you the green light

dance dietitian Emily Cook Harrison

Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a former professional ballet dancer and the mother of two girls who now wear their own leotards and tights.  She is a registered dietitian who runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles in Atlanta, GA.


Photo (top): © Monkey Business Images |

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