WHILE Hyacinth the dancing hippo has been earning belly laughs in Walt Disney's 1940 animated film "Fantasia" ever since its release -- and today's counterpart, a rhinoceros assaying haughty flamenco moves, is racking up hits on YouTube -- in the all too real world of dance, and especially ballet, weight is no laughing matter. The scale, if not always a full-blown obsession, has been a critical career determinant for dancers for decades.
There are, in fact, few other professions -- only fashion, entertainment and some sports come readily to mind -- where pounds, or a lack thereof, can be determinants of success. And though there appears to be an emerging plus-size culture elsewhere in the new millennium -- with size-14 Jennifer Hudson snagging an Oscar for "Dreamgirls" and Oprah's battle of the bulge hardly stopping her in her tracks -- the pressure is still on for dancers, whose bodies, after all, are their instruments. How else to account for the 2003 firing of Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, the dancer who was charged with being too heavy when, at 5-foot-6, she tipped the scales at 110 pounds?
It was the New York City Ballet's George Balanchine who, when co-founding the company in 1948, created the desired look of ballerinas in the 20th century: long limbs, an absence of breasts and hips, and a skeletal frame accentuating the collarbone and a swan-like neck. In her 1986 memoir, "Dancing on My Grave," erstwhile City Ballet member Gelsey Kirkland wrote that the choreographer would routinely make comments such as "Eat nothing" and "Must see the bones."
Allegra Kent, a 30-year City Ballet veteran and one of the choreographer's muses, doesn't go that far. "Balanchine wasn't a fanatic about it the way some people would become," she says. And as for starving ballerinas, "I think if you choose something and do it, you do it because you want to and you're not sacrificing anything."
Nevertheless, although more dance professionals are working to make sure a trim figure doesn't come at the expense of health, for many dancers, and not just Mr. B's, visions of inhabiting the Kingdom of the Sweets in "The Nutcracker" are far from their only food-related dreams. They also long for pizza, steak, foie gras, caviar....
Bowing to discipline
CONSIDER Julio Bocca, who retired last June after 20 years with American Ballet Theatre and has said that his final performances with his own troupe, Ballet Argentino, will take place in Buenos Aires at the end of this year. When he announced those plans, he said he was looking forward to leading a less-disciplined life.
Recently, though, Bocca has been more specific. "It will be nice to do nothing -- wake up whenever I want, do whatever I want," he says, "and have pigout days of pizza, pasta, good barbecue -- anything tasty. Above all, I would eat all the milanesas -- scallops -- of my grandmother Teresa."
Bocca says that for many years, a restricted diet was simply part of his professional discipline. "I never really forgot about food, I just left it aside."
Yet weight requirements in dance have never been so strict for men, partly because of their partnering duties. It's the tutu-clad sylphs, wilis and swans, the Giselles and Sleeping Beauties, who must be in shape to face the music when the curtain goes up and the pointe shoes come down.
ABT principal Irina Dvorovenko has danced many leading roles, garnering reviews peppered with adjectives such as "elegant," "glittering" and "assured." Now 33, she vividly recalls her early training at Russia's Kiev Ballet School.
"In our country, the teachers were direct and kind of mean," she says. "If the person was overweight, they said, 'You're looking fat.' At 13, I wasn't fat but a little overweight, and I asked my parents to put a lock on the kitchen. I would then enter the kitchen through the balcony.
"When you're starving," Dvorovenko adds, "you want to sneak and get some food. Today, I allow myself everything -- but not regularly. I love bread and butter and cheeses but try not to eat them every day."
Dvorovenko -- like her husband, ABT principal Maxim Beloserkovsky -- is also a self-described "dark chocoholic." The couple cite dark chocolate as a source of magnesium, calcium, iron and energy. But she says she's also inspired by the fact that so many people in the U.S. are obsessed with exercising and eating well.
"In our country, we had no idea about food and quality of food. We never had green salads or spinach, only soups. Even if you are not a ballerina," she says, "you need discipline. You can't be a pig and ruin your organs always eating high calories."
Lorna Feijoo, a Boston Ballet principal, is also an emigre. Born in Cuba -- whose toe shoe tradition is deep but whose ballerinas tend to be more curvaceous, in the 19th century mode -- Feijoo says she loves all food. But she particularly craves the dishes of her homeland: plantains, pork, rice, black beans.