On Sunday mornings, Atlanta Ballet dancer Brooke Gilliam makes a beeline for bread at the Grant Park Farmers Market. She flits through the stalls, filling her bag with tomatoes and mushrooms along the way. She breaks into a wide smile, as if she were taking a bow at the end of a performance. But instead of flowers, she’s brandishing a glorious loaf of cranberry walnut bread. These market finds will fuel Gilliam through nine-hour workdays in the coming week.
Most professional athletes adhere to strict meal plans. NBA and NFL players rely on chefs and meal coaches who guide their day-to-day nutrition. Ballet is one of the most athletic art forms, yet even the most prestigious dance programs don’t employ personal chefs.
“Oh boy, you can just get me on my soapbox about that,” says Val Schonberg, a registered and licensed dietitian and a specialist in sports dietetics, who helps advise Atlanta Ballet dancers.
“I’ve worked with a lot of elite, high-level athletes. Sports nutrition, training tables, using nutrition to get an edge, and even putting money behind it is very well thought out for those teams,” she says. “And then you come into the dance space and the dance culture. Dancers kind of have to figure it out on their own. And they deserve the same level of attention.”
Gilliam says her typical day begins at 7:30 a.m., when she fixes an espresso with a splash of oat milk and creamer. She then makes breakfast. “I’m such a creature of habit, and I’m sure I can speak for many dancers,”
Gilliam says. “Most mornings I make two eggs and sourdough toast with jam.”
Class begins at 9:30 a.m. and goes until 11. The dancers then get a 15-minute break—a crucial window for a boost of nutrients. “I keep trail mix in my locker,” Gilliam says. “I like to bring a banana, or I really like protein bars to get a bit of energy.”
The next three hours are devoted to perfecting choreography for upcoming shows. Then comes a one-hour break for lunch and physical therapy, if needed—followed by another three-hour block of rehearsals.
“I do a salad or a grain bowl, which I’ll pack for lunch most days,” Gilliam says. “It’s usually spinach or kale and grilled chicken, sweet potato, avocado, and thyme. I really like pine nuts in my salads, and some type of dressing, like tahini or just vinegar.” But not every lunch is planned. Some days the dancers will order pizza or go out to Souper Jenny.
Rehearsals end at 6:10 p.m., and Gilliam is fixing dinner by 7:30. “I will cook salmon in the oven with salt and pepper, a little bit of lemon, some olive oil, and then just some rice on the side,” she says. “I love roasting broccoli in the oven with some simple salt, pepper, and a little bit of garlic.”
Gilliam is from Boulder, Colorado, and is heading into her sixth season at Atlanta Ballet. She learned how to prepare meals at an early age, she says. “We would have summer intensives as kids. We would get some meals provided, but we learned how to make breakfast and shop for ingredients.”
Anderson Souza, a male dancer at Atlanta Ballet, enjoys a special perk. “My husband is a chef. So he does most of the meal prep on the weekend with me,” Souza says. “One thing he usually likes to make is chicken and rice. It’s packed with protein and carbs, and it’s very nice and healthy.”
Souza’s husband, Brock Peek, oversees culinary research and development at Focus Brands. Other options for dinner include fresh fish tacos, noodle or rice stir-fries, cheesy pasta, and hot pot bowls—with vodka sodas if they are dining out.
Souza says, “I try to focus a majority of my diet on proteins and fats, and I do eat some carbs, which keep my energy up. We’re breaking down muscle every day. So we do need more protein than normal, especially men.”
Schonberg agrees that protein is crucial. Male dancers often lift other dancers and need to maintain their strength, she says. “I always like to think of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, like Legos,” she says. “And if you don’t have enough, you’re just not going to be able to build muscle.” Professional dancers may eat up to a gram of protein daily per pound of body weight—though Schonberg points out that each performer’s needs are different, and they should consult a dietitian for specific direction.
Also crucial are maintaining hydration and limiting caffeine. “Caffeine, for some people, can give a false sense of energy. And then they potentially can’t eat right, or they’re fooling their body into thinking it’s full,” Schonberg says. “If you want to enjoy a cup of coffee or two in the morning, and you’re still eating your breakfast, and eating enough, that might be appropriate.”
Souza says he is guilty of drinking a lot of coffee, especially on performance days. “In the morning, I usually do a shot of espresso with normal coffee. Just, like, plain black,” he says. Souza balances his coffee intake with a heavy serving of oatmeal with protein powder and fresh berries. He stays hydrated by adding electrolytes to his water. For days when he has sore muscles, he says drinking tart cherry juice, which is rich in antioxidants, helps him recover.
Souza is joining Atlanta Ballet for his eighth season. Born in Brazil, he has performed in Colombia, China, Israel, and France. You can catch him and Gilliam this month in The Nutcracker, then Coco Chanel: The Life of a Fashion Icon in February, Kaleidoscope in March, and Liquid Motion in May.
And you might just catch them at restaurants around town after the show. Gilliam loves dining at her all-time favorite eatery, Delbar, in Inman Park. She also enjoys getting tapas at the Iberian Pig in Decatur and catching a live show at Northside Tavern in West Midtown. Souza says he loves to go out with his husband in Midtown and will order an Aperol spritz on a special night.
This article appears in our December 2023 issue.