When you think of a ballerina, attributes like graceful, talented, athletic, strong, hard-working and world traveling spring to mind. Add to that list “food-allergic” and you could be describing 19-year-old American Ballet Theatre (ABT) corps de ballet dancer, Virginia Lensi.
In New York City, floating across the Metropolitan Opera stage, Virginia delights in a spotlight that your average 19-year-old might find intimidating. But this young Italian dancer, who has overcome obstacles to get here, relishes living the dream that she first conceived of at 8 years old.
“I was always moving as a child,” recalls the native of Milan. “I even created little choreographed dances with my best friend. So my mother took me to lessons.” As working artists themselves, Virginia’s parents weren’t surprised when she took an interest in dance, and they loved and supported her desire to be an artist from childhood.
It was in infancy, as they were introducing Virginia to solid foods, that her parents discovered she had life-threatening food allergies to dairy, eggs, all tree nuts and peanuts. (Following medically supervised food challenges with a New York City allergist, Virginia can now safely eat almonds and hazelnuts, as well as peanuts.)
As supportive as her family was about Virginia’s ambition to be a professional dancer, they also supported her food allergy needs throughout her schooling, dancing and traveling around Europe. As a young student, “my mom made sure my food was similar to foods the other kids were eating, so I don’t really have any bad memories of how food allergies affected my life as a child,” she says.
On a vacation with her family at 8 years old, Virginia fell in love with New York City. She tucked away a dream to someday live in the Big Apple, which was always in the back of her mind.
Back home in Milan, Virginia continued her ballet studies and dedicating herself to her craft. At age 11, she joined La Scala Ballet School where she would dance part of the day, study part of the day, and then travel around Italy performing. While developing as an artist, being the only one with food allergies in the class came with more challenging issues and manoeuvres.
Virginia recalls one incident in which she was bullied by a cafeteria worker, who screamed at her that she should leave if couldn’t eat the cafeteria food. The preteen dancer began to feel shy about her food allergies and about “being different.” Plus, she was left out of playdates and didn’t have many friends.
In 2015, Virginia made her dream a reality when she was accepted to the American Ballet Theatre’s rigorous “summer intensive” program in New York City, and began training at the ABT Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. In January 2016, Virginia joined ABT Studio Company. She became an apprentice with the main company in November 2017 and joined the corps de ballet in January 2018.
If you ask her what she thinks of New York City after living and working here for three years, Virginia’s face lights up.
“I love New York so much, it has lived up to my dreams and more,” she says. “Everyone here is just being themselves, which made me realize that I wanted to find out more who I am and who I can become.”
That includes coming to accept her food allergies. “Back in Italy I was shy, I wouldn’t tell anyone about my food allergies because I wasn’t really proud of who I was,” she admits. “I didn’t like being the kid that has food allergies. But now, in New York City, everyone is just themselves. I realized that when you are open and you know who you are, other people can help you along your path.”
As a professional dancer, Virginia tours all over the United States and Asia with ABT. And like those of us with food allergies, she practices familiar steps when she travels: ABT arranges for her to have a refrigerator and microwave whenever possible; for travel outside of the United States, she brings a suitcase of food, plus she shops for allergy-friendly foods in grocery stores around the world.
As a busy artist who needs to fuel her body to dance 10 hours a day, Virginia makes sure she always has safe food at her fingertips. She eats healthily and reads labels every time. Importantly, this ballerina always has epinephrine auto-injectors with her.
A Dancer’s Wise Words
For any young person feeling that food allergies hold back their dreams – take Virginia’s words of wisdom to heart:
- Never let food allergies stop you from what you want to do in life. It will take some planning and there will be challenges, but it is possible.
- Don’t define yourself by your food allergies. Believe in yourself; accept who you are. You are an amazing person, who just happens to have food allergies.
- Always carry your epinephrine auto-injectors.