Ballerina Body

Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and More Graceful You


By Misty Copeland

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The celebrated ballerina and role model, Misty Copeland, shares the secrets of how to reshape your body and achieve a lean, strong physique and glowing health.

Misty Copeland believes “There has been a shift in recent years in which women no longer desire the bare bones of a runway model. Standards have changed: what women do want is a long, toned, powerful body with excellent posture.” In other words, the body of a ballerina. In her first health and fitness book, Misty will show women how to find the motivation to get healthier and stronger, and how to reshape their bodies to be lean and flexible, with step-by-step advice, meal plans, workout routines, and words of inspiration.

Celebrating the importance of healthy fats and a fitness regimen based on ballet exercises, Misty shares her own time-tested exercises and an eating plan focusing on healthy fats, both of which keep her in top shape. Tips for motivation and words of encouragement as well as tips on how to keep going even when you may want to give up. An inspiring section on the importance of finding mentors, and eventually being one, plus excerpts from Misty’s personal journal, round out this important book on grace and strength.


To all of us on this journey, working toward a healthier life and happier heart, we are in this together.

I hope you all believe in yourselves every step of the way. Know that every day is another opportunity to keep trying. Work hard and know you're worth it.

Let's create our best versions of ourselves, and the best versions of our ballerina bodies.


Still in Motion

I spend countless hours at airports, particularly in the winter and summer months when American Ballet Theatre is on the road. While I'm waiting for the moment when it's finally time to board, I'll often stroll over to a newsstand and finger through the entertainment and fashion magazines lining the racks and shelves.

Cosmopolitan. Essence. Self. Peel back the covers and you can immerse yourself in worlds of beauty, fitness, and luxury. There are how-tos and what-fors; tips, diets, and schedules; an array of glossy blueprints that guide women on a path to a feminine ideal they are supposed to be striving for.

Without fail, the models or actresses who are featured are gorgeous, with luminous skin and lean physiques. When I was a young, naïve dancer, new to ABT and seeking my way, I was influenced and affected by those images. In my mind, I felt that this was what beauty was and I had to meet that standard. I struggled to figure out how I could maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle, not just on those days when I would be dining on room service, but also once I returned home to New York City.

I may have been an athlete, living in one of the world's most glamorous cities, but I had no nutritionist on speed dial, no extra money to hire a chef to prepare healthy meals. And while I was being taught the art of ballet daily, I wasn't getting the specific instruction I needed to keep every part of my body in peak shape.

I'd flip to the interviews in the magazine, searching for advice, eager to learn the featured celebrity's secrets. When asked how she stayed so taut, so fit, her answers would often be a riff on the same refrain. "I drink a lot of water! I get a lot of sleep! This is just me!"

To the young, insecure woman I was then, that explanation seemed impossibly simple. As the woman I have become, I know such advice makes up pieces of the puzzle, but it's hardly the whole solution. In recent years, I have had the honor of appearing in several magazines myself, and when reporters ask me what it's like to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world, or what I eat to power through my regimen, or to stay strong and svelte, you know what I tell them? The truth.

None of it was easy. Not my climb in the ballet world, not my arrival at a place of personal contentment and peace, not my journey to the body I stand in.

When I was a child, my family often had little money, and we had to eat whatever we could afford. I used to love corn chips doused with hot sauce and glow-in-the-dark cheese squeezed out of a bottle.

Even after I'd become a dancer with ABT, putting my body through the rigors of dancing eight hours a day, five days a week, my body still craved meals that were heavy on the carbs because that was all it knew. And when my body bloomed in my late teens and I no longer fit the old-fashioned, pixie-like ballet ideal, I'd try to escape my frustration by diving into a box of sweets. I would eat every bite—and hate myself in the morning. In short, I understand the temptations, pressures, and frustrations of the real world.

I was an ordinary young woman, trying to determine what was best for my body, my health, my spirit, mostly on my own. Slowly, by experimenting, by adding cross-training to my schedule and tweaking my diet, I began to figure it out. I found what worked for me by trial and error. I learned that I couldn't do cardio that had weight training or too much resistance on the machines. I realized how to burn calories without adding bulk to my frame, and I discovered which cross-training helped me to strengthen my core and lengthen my muscles in a way that would not just benefit the structure of my body, but make me a stronger dancer as well. I discovered which foods gave me the fuel that my body needed after expending as much energy as I do every day.

I devised a plan for how to eat so that I could keep my body lean and powerful, and I realized that dietary discipline doesn't have to mean deprivation. Now I want to share all that I've learned with you.

I've always been a dreamer, and I am thankful that a lot of my dreams have come true, from becoming a professional ballet dancer to becoming the first African American principal ballerina in the history of American Ballet Theatre. Now I dream of sharing what I've learned—of showing women everywhere how to reach their body goals and achieve what they see as their best selves—using a ballerina body as the basis: one that is lean but sinewy, with muscles that are long, sculpted, and toned.

My regimen is grounded in the real world. Though my career involves constant exercise and dance, I know that not everyone has the time to make it to the gym each day. I'm a woman who as a child used a motel railing as a ballet barre, so I believe in the power of improvisation and being able to exercise right where you are. Your bedroom mattress can be your springboard; your natural body weight can be your ballast.

Change is not easy. It took years for me to find the balance of exercise and nutrition that worked best for my physique. But I also know from my personal experience that it's never too late to make change happen. Each morning, as the sun filters through your bedroom window and you wipe the sleep from your eyes, you can make a fresh start, you can rededicate yourself to your ongoing journey to take control of your body, your health, and your mental well-being.

We will take it one movement at a time, with a step-by-step guide that includes meal plans, workout routines, and words of inspiration to keep you motivated. You will eventually be able to mix and match foods on your own, but until you've found your own rhythm, you can refer to the twenty-one-day menu that I've created with plenty of options to keep you energized and satisfied.

Did you know fat is good for you? It's even better than that. It's great. And through meal plans and recipes that celebrate healthy fats and lean proteins, kicking your metabolism into shape, and a do-it-anywhere exercise plan that blends techniques from the worlds of ballet and floor barre, I will show women of every size and shape how they can become stronger and more vibrant, how they can feel their best so they can perform at their peak.

Ballerina Body is for women across the spectrum, from the college student trying to eat healthy and stay fit in the midst of dormitory life and exams, to the Gen Xer balancing her career with motherhood, to the retiree who wishes to stay active and healthy throughout her golden years.

My advice is based on what for me has been tried and true. It's modeled on how I have danced and lived, and it's rooted in the wisdom I have gleaned through my own errors and experimentation. You will likely experience your own trial and error along the way, but I'm sure that ultimately, your personal will and commitment will propel you toward success.

I know what it's like to deal with self-doubt, to feel it is an uphill battle to reach your goals. To many, I was too old and too brown to succeed in the rarefied and largely white world of ballet. But thanks to mentors who believed in me, hard work, and perseverance, I have been able to rise to the top tier of one of the world's premier ballet companies and to achieve a life balance that makes me feel centered and whole.

Just as there is a growing recognition that a ballerina's strength and grace can be embodied by a dancer of any hue, the idea of a ballerina's body has also been reshaped. It's no longer about looking childlike and brittle. We are real women and ballerinas, and we, as well as those who aspire to a similar physical ideal, want to be lean but also muscular, feminine but also strong, lithe but also curvaceous.

Ballerina Body provides a flexible and customizable road map that will help you maintain a healthy sense of your body as you attain optimal levels of strength, flexibility, and energy. While you may never perform grands jetés across the floorboards of a theater, my program will help guide you toward these goals:

Strong, shapely legs and a toned derrière

Youthful flexibility gained from the structure of a ballet class that combines strengthening and stretching exercises

Crystal-cut curves all over your body

A sexy fluidity and confidence wherever you go

A new love for the body you have, and no more negative thoughts racing through your mind about what you look like

A renewed physical and spiritual energy derived from careful, focused commitment to your best and strongest self

A recognition of the importance of mentors in your life, to inspire, encourage, and motivate you for your journey, whether that's a quest for a healthy body, a new career, or simply a sense of inner contentment

Achieving your ballerina body will take commitment, work, and, yes, sacrifice. And just as your spirit, your personality, your natural shape, are all singular to you, each of your experiences with my program will also be unique. But there is enough flexibility in my plan to allow you to discover the mix of food, movement, and motivational exercises that works best for you. And while each of our journeys may differ slightly, the destination will be the same—a more vibrant body and emotional energy that will leave you feeling empowered, healthy, and whole.

So come on. We will get there. Together.

Chapter 1


So much of my approach to my life and career stems from my experiences as a child. My need to please and be the best, my yearning for structure and discipline, all started back in Kansas City, Missouri, where I was born.

When I was a toddler, my family and I moved to the small West Coast city of Bellflower. There were four of us kids then: my older sister, Erica, my big brothers, Doug Jr. and Chris, and then me. My mother would marry two more times, and that's when my baby sister, Lindsey, and our baby brother, Cameron, would come along.

There was such a ruckus in our household, so many personalities clamoring for attention, that it was hard for me to find my own voice. It became little more than a whisper, tucked deep inside, and I shrank within myself.

Shy doesn't begin to describe how withdrawn I was. When I went to school, my heart would pound as I sat in class, dreading that I might be called on to answer a question or to offer my opinion. And I worried constantly, about being tardy, about making a mistake on a test, about doing something, anything, that would upset the people around me. When I was seven years old, I started to suffer from migraines, sometimes feeling so sick I'd have to leave school early and lie down in a pitch-black room until the pain and nausea faded away.

My mother had migraines as well, and they'd started for her when she was my age. But I believe that my searing headaches were also connected to the constant nervousness I felt dealing with the turbulence of the world around me.

Our family moved often, from one small, crowded apartment to another, before we finally landed at the Sunset Inn, a motel near a busy highway in the Southern California city of Gardena. So much upheaval, so much uncertainty, left me longing for stability and routine.

With my brothers and sisters; I'm on the right.

In the midst of all the chaos, music and movement were my refuge. Pliés and fouettés, the foundation of my future, were still over the horizon. I wasn't aware of ballet yet. I'd never even seen a ballet. Instead, I escaped to the rhymes and beats of rappers and singers like TLC, Salt-N-Pepa, and our family's favorite, Mariah Carey.

When I wasn't creating steps to the pop song of the moment, I was mimicking the moves of the legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci. I'd seen a Lifetime movie based on her life story and I fell in love with her fierceness and grace. I began to teach myself the moves that she performed so effortlessly, and I found that I, too, could execute a cartwheel or the splits with ease.

But it was ballet that would be my calling, and my salvation. And I found it on the sweat-stained floor of a Boys & Girls Club gym. Every day, after school and drill team practice, I would head with my siblings to the local Boys & Girls Club, an organization that gave countless children like me a welcoming space to play and grow. Elizabeth Cantine, my drill team instructor and a woman whom I, to this day, consider my godmother, saw the way I moved and suggested that I attend a ballet class at the club, which was taught by a friend of hers, Cynthia Bradley.

As I've said, I didn't have a clue about ballet. And when I made my way to the bleachers to sit and watch Cynthia teach a handful of students how to stretch and pirouette, I felt even more lost. Trying something new, in a group of strangers, was terrifying to a shy, cautious child like me.

But Cynthia spotted me sitting there and gently encouraged me to join the group. I didn't even have a pair of tights or a leotard. It took a few days more for me to summon my courage, but, finally, with gym shorts that were too big, and socks barely topping my ankles, I walked across the floor, joined the class, and put my hands on the barre.

I was thirteen, far too old in the eyes of many purists to be getting my start in ballet. But with that first class, I'd brushed up against my destiny.

"You're too big to be a ballerina."

That's what a random stranger said to me one night, several years ago, at a Manhattan club. His words stopped me cold and sent a jagged pain through my heart.

I was in my second year in ABT's corps de ballet, the large group of dancers who create the atmosphere for the ballet and who frame the soloists and principal dancers who headline the performances. My best friend, Leyla, and I had taken a cab that evening to hang out at a popular new club called Bed. It was the kind of place where after spinning on the dance floor, partiers lounged on couches, chatted over the DJ's swelling beats, and sipped cocktails.

I'd gone to the club to forget what had happened a few hours before. But that stranger's callous comment brought roaring back the memory of everything I'd experienced that day, along with my feelings of confusion and even despair.

That afternoon, members of ABT's staff said they wanted to speak to me, and I had a good idea what they wanted to talk about. I'd put on ten pounds. My breasts pulled at the seams of the costumes I shared with my dance mates and wore as one of the Willies in Giselle and as a cygnet in Swan Lake. It was as if I was now enveloped in someone else's body.

The changes in my figure had happened seemingly overnight. A couple of years before, at nineteen years old, I'd had a physique more akin to that of a prepubescent girl. My doctor had grown concerned about my ability to maintain the strength I needed for my strenuous dance schedule, so he prescribed birth control pills to help my body catch up to where biologically it should have already been.

Of course, over time, my ballet instructors noticed the change. So that afternoon, when they called me in, they told me gently but firmly that I needed to "lengthen." In the ballet world, that was a polite way of saying that I needed to slim down.

Their admonishment stung, just like the words uttered by that man at the club. I felt helpless. How was I going to lose weight? Where would I begin? I already spent up to eight hours a day rehearsing and taking ballet classes. During the season I performed several days a week. How could that not be enough? I needed nourishment to power through my classes and rehearsals. And at the end of a long day, I enjoyed a good meal, maybe even dessert. Did I now have to count every calorie and deny myself the occasional sweet treat? I was dejected. But as tough as those words were to hear, that conversation with my instructors at ABT, and the harsh realization that flowed from it, marked the true beginning of my fitness journey.

With Dick and Elizabeth Cantine.

With Cynthia Bradley and her family.

My path mirrored the rocky start of so many women. First you want to fit into a certain mold. Then you struggle to create or find a road map to get there. What I learned during my personal odyssey was sometimes painful, sometimes difficult, but always invaluable. No, I didn't have to lock my refrigerator and throw away the key, but I did need to eat more mindfully so that I could build my strength and give myself the breathing room for that occasional dessert or glass of wine. No, I didn't have to lift heavy weights and work out around the clock. But I had to learn what exercises and combinations of foods would keep my body lean and strong and give me the stamina I needed to get through my long days.

It took me a few years to get the formula exactly right. But when I did, not only did I feel fitter, not only was my body sleeker and more powerful, but I also had come to a realization that was more important than any other—I came to understand, to accept, that all along my body had been perfect for me.

My body was and is perfect for me, just like the body you're in is perfect for you. Didn't it pop out of bed when it was still dark outside and hold you up through homeroom, algebra, and band rehearsal after school? Didn't it carry you across the campus quad, through your procession of classes, and then forward, until you headed home from your part-time job? Didn't it carry your twins for nine long months and then usher them into the world? Hasn't your body held you in good stead through the decades, and isn't it sustaining you now in middle age?

Like I said. You are perfect.

You may have to start fueling your body differently so that you can climb the stairs without losing your breath. You may have to strengthen your core so your bearing is as regal as you are. You may need to incorporate some physical rituals that can help you feel more alert when you hit that midway point in the afternoon, or reframe your thinking so you can enter that marathon and run it to the end.

But that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the body you're in, that your physique should be a replica of your favorite singer's, athlete's, or movie star's. It just means fine-tuning, tweaking, honing, what you've already got, taking control of and subtly re-etching the outer self that is divinely you.

How boring would it be if we all looked the same? No, really. Just as it would be monotonous, off-putting, and surreal for us all to have the same hair color, eye tint, and shade of skin, we are also not all meant to be exactly the same size.

I actually think fixating on numbers, whether they appear on the tag stitched to the back of your blouse, the scale that sits on your bathroom floor, or a sheet of paper where you painstakingly track the calories in every meal, is not the most productive path toward your healthiest self. The fit of your clothing, the vibrancy of your complexion, the intensity of your energy, are all, in my mind, better gauges of whether or not you are boosting your vitality and performing at your peak.

To be sure, many of the messages echoing through our culture make some women feel that we are all supposed to fit into the same waifish, cookie-cutter mold. Even dancers, often in top shape because of the grueling workouts we put our bodies through, have plenty of insecurities. After all, we spend a good part of our day in front of mirrors. Add to that the pressures of being judged by dance instructors, critics, and, most important, the audience, and it can make even the most confident performer feel tentative and unsure. But even those who do not spend chunks of their lives beneath a spotlight can feel self-conscious about their figures.

You don't need to internalize someone else's rendering of what it means to be beautiful and healthy. Rather than comparing yourself to photographs in a magazine or images on a television screen, the only visage you need to focus on is the one that stares back at you from your own mirror. And thankfully women are starting to rebel against limited and unrealistic notions of what it is to be attractive and are instead embracing their own unique beauty.

The mental snapshot of a ballerina's body has also changed. Women are flocking to barre workouts taught at studios and gyms like Pure Barre, the Dailey Method, and Equinox because they want to be willowy but not fragile, toned but not tiny, muscular but not masculine. They understand that the perfect body is one that is robust and healthy.

Sometimes we turn to strict diets to try to attain the body we desire. But dieting is often an ephemeral fix, rather than a long-term, sustainable solution. You can carve out the physique and lifestyle you want without limiting yourself to a handful of foods or severely restricting your calories. The healthier way to achieve your goals is by adjusting your lifestyle bit by bit, incorporating subtle changes that you can then commit to and live by.

I eventually realized there was nothing wrong with the natural changes that my body had undergone, but I had to learn to work with this new physique, to find the exercise techniques it needed to push through hours upon hours of rehearsal. I had to learn to listen to this new body, to know what nutrition it required to fuel performances that required sheer athleticism blended with a dancer's grace. I had to embrace my new physical self to attain my goals of maximum health and vigor.

As a dancer, my body is my instrument. I speak to the audience through every muscle and tendon, with every glissade and renversé. When I recognized those truths, my fitness journey became one of joy and not frustration. I wanted simply to respect my body, to get the most out of it that I could, in order to live my best life.

Your body is essential to you as well. That's why it's so important to love it, to have faith in it. Take a stack of sticky notes and paste reminders of all it does for you all over your mirror, or jot words of appreciation on the lined pages of your journal—My legs propelled me out of bed this morning. These shoulders gave a piggyback ride to my children. My arms allowed me to rake the soil in my garden on a Sunday afternoon.

There have been times when I doubted myself, questioning if I had what it took to advance from a member of the corps de ballet to soloist, and then, one day, to principal. I had many days when I thought I'd never master the mix of exercise and food that would help me maximize my endurance and effectiveness as a dancer. But an endless loop of self-doubt chips away at our feelings of self-worth, stifling our motivation and crippling our momentum before we take even our first step.

So, let the first act of our fitness journey start from a place of self-respect and appreciation. We want to polish the bodies that are our temples, not tear them down.

When negative thoughts rise in your mind and start to go round and round—My stomach is too jiggly! My thighs are too wobbly! My arms are too flabby!—push those self-critiques away and refocus on how singular you are, and how, with small changes and small efforts each and every day, you can become stronger, more vibrant, more sculpted, no matter what your natural shape.

By shifting my focus, changing my self-perception, and shoring up my spirituality, I have come to love the body that I am in. The muscles that ripple through my legs allow me to do thirty-two fouettés without crumpling to the floor. The curves that swell beneath my clothes help me to relay the message to the world that you can be healthy, fit, and, yes, voluptuous too. My physique, like the color of my skin, is helping people reconsider what a ballerina looks like.

You are fiercely, lovingly, and divinely you. My ballet-based fitness plan is simply going to help you maximize the wonderful body that you already have and enable you to be as fit, joyful, and dynamic as you can possibly be.

Chapter 2


I've wanted to dance for American Ballet Theatre since I was thirteen years old.


On Sale
Mar 21, 2017
Page Count
240 pages

Misty Copeland

About the Author

Misty Copeland is a principal dancer at American Ballet Theatre and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Life in MotionBallerina BodyBlack Ballerinas, and the children’s picture book Bunheads, as well as the award-winning children’s book, Firebird. She made her Broadway debut in 2015’s On the Town, putting a show that had reportedly been suffering financially for months into the Broadway box office top ten for the two weeks that she guest starred as Ivy Smith. She’s been featured in the New York Times and on CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes, and she was named one of Glamour’s Women of the Year and Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. Misty is the recipient of the Young, Gifted & Black Honor at the Black Girls Rock! Awards and the Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor.

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