Last spring, Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chloe Freytag decided to eat vegan. With a passion for nutrition, she was concerned that toxins and preservatives in certain foods were preventing her from becoming her best dancing self. "Before veganism I was more rundown and I would get tired easily. My body was weak and heavy at times," she says. "Now I feel like a lighter person, more happy and energetic. I feel more like myself."
“I think I pulled a muscle." We've all said it, but what does it mean? There are many aches and pains that accompany a dancer's daily practice, but there are important differences between muscle soreness and a strained or “pulled" muscle. While both require a balance of rest and carefully planned exertion, a strained muscle has distinct symptoms that will tell you quickly that it is more than just back-from-vacation soreness.
“Muscles like to be warm," says Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “They don't like to stretch and do explosive movements while cold." When you saunter into the studio before class and flop down into the splits, or practice your variation on cold muscles, you're setting yourself up for a strain.
Ways to shift your stretching routine from passive to dynamic
If you are like your students, you get in at least a few stretches before class. Perhaps you prop your foot on the barre and stretch out over your leg. You may even try the splits. The typical pre-class warm-up has changed little over the years, but our attempts to achieve length before the first plié may be missing the point.
The exercises mentioned above are static, or passive, stretches and, according to Deborah Vogel, should be saved for after class, when you’re finished dancing. “If you hold a stretch like that for 60 seconds or a little more, you will achieve longer length in the muscle, so it is increasing flexibility,” says Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine and lecturer in dance at Oberlin College. “But it’s also inhibiting the muscle’s ability to fire.” In other words, by focusing solely on length with no strength, you leave muscles loose and languid, with their strength temporarily decreased. Overstretching is a real concern, as well. Vogel warns that pushing too far in a passive stretch, especially for young dancers, can damage the structure of a joint and line the dancer up for serious injury down the road.
On the other hand, dynamic, or active, stretching lengthens some muscles while strongly engaging others. This helps prepare the whole body for movement, making it a great choice for before class. Vogel says the approach emphasizes control in the stretches, instead of how far you push yourself. It requires the dancer to move slowly through her range of motion rather than bouncing or physically pushing her body into place. This also reduces the risk of overstretching.
Beyond safety considerations, dynamic stretches can also effectively pinpoint and release tight muscles better than static stretches. If you just sit in a stretch, you may be missing the real hurdle to your greatest flexibility. “In dynamic stretching, you’re stretching the whole length of a muscle group, not just one muscle,” Vogel says. “Oftentimes, there’s some place besides the muscle you’re working on that might be limiting your flexibility.”
Vogel recommends these active adjustments to the classic hamstring stretch on the barre. “If you are just hanging out, you will feel that in the back of the leg,” she says. But you could be feeling more.
1. Contract the quad muscle of the leg on the barre. This action helps release the hamstring for a deeper stretch at the back of the leg.
2. Slowly tilt the pelvis forward by drawing the sitz bone of the working leg back. Gently rotate the pelvis toward the working leg. Vogel says some dancers will feel a stretch in the quad while others feel it in their calf. “Now we’re working at mobilizing a line of flexibility,” she says.
Get your body moving and muscles firing as you test your balance and elongate muscles throughout the standing leg.
1. Begin standing in either parallel or turned-out first.
2. Tendu back with your left leg.
3. Keeping your standing leg straight and your shoulders square, tip the body forward, lifting the leg behind you in a penché motion and reaching with your left arm toward the ground. (Keep your right hand by your side.) Stop when your left fingertips touch the floor. The goal is not to get the working leg vertical, but to move slowly and with control.
4. Leading with the shoulders and keeping your core engaged, return to upright with your foot returning to tendu back. Close and repeat on the other side.
Actively increase mobility in the spine.
1. Begin on all fours with hands aligned under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Lift your left hand off the floor and “thread the needle” between your right hand and knee until your entire left arm and shoulder and the side of your face are on the ground.
2. To make the stretch dynamic, press your left arm into the floor while you lift the right arm up, reaching your fingertips toward the ceiling. Your shoulders should be aligned one on top of the other.
3. Place your right hand back on the floor beside your head and straighten the arm completely as you lift your body off the floor, unwinding your spine and reaching your left fingertips toward the ceiling. Again, shoulders should align one on top of the other.
4. Return your left hand to the floor. Repeat to the other side.
This is particularly beneficial for young dancers as they improve control and coordination, but it is a helpful warm-up and stretch at all levels.
1. Battement your left leg in parallel to take a giant step forward.
2. In a continuous motion, lower your right knee to the ground keeping your chest lifted and back straight with your hips and shoulders square.
3. From the lunge, battement the right leg to repeat on the other side. This can move across the floor at a slow marching speed: lunge, battement, lunge, battement.
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
From top: Thinkstock; exercise photos by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Dia Dearstyne
Fueling your body for dance is essential, but deciding what to eat isn't always easy. And with new diets surfacing every month, it can be hard to know what to believe: low-carb, low-fat, no gluten, no dairy? What's the best approach?
We delved into two hot diet trends—paleolithic and gluten-free—and consulted experts to find out how they really stack up for dancers. There's something to take away from both of these diets. Learn the facts to create a meal plan of whole, nutrient-rich foods that will never go out of style.
There is a flexibility freak show going on in the dance world. Between out-of-this-world extensions on “So You Think You Can Dance” and a boundaries-pushing contemporary scene, it seems the bar for bendiness gets higher every year.
Have the standards gotten out of control? The truth is it depends on the body. “Some people are genetically predisposed to that kind of flexibility,” says Leigh Heflin of Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center.
There are genetic factors that limit how flexible any dancer can become, no matter how much she stretches. But many dancers will do anything to increase their flexibility, sometimes turning to extreme stretching practices that risk injury and even their careers. Fortunately, there are safe ways for students to reach their potential and get the dazzling elastic moves they’re striving for.
There are a few classic ways dancers are inclined to stretch incorrectly. First, they may try to progress too quickly, which can strain or sprain ligaments, tendons or muscles. Dancers need to gradually increase stress on muscles so they have time to adapt, says Heflin. “You have to progressively overload that capacity on your muscle,” she says. “Increase tension and stretch every week. You can’t expect to be there right away.”
And warming up before stretching is essential. Heflin says if you’re stretching a cold muscle, or stretching for so long that muscles get cold, you actually end up stretching the joint instead. This can cause instability that will affect your strength and ability to execute quick movements and jumps.
Perhaps most importantly, strength building should go hand in hand with stretching. Few dancers are strong enough to achieve their maximum flexibility without a big battement to kick the leg up. Heflin says focusing on strength can benefit your functional flexibility more than anything else. “Flexibility is that length in the muscle that we all want to achieve,” she says, “but functional flexibility is having the muscular support and the joint stability to hold that position.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
Tips for proper stretching
from the Harkness Center’s Leigh Heflin
Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes before stretching for class. Try jogging in place or doing jumping jacks.
Before class, do not hold a stretch longer than 15 seconds.
After class is when you will gain the most flexibility. You can safely hold stretches then for 30–60 seconds.
Never hold stretches for more than 60 seconds, because the muscles will cool down too much.
DON’T cram your toes under the upright piano (or door or couch) to improve your arch. “Loading the bones with force from an external object is going to do damage to your body,” says Heflin.DO try doming the feet. Arches are genetically predetermined, so you’re not going to change the shape of your foot, but this exercise will strengthen the muscles to push them as far as they’ll go. 1. Place your foot flat on the floor with a towel, T-shirt or Thera-Band under it.2. Lift the knuckles of your toes without scrunching them and pull the towel toward you. You should be using only your arch to move it. Do not allow the toes to curl.
You can do this exercise without anything under your foot, but it helps to feel the fabric moving until you are used to doing it correctly. Heflin advises keeping a ball handy to roll out your arches after you’ve done a few of these.
DON’T stretch your turnout in the frog position. Especially dangerous is having someone push on your hips (when you’re on your stomach) or knees (when you’re on your back). This can cause sacroiliac joint dysfunction, which affects the joint where the hips meet the spine. Again, genetics determine the range of motion and the depth of the hip socket—the two elements of natural turnout. Frogs and straddle splits mostly stretch the inner thigh muscles, which have little to do with turnout.
DO try the crab walk. Surprisingly, the safest, most effective way to improve turnout is to exercise in parallel, where you can strengthen external hip rotator muscles for turnout without repetitive stress on the muscle. This exercise will work the gluteus medius muscle, which does a lot of the work when you turn out.
2. Keep your feet in parallel with your knees slightly bent.
3. Walk sideways (step, together, step, together) across the length of the studio. Repeat in the opposite direction.
DON’T push too far in the splits. Take your split only as far as you can while maintaining strength in your core and keeping your body upright. That means if you can’t get the front leg up on a ledge without lying down over it, you shouldn’t be doing it.
DO stretch your quadriceps and psoas muscles in a low lunge before doing the splits. You’ll be able to take them farther, safely.
2. Keep your front knee directly over the ankle in the lunge, never going beyond.
3. Keep your body upright and engage your core. You can use a barre or a wall for balance.
4. Tuck your pelvis under and push forward into your lunge slightly.
Photos by Emily Giacalone; dancer: Dorothy Nunez
Sports drinks are designed to provide electrolyte replacement and energy for athletes. When dancers are working hard, these drinks—as well as natural alternatives like coconut water and fruit juice—can offer a boost. But each beverage is formulated differently, and the endless options can leave a dancer scratching her head by a vending machine. DT spoke to nutrition experts to learn how sports drinks can help dancers and what ingredients they should look for when choosing one to meet their needs.
When dancers sweat, their bodies lose water and electrolytes: primarily sodium and potassium. Electrolytes aid muscle and nerve function and maintain the water balance inside and outside of cells, and the blood’s pH balance. Basically, your body won’t function correctly without them.
Because dance is mostly non-aerobic—meaning you exert yourself in short bursts and then rest—dancers don’t tend to sweat as intensely as marathon runners. But if students are working hard in the studio for more than an hour without stopping, Karyn Baiorunos, nutritionist at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, says they may want to replace electrolytes. She suggests sipping a drink that contains potassium and roughly 100 mg per 8 oz serving of sodium. Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade work well.
Young students who move into a more intensive level may have trouble getting through class. Baiorunos says this is often because their muscles aren’t quite developed for the increased amount of work. In these cases, the right drink can give them a boost.
The energy promised by most sports drinks comes from sugar. Baiorunos recommends a drink with no more than 14 grams per serving—the magic number for increased energy. “That’s the ideal absorption,” she says. “If you go higher than that amount of sugar, the body can’t absorb it, and you end up with a stomach ache.” Skip the diet or sugar-free sports drinks that offer increased energy. Some contain caffeine, which Baiorunos does not recommend.
Sharon Wehner, principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, prefers the natural option of coconut water, which she usually mixes with water to reduce her sugar intake. Fruit juice is another natural source of sugar, and it can be diluted with water.
Whatever a student chooses, they should sip it rather than guzzle it down. “It’s giving your body a steady flow of some sugar so you can continue with class,” Baiorunos says.
A Healthy Balance
Sports drinks, even natural options like juice or coconut water, shouldn’t be a dancer’s go-to beverage during the day, Baiorunos warns, since too much of one electrolyte can put the others out of balance. “Whatever drink you choose, don’t do it all day long, unless it’s just plain water,” she says. Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant to Pacific Northwest Ballet, notes that there are sometimes multiple servings in a bottle. Just one serving over the course of a class should be plenty to reap the benefits.
In Wehner’s 18 years dancing with Colorado Ballet, she has learned to resist passing fads and to make her own decisions about what is best for her body. “If I drink this, what am I getting?” she says. “Why am I putting this in my body, other than because my friend drinks it?”
Ultimately, the most important thing is for dancers to be hydrated. “The rule of thumb is a half a cup of fluid for every 15 minutes of dancing,” Baiorunos says. She suggests encouraging students to sip on a water bottle before, during and after class. Swistak points out that while sports drinks aren’t going to hurt you, they don’t have any magic in them either. “Some of it’s the placebo effect,” she says. “If it doesn’t hurt you and you think it’s helping, then go ahead.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer living in Pittsburgh.
When Ballet West performed The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center last year, they couldn’t fly every Academy student who played a party girl or soldier from Utah to Washington, DC. So the company arranged for auditions in DC and left the staging to a local ballet mistress. They soon discovered one girl had a peanut allergy and required an EpiPen, an autoinjector used to control a life-threatening allergic reaction, on-site. “The ballet mistress called,” says Ballet West Academy’s Cati Snarr, “and said, ‘I refuse to do this. I don’t even want this kid in my cast.’”
Though you don’t regularly provide meals, food allergies are a studio-wide concern: For kids with allergies, fun activities like birthday treats, bake sales and snacks between classes and at recitals can quickly turn into a near-fatal emergency. A recent study from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 20 students have a food allergy. With allergies on the rise, it’s important to establish policies to prevent an emergency and prepare a response plan should one occur.
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner, who is chair of the medical advisory team at the Kids With Food Allergies Foundation, says it should be standard practice to ask about medical conditions on enrollment forms. If a parent indicates a child has an allergy, ask them to draft an emergency care plan with their doctor, including specific reaction symptoms, as well as emergency contact information. Momentum Music & Dance Academy in Burien, Washington, asked board member and parent Melanie Carver, whose son is allergic to peanuts, milk, eggs, soy, sesame, bananas and wheat, to help create studio allergy strategies. She helped come up with a plan in which each teacher is given a binder with information about the 35–40 students who have food allergies, outlining emergency information and treatment.
If a dancer experiences a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, their life will depend on getting a dose of epinephrine, a hormone that regulates the body under shock. Giving an EpiPen shot sounds intimidating, but the device isn’t difficult to use as long as you’re familiar with its mechanics. Pistiner says it’s important that teachers learn how to handle each child’s autoinjector—each functions differently depending on the brand—to ensure the dosage enters the body correctly. (See sidebar for information on what to do in an emergency.) Autoinjectors should be kept in a secure but easy-to-access location, never locked up.
It’s also important to carefully consider what snacks you sell and serve at parties or recitals, as well as how they’re managed. At The Dance Club in Orem, Utah, co-owner Allison Thornton says the studio snack bar keeps a list of students’ food allergies with their photos—some are too young to decipher if allergens are in a processed food. The method helps staff double-check before they sell a snack.
Spreading the word to parents will help control what foods come into the studio. Even a batch of homemade cookies that doesn’t have nuts but touched a surface with traces of peanut butter “can cause a severe reaction,” says Pistiner. Restricting food to certain areas of the building and posting signs remind visitors of this policy. To further avoid cross-contact, ask students to wash their hands with soap and warm water before class. (Note that hand-sanitizing gels do not remove food proteins from your hands.) And make wiping down the barres part of your regular cleaning routine.
Pistiner urges teachers not to single out students with allergies in class or to other parents. “Sometimes kids with food allergies can feel responsible for unpopular classroom policies,” he points out. “I think people forget how it feels to be a kid sometimes.”
In the instance of the young Nutcracker dancer, Ballet West suggested that her mother attend rehearsals so that everyone felt comfortable. Before each performance the mother handed Snarr the child’s EpiPen, which she kept backstage until the curtain went down. And while she never had to use it, Snarr says the experience made her think about the policies in place at Ballet West Academy. “Now I have a far greater interest in making sure an allergy doesn’t keep a kid from performing a role.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She frequently contributes to Dance Magazine and Pointe.
In Case of an Emergency
Pediatric allergist Dr. Michael Pistiner says severe allergic reactions, called anaphylaxis, vary, but may include hives, swelling, itching, vomiting, cramping, coughing, wheezing, voice changes, sneezing and itchy eyes. “The longer a person waits before getting appropriate treatment,” says Pistiner, “the more difficult the reaction can be to treat.”
+ Consult the student’s emergency care plan and use their EpiPen. The injection should be administered to the outer thigh. Do not, under any circumstances, give the shot through a vein.
+ Ask someone to call 911 immediately, then the student’s parents, as you help the student.
+ While waiting for help to arrive, lay the student flat and elevate their feet. If they’re nauseous, vomiting or having trouble breathing, lay them on their side.
Photo by and courtesy of Caitland Corbridge; ©iStock.com
Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Christina Spigner has always suffered from foot cramps. But the problem was especially troublesome during the company’s 13-show run of Ballet Imperial, a hallmark of Balanchine’s demanding choreography. “We’re onstage for such a long time and not just standing and posing, but doing a lot physically,” says Spigner. “My feet would cramp up and it was painful. That’s a hard thing to recover from onstage.”
The sharp pain of muscle cramps can compromise a dancer’s work. Though the annoyance sometimes stems from unavoidable fatigue, it’s often the body’s way of flagging a nutrition deficiency. While completely eliminating muscle spasms may not be possible, there are many simple ways to help prevent and treat their pain and frequency.
Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, points out that muscles function by repeatedly contracting and relaxing, engaging and releasing. “When the muscle gets tired, it won’t work as well as when it was fresh,” she says. “It may have a delayed ability to release after it has contracted,” causing a cramp. Spasms are sometimes inevitable, regardless of how well a dancer takes care of her body.
When a muscle cramps up, it may mean the dancer is dehydrated. Because we are predominantly made of fluid, water intake affects all the chemical processes in our bodies, including proper muscle function. Allison Wagner Eble, a registered dietitian who works with the Cincinnati Ballet, says the body’s ability to perform can decline as much as 10 percent with just 1 percent of fluid loss.
The average person should drink 64 ounces of water daily, but dancers need more, depending on how active they are and how hot the studio is—Wagner Eble suggests 16 ounces, two hours before class, and half a cup every 15–20 minutes throughout. “Do not wait until you feel thirsty to drink water, because if you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated,” she says. When gulping glasses of water gets boring, Spigner reaches for Emergen-C, coconut water and hot tea.
But sometimes water isn’t enough. When dancers sweat, they’re also losing electrolytes like sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium, which are necessary for proper muscle function. If a student is drinking enough water and is still having issues with cramping, Wagner Eble suggests they add a sports drink to their routine. (Scroll down for other electrolyte-packed snacks and beverages)
Relax the Muscle
Stretching out a cramp will help release the muscle. Richardson says dancers often avoid putting weight on a leg in spasm, but taking a walk around the room is one of the best ways to transition the muscle from its contracted position to a stretched one. A self-massage with the hands or a foam roller helps as well. Know, though, that a cramp shouldn’t be stretched out if it is a reaction to an injury, like an overstretched or torn muscle. If the contour of the muscle has changed and it lacks strength, or the skin becomes red, swollen or hot, apply ice and send the dancer to a doctor.
Because Spigner is prone to cramping, she’s learned how best to prevent it—a hot Epsom salt bath after a long day helps reduce her muscle fatigue. Now and then, though, a cramp still catches her off guard in the middle of a performance. Her secret for dealing? “It really helps to breathe anytime you’re dancing and you feel like you’re getting exhausted,” she says. “It calms my nervous system so those overstimulated muscles relax.” DT
“The best time to eat is 30–45 minutes after exercise, because that’s when the body is at its prime time to uptake all the nutrients,” says Allison Wagner Eble, Cincinnati Ballet’s registered dietitian. Here are some of her favorite snacks that pack an electrolyte punch.
|Potassium||bananas, citrus fruits, cantaloupe, kiwi and yogurt|
|Magnesium||whole grains, apricots, avocados and bananas|
|Sodium||salted pretzels or nuts, V8 juice and saltines|
|Calcium||broccoli, yogurt and cheese|
Try this: On her breaks, Miami City Ballet’s Christina Spigner snacks on a homemade trail mix of pumpkin seeds, lightly salted almonds, sunflower seeds and dried apricots to replenish electrolytes and boost her energy. For a post-exercise snack, try a glass of chocolate milk, because it gives the body calcium, sodium, potassium, proteins, carbohydrates and sugar.
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer. She also writes for Dance Magazine and Pointe.