Isabella Boylston may be a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater, but for a large part of quarantine, she was working out at her kitchen counter just like everyone else. “It’s been very surprising to me to see how many people have a barre in their house,” she tells SELF. “I’ve actually never even had one.”
Boylston has held her principal dancer title since 2014, and joined the Company at the American Ballet Theater, or ABT, in 2006. She has danced the lead in a number of the world’s most famous ballets, including Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, and just last week reprised her role as Clara the Princess in a special virtual performance of Alexei Ratmansky’s The Nutcracker. When she’s not dancing at ABT, Boylston rules on social media. On Instagram, she hosts Ballerina Book Club, a monthly interactive book club, and regularly shares whimsical (and gorgeous) at-home ballet content.
Boylston lives with her husband in Brooklyn. Here, she walks SELF through her quarantine routine, her mental health advice for young dancers, and her go-to outdoor workout that makes people stare.
Right now, I feel like I’m doing pretty well. I’ve definitely had a lot of ups and downs.
A real low point was when our Met season at Lincoln Center got canceled. Even though it wasn’t necessarily a surprise, because one by one our tours got canceled, and then they shut down the studios, so I had a feeling it was coming. But it’s still like our playoffs season. It’s our favorite time of year, and it’s the thing that we train and work so hard for. But I’m trying to stay positive, and give myself a daily schedule.
When it comes to practicing, I’ve been doing everything in my kitchen basically.
I ordered a patch of marley, which is the special floor that we use to dance on. It’s not as good as what we have at the studio, because it’s not sprung, but it helps that I can at least put my pointe shoes on and do pointe work.
On a typical day, I usually wake up around 9 a.m., and then I make coffee.
I eat an egg and cheese sandwich that I make, and usually put some spinach or arugula on it. I’ll spend an hour or two working on emails, and I usually have at least one Zoom meeting every day about various subjects. And then I’ll start warming up for my live-streamed class—at 2 p.m. I do a ballet class, or a different workout class. Last week I did a Pilates class with my friend on IGTV—she’s a Pilates instructor and an ex-ballerina. And then after that, I’ll eat lunch and then I go outside. Sometimes I’ll go outside and jump, as if I was in the ballet studio. I can’t really jump in my apartment. The floor is just too hard. So I’ll go to an empty area outside and just jump. People are very intrigued. And especially kids, it’s so cute. They’ll just stare at me and be like, “What is she doing?” It probably looks extremely bizarre.
When the day is over, my husband and I will have a glass of wine. He’s been doing most of the cooking.
Thankfully, because he’s a much better cook than me. And then either we’ll both go into our own little worlds and read, or we’ll watch something together. We’ve been watching the Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance. And then I end my day with a bath, and reading in bed. I’m reading this sci-fi series—the first book in the series is called The Fifth Season. It’s by N.K. Jemisin. She’s based in Brooklyn, I think, so maybe I could meet her one day. All three books won the Hugo Award, and she was the first author to have every book in a series win it.
Honestly, we still are managing to have our time to ourselves, which is helpful.
My husband goes surfing in the Rockaways, and he’ll go for long bike rides or skateboarding. I feel like he does his thing, and then I have my ballet things. So that’s been helpful, to have a little bit of space. But overall it’s been really nice, because usually his schedule and my schedule are so opposite. So I have to say, it’s been pretty nice to spend more time together.
During my ballet season, I try to sleep nine hours a night.
I think I need that for my body’s recovery. Right now, because I’m not pushing myself physically as hard, I don’t need quite as much sleep. I’ve been getting more like eight and a half hours, and I feel good. Sometimes I do wake up a lot in the middle of the night, but that’s usually anxiety-related. Usually, I’ll try to go back to sleep for a while, and then if that’s not working, I’ll listen to a podcast. I really recommend The Moth for the middle of the night scaries. It’s really good. Especially when I’m jet-lagged, I’ll be listening to The Moth at 3 a.m.
Body image is something that was hard for me when I was a kid, or in high school especially, when I was going through puberty.
Because as a dancer, you’re being critiqued constantly on every little thing. And I think you just develop this really thick skin. My biggest thing that I always tell young dancers now when I have the opportunity is: Whatever you do, don’t compare yourself to everyone else. I think it’s completely detrimental. Everyone has their own unique journey, their own unique struggles. And at the end of the day, all you can do is be yourself. And that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be the best version of yourself that you can, but you should never try to be like somebody else.
Another thing I tell young dancers is the most important thing is just to be healthy.
You can’t dance at your highest level if you’re not healthy, or if you’re not feeding your body enough. Being healthy is the most important thing for your body and mind. I honestly think the hardest point for most dancers is when they’re in high school because that’s when puberty hits. If your teacher’s really harsh and critiquing you aggressively, I think that’s a really, really tough time. That would be a point where it would be really important for dancers to have trusted mentors who can help them through. But unfortunately, they don’t always have that. I don’t really feel like I had that. I had amazing friends who became my mentors, but they were going through a lot of the same struggles as I was.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.