Alston McGill – Healthy Dancer Feature

Where do you dance? Share a bit about your journey in dance.

I am currently a corps de ballet member with New York City Ballet. I began dancing at age three in Savannah, Georgia. My long time ballet teacher in Savannah, Veronica Niebuhr, was like a second mother to me, and she fostered my dedication to and love for ballet. When I was 12, she encouraged me and my family to consider pre-professional ballet boarding programs, especially if I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer.

Knowing my love for ballet, my parents were incredibly supportive, and I went to the Rock School for Dance Education in Philadelphia for one year. From there, I moved to New York and attended the School of American Ballet. I trained at SAB for four years. I was planning on returning to the school for my fifth and final year when I was invited to join New York City Ballet, and I have now been there for four years.

What’s a challenge you’ve faced in pursuing dance professionally? How did you overcome it?

Being a professional dancer is challenging on many different levels, but performing New York City Ballet’s repertory is so gratifying that any challenges are worth it. Injuries, unfortunately, are something most professional dancers have to deal with at one point or another during a career.

There is nothing worse than being unable to move and perform. I had a back injury two years after joining the company. I was unable to perform for 10 months, and after that time I still had to ease back into the company’s workload over another several months.

Only now, almost two years later, do I feel like I am able to really push my body again. During the time I was injured, not only did I have to diligently do my physical therapy exercises, but I also had to stay strong mentally. I had to find ways to keep myself engaged and positive during what felt like a very negative situation.

I focused on my small goals in recovery. I tried not to put pressure on a perfect timeline and rejoiced in every small step forward, like walking down the street without nerve symptoms or mastering a new stabilization exercise. I also had a wonderful support network of friends and family around me to make sure I never felt alone during the recovery process.

What does it mean to you to be a “whole” dancer?

To me, being a “whole” dancer means that I am a “whole” person. I am not only a ballet dancer, but I am working to create a full life and a balanced sense of self. Outside of ballet, I attend academic classes at Columbia, and I enjoy my social relationships with friends, some of whom are dancers and others who are not.

I think these things are so wonderful for mental health and allow me to bring a clear mind into the studio. Being a “whole” dancer also means that I take care of my body. I have Pilates privates, I see the company’s physical and massage therapists daily, and I make sure to do my daily regimen of physical therapy exercises that keep my back and body healthy.   

Do you have any special self-care rituals that help you feel balanced?

I love having a relaxing night at home to help me feel balanced and rested. I’ll start with an Epsom salt bath then lie on my acupressure mat, which always makes me fall asleep. After, I’ll do deep breathing and stabilization exercises on my Parasetter, and I’ll end my night by reading before bed.

What role does cross-training play in your life?

Cross training is so important for me! My muscles don’t like to hold tone, so I’ll do New York City Ballet’s strength and conditioning program with one of our physical therapists whenever my rehearsal schedule allows. Regaining my stamina has also been important in recovering from my back injury, so I do stamina drills with another physical therapist every other day so that I can make it through tough roles.

How do you keep a positive relationship with food and your body in the face of aesthetic pressure in dance?

Although it is still tough every now and then, I think that I have found how to maintain a positive relationship with food and my body. The main way is by not comparing myself to other dancers. We are all different with different bodies!

Do you have a favorite healthy recipe?

I absolutely love this ponzu salmon recipe from Healthyish. It’s easy to throw together, and it’s always a crowd pleaser when I have people over for dinner.

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