Andrea Marks is a writer based in New York City. Beginning in her home state of Connecticut at the School of the Hartford Ballet, she trained in dance for over 20 years. She majored in English and minored in dance at Skidmore College and earned her Master's degree in journalism at Columbia University.
But as dancers, we should. We need our feet. They connect us to the floor; we push off them to move through space. We use them to relevé, roll through, land, stomp and tap. Yet we don't treat them well. And sometimes, we flat-out abuse them.
In her work as director of physical therapy for New York City Ballet, Marika Molnar relies on tools like bands, balls and Pilates equipment to rehabilitate and strengthen dancers. She says there's a place for such tools in daily dance classes, as well. Resistance and stability tools can help students develop strength and even break bad habits. "Say someone is compensating because of a weakness or restriction—that's what they're always going to do," she says, even after a teacher corrects them repeatedly. "If you give them something that makes things a little unfamiliar, their brain has to participate more. It becomes not only a physical exercise but a cognitive one." The dancer learns in a new way, and improves.
Molnar has collaborated with Pilates expert Joan Breibart and PTs at Westside Dance Physical Therapy to create a series of tools and exercises with dancers' training and recovery needs in mind. Here, she shares three of her favorites.
The pressure for female dancers to be slim and feather-light is often at odds with their need to be strong. This contradiction is especially misleading in partnering. "Sometimes, a woman who has more muscle mass may weigh more but is actually easier to lift because she's stronger," says Matt Kent, associate artistic director of Pilobolus. "You don't want to be a sack of sand. Any male Pilobolus dancer can tell you the difference between lifting with a woman who has that kind of strength and one who doesn't."
Spinal alignment is like turnout, says Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor of dance at The Ohio State University. "It's a mechanism, not an aesthetic." But as with turnout, dancers' visual goals often lead them to force their bodies into unnatural positions. "A healthier spine has to do with acknowledging the structural integrity of what's there, as opposed to changing it to meet that aesthetic," he explains. He compares a spine without its natural curves to winging the foot. "It's gorgeous in arabesque, but you don't want to stand on it. It's not very supportive," he says. Ballet dancers are particularly prone to extremes in erasing the curves from their backs. "People from New York City Ballet dance gorgeously, but in my opinion, their spines are weird," says Bruce.
With a competition weekend looming, studio owner Kim McDonough was rehearsing students for an up-tempo jazz piece at Dansations in Jacksonville, Florida. As one dancer crouched low to the floor, a nearby teammate kicked her leg up, connecting her foot with the side of the crouching dancer's forehead. McDonough stopped the music to assess the situation.
A well-fitting, properly laced shoe is integral to achieving correct technique and preventing injury on pointe. A shoe that is too short, too narrow, too long or too wide hampers a dancer's ability to get her body into alignment on pointe and can cause ailments ranging from blisters and tendonitis to a sprain or even stress fractures. Once they're professionals, dancers will make their own choices about how their shoes look and feel, but as teachers, you can guide students to prioritize safety over aesthetics, and to listen to the advice of experienced fitters.
A qualified personal trainer can help create a workout regimen that meets your body and classroom needs.As a teacher, you already know you need to look outside the studio for regular workouts. If you've trained primarily as a dancer, however, establishing a gym routine beyond using aerobic machines can be intimidating. It's tough to know where to begin.