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Cooking Up History: Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters

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In 1979, the corps de ballet of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT) went on strike in a wage dispute. The newest members of the corps, the lowest-ranking dancers in the company, only made $235 a week—$869 in 2018 dollars. Many principal and solo dancers in the ABT supported the corps. In an article for People magazine, soloist Rebecca Wright summarized, saying, “we’re underpaid and overworked.” The company’s newest star, a Soviet defector named Alexander Godunov, resigned after his high salary became a sticking point in negotiations. The corps demanded a salary of $460 a week for the 1981 season, and management countered with an offer of $275 starting in 1982. Negotiations broke down and management cancelled the December 1979 season at the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts—the first cancellation for the company ever caused by labor disputes.[1]

The dispute left dancers tightening their belts further to pay their bills. Their solution: a benefit performance and auction. Several ballet stars performed and spoke on behalf of the corps, including Gelsey Kirkland, Natalia Makarova, and Edward Villella. Godunov himself contributed a charcoal portrait for auction. All told, the benefit raised over $10,000.

Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters Cookbook, American Ballet Theatre Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.

What piqued my interest in the benefit performance was one of the auctioned items, a cookbook titled Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters in the ABT Archive in the Music Division. The dancers themselves compiled their favorite recipes into sections such as appetizers, soups, salads, meat and poultry, dessert, and added a hand-drawn cover.

Of course I had to try making some of these recipes, but what could I choose among the many options?

I decided to go with a simple four-course meal: appetizer, salad, main course, and dessert. Contrary to stereotype, this ballet cookbook is not comprised solely of light foods served in tiny portions. Rather, most of the recipes seem geared toward busy professionals on the go, with a limited number of ingredients, short cook times, and higher caloric intake for the energy needed to dance every day.

Both the appetizer and salad required chilling before serving. The appetizer I chose, “Curry Dip for Raw Vegetables” by Ruth Mayer, was both straightforward and quick to make. I did cut the yield in half, though, because 1 cup of mayonnaise is a lot of dip when you’re not throwing a party!

Ruth Mayer, “Curry Dip for Raw Vegetables,” Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters Cookbook, American Ballet Theatre Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.


Danish Cucumbers

I was intrigued by another recipe by Mayer, “Danish Cucumbers.” I’d never heard of a salad made up solely of one vegetable, nor had I heard the term “salad oil.” A quick search proved the term was simply a generic term for oil. I chose what I had on hand at home and went with olive oil. I quickly sliced the cucumbers—with a mandolin, because I can’t cut even slices to save my life—dressed them with the rest of the ingredients, and set them to chill in the fridge.



Ruth Mayer, “Danish Cucumbers,” Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters Cookbook, American Ballet Theatre Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.


Crisco shortening, all of it.

I was most excited about my choice for the main course, “Fried Chicken Easy!” contributed by Christine Spizzo. The recipe was in fact very easy to make. I chose to add salt, pepper, and a healthy dose of paprika to my flour, per the recipe’s suggestion. I scooped the Crisco into my pan—all of it, as the recipe directed—and waited for it to melt and get hot. While waiting, I coated the chicken with the flour mixture. When my Crisco started to sizzle just a little, I added the breaded chicken, covered the skillet, and set the timer. I did cut out the middle segment of cooking without the cover, as my chicken was already browning nicely after the first six minutes had passed.

Christine Spizzo, “Fried Chicken Easy!,” Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters Cookbook, American Ballet Theatre Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Puns always bring me such joy, so I couldn’t say no to the “Nutcracker Sweet” recipe for Russian tea cakes by Francia Kovak. Again, the recipe was incredibly easy to follow; baking for 10 minutes was the perfect amount of time in my oven.

Francia Kovak, “Nutcracker Sweet,” Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters Cookbook, American Ballet Theatre Archive, Music Division, Library of Congress.

But how did all this food taste? I put on a recording of the 2005 ABT production of Swan Lake as I sat down to dinner. The salad tasted perfectly fine, but I couldn’t help but wish for some lettuce to complement the saturated cucumbers.

Plated dinner: Raw Curry Dip, Danish Cucumbers, Fried Chicken Easy!

The chicken, however, was the main star of the night. I’d never made fried chicken with shortening before, and readers, it made a big difference. The crispy, crunchy skin gave way to tender chicken breast, with just a hint of paprika for a nice kick of heat. The curry dip also proved to be pretty tasty, but I found myself dipping the chicken in it rather than any vegetables! And those tea cakes ended the night on a high note, with just a hint of sweetness to balance the chicken’s heat.





Nutcracker Sweet (Russian Tea Cakes)

For me, the Ballet Theatre Belly-Busters was a success. But what became of the strike and the dancers’ demands? After two months of negotiation, the corps received a 40-percent wage increase and more benefits. The ABT has likewise continued to move audiences with sublime dancing and programming. In 2006, the United States Congress honored their service as “America’s National Ballet Company.”

The American Ballet Theatre Archive is open for research and contains far more than just this cookbook. Researchers can find music scores, dance notation scores and notes, video recordings, correspondence, scrapbooks, costume designs, set designs, and so much more. The American Ballet Theatre Archive continues to grow, and who knows, maybe an official ABT cookbook will one day join the collection!


[1] Barbara Rowes, “Ballet Dancers Hit the Bricks—Gracefully—in a Stubborn Dispute Over Wages” People, 17 December 1979, Vol. 12, No. 25.

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