I would have been anorexic if I'd had the willpower

A lithe body is part of the job description for ballet dancers. Health is not, as Deborah Bull found. Now the ballerina is spreading the healthy word to her colleagues.
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When Deborah Bull went to visit an old teacher almost 10 years after leaving ballet school, he did not recognise the student he had taught. "He couldn't believe it. He said, `You look like you've been on a rack.'

"It was a real struggle for me to keep the shape that I perceived and that is really required for dancing - I didn't look like this," says Deborah, who has been a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet for four years. Her struggle was militated by the fact, she says, that she did not have the willpower to become an anorexic - "for which I'm grateful". Instead, "I'd think, right, if I'm just disciplined this week, I'll sort myself out ... If I don't eat anything this week and then I just cut down a bit next, I'll be fine, and of course that's not how it works," she says. "I would try to almost starve myself, I would try to go all day with just a salad or some fruit and of course I could not keep that up. I was simply being human in failing. The weight that I'd lost would all come back on again."

To any normal person Deborah, now 33, is a positive waif - but then ballerinas live in a parallel body-image universe. The fairy-tale princesses, the dying swans, the silken points and tulle tutus are the stuff of fantasy, but the bodies in the costumes performing feats of extraordinary grace and extreme flexibility must work extremely hard to uphold the illusion. And the illusion commands minute breasts, non-existent bums, no lumpy muscles. "It is almost part of the job requirement," says Deborah. "You are not going to lose your work or your livelihood if you put on a bit of weight, but for us it is important."

Yet dancers, artists but also athletes, are shockingly ignorant about the physical requirements of their bodies. A recent survey, Fit to Dance? revealed that some British dancers are as unfit as the average punter, smoke heavily, eat badly and suffer many unnecessary injuries. But, unlike the average punter, they are strangely ignorant of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. "Historically, we are primarily obsessed with what we look like."

So it is that dancers dependent on maintaining their bodies in the right image are years behind the woman in the street when it comes to food and fitness. Deborah, however, is different. Thanks to her boyfriend, Torje Eike, a Norwegian physiotherapist who keeps Mick Jagger on track, she has changed her ways, and is now on a crusade to educate her colleagues about the joys of jogging and the qualities of carbohydrates.

These might be the facts of life to the readers of every woman's magazine but "not for a dancer", Deborah says. "Dancers are always told, or tell each other, `I can't do that, it will build up the wrong muscles'. There's always this belief that fitness training is something normal people do, but it's not what we do. We've always been a bit scared of it."

The fears are that running will create big thighs, or horse-riding bandy legs or weight-training bulging biceps - bodies that do not conform to the classical aesthetic. And Deborah, who is a top-flight dancer but will never be a star to match her colleagues Sylvie Guillem or Darcy Bussell, shared those fears.

Deborah did not succumb to the lure of tobacco, popular among some dancers as a form of weight control - the ashtray in Deborah's dressing room belongs to another ballerina - but she takes tea without milk or sugar. Still, she can often be seen eating banana sandwiches - a useful source of carbohydrate and fruit of a positive programme of action she follows, thanks to Torje. "He took my pulse at the end of Swan Lake one day, and I didn't know why he was doing that," she says, still sounding shocked by her ignorance. He explained that the heart is a muscle that should be trained like any other, and said he was astounded that she had done nothing to prepare it for the intense work-out required by a demanding role.

Intrigued, Deborah set off on a voyage of discovery that began with a run. "I was amazed," she says. "I always thought, because I'm a dancer, that I was super-fit and a very healthy specimen, and out I went running with the boyfriend and I was completely dead and he was not even breaking into a sweat ... it was really quite a shock."

So began her new regime. "He was the first person who didn't say `Oh, you mustn't have this because it will make you fat or give you spots'. He said `You must have this because you need that specific type of food for energy', and I'd never considered that some foods were better for energy than others." As the authors of Fit to Dance? note, "Many dancers were taught very little during training about good nutrition, safe use of the body, the need for scheduled rest and ways to prevent injury." Deborah received no guidance on food or exercise until she met Torje.

She now runs in Regent's Park, uses an exercise bike, a Stairmaster and a rowing machine, and varies her work-outs to include aerobic exercise (long-lasting, low-level) and anaerobic (short, hard bursts, such as sprinting) to prepare for ballet's demands. Her diet is as it should be for most of us: low in fats, high in carbohydrates and balanced.

The knowledge that she could take control of her diet, that she should actively choose to eat certain foods rather than passively avoid others, was a powerful incentive. "Dancers are very determined people, they want to achieve and they will try, whatever the price."

And the price can be very high for dancers who must attend class every morning and rehearse most afternoons, before performing at night. "A lot of injuries happen at six o'clock when the dancer is too tired. Some injuries are just bad luck, others are the result of having to, or choosing to, work when something is painful. We ignore them, in my case because I just want to get on and do the work."

Deborah is now recovering from an ankle operation. "The one thing I haven't learnt yet is how to stop when something hurts," she says. "I worked for far too long with an ankle problem. Mentally it was agony, physically it was actually impossible, because I simply didn't have the range of movement in the joint to go on point properly."

The authors of Fit to Dance? say more than 80 per cent of dancers had suffered an injury in the previous 12 months, the majority caused by fatigue. Despite her own injury, Deborah's new regime worked."They used to laugh at me - they still do actually," she says, laughing herself, "but some of them would say `Why aren't you tired, where does your strength come from?' and gradually there was a lot more jogging going on. Sometimes the stage looks like a running track before the show."

Her proselytising extends to lectures at the Royal Ballet School, where crisps and Coke are still popular but are, she says, losing ground to the healthy snack. Her mission is merely to inform - she received no nutritional guidance at all when at school, and sees no reason why students today should suffer the same agonies. "I'm a bit of an evangelist and I do want to share it because it's made such a big difference to me, and because it makes such wonderful sense." She sighs. "It's so nice to work with knowledge rather than superstition and myth"n