If we are what we eat, does that make dancers of the Carolina Ballet stalks of celery or sirloin steaks?
Their skin-hugging costumes leave little room for cake and ice cream, but it's equally obvious that naked salads could not fuel the energy needed for the physical demands of a performance.
"I am hungry all the time," admits Marcelo Martinez, the muscular lead dancer who last season dazzled fans with his sexy, demonic Dracula, a role he likened to running a marathon.
"I needed to eat more than usual because the performance was really challenging," says Martinez, who is featured in Rhapsody in Blue, part of a program that continues through Feb. 24. "It's like always driving a car on empty. After each show, my muscles would be so tired but they'd still be racing."
Like other dancers, Martinez heeds the advice of the company's nutritionist and carefully considers every bite. But that doesn't mean he never splurges. Displaying deft kitchen skills, he recently cooked a sumptuous dinner of shrimp and rice in a creamy tomato sauce at the Raleigh home of ballet patron and secretary of Carolina Ballet Stephanie Kahn.
Gathering skillets and assembling the ingredients for the meal, which started with a lightly dressed spinach salad with fresh strawberries and candied pecans (see recipe in sidebar), Martinez makes a confession.
"I'm a little nervous. I watched Ratatouille again to get inspired," he says, referring to the animated Disney film in which a mouse motivates a fledgling chef. "I like the idea of that movie, that anyone could cook."
Martinez was joined by Cecilia Iliesiu, a member of the company, and Jaimon Howell, a fellow dancer, who playfully served as his sous chefs. They peeled and chopped while, in keeping with his principal status, Martinez led the show.
"For me, garlic and onion is the basis of good food. It's like the plié," he says, gracefully demonstrating the move with a deep bend of the knees as the kitchen filled with the heady aroma. "You can't rush this part if you want it to turn out right."
The particular perfume reminds Martinez of his mother's kitchen in Paraguay, where most meals included rice, beans and either chicken or beef—which, coincidentally, reflects a dancer's desirable balance of carbohydrates and lean proteins. "Of course, on the weekend we'd do the barbecue asado," he says of the famed low and slow pit-cooking method. "It would be more like a celebration. Sometimes family would come."
Martinez had limited exposure to other foods until he earned a scholarship to study dance in Rio de Janeiro, where he transformed from a skinny kid into a sinewy dancer after a teacher directed him to beef up his protein intake. He was surprised to learn that locals ate eggs and fruit for breakfast, which he considered appropriate for dinner and dessert, respectively. Restaurant menus amazed and confused him.
"I never knew what to order," he says, laughing at the memory as he confidently swirls cream cheese into the simmering shrimp sauce. "It was fun then, but now I like to cook for myself. I think most dancers do because it's easier to control what you eat. It's also less expensive."
Nutritionist Ryan Sobus, who advises the company's dancers, says they must eat like endurance athletes to maintain strength and stamina. To fuel their high metabolism, their intake typically is about 60 percent carbohydrates, including whole grains, oatmeal, sweet potatoes and fruit.
"When you metabolize carbs, they're stored in your muscles," she explains. "That's what provides prolonged, sustained energy."
Consuming enough healthy fat to absorb needed vitamins is a challenge for many dancers, especially women striving to maintain a lean physique. Low body fat can affect the production of estrogen, which can weaken bones and make a dancer vulnerable to stress fractures.
"A lot of dancers, male and female, are scared that if they eat well, it will impact their weight," Sobus says. But if they don't eat right, she adds, they can experience physical sluggishness and decreased mental clarity, making it difficult to remember choreography.
"If you get dancers at this level to fuel their bodies properly, their dancing even gets better," she adds. "Sitting down with a nutritionist and learning about it takes a lot of anxiety out of the equation."
Which is a good thing when you're about to devour a heaping plate of shrimp and rice. Martinez is pleased when his friends raise a modest glass of wine to toast the chef. "You have to eat," he says, "so you might as well eat well."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Plates and pliés."