Despite his busy schedule as principal dancer at the Colorado Ballet, Domenico Luciano makes time to meditate. “It's part of my routine, my cross-training, my lifestyle," he says. He first began meditating in yoga class on the weekends, doing a series of breathing exercises after the last poses of class. “It made me feel calm, neutral and peaceful." Today, Luciano meditates daily for 5 to 10 minutes, sometimes while stretching, or when feeling tired or nervous, or before bed to help him fall asleep.
Meditation—which involves calming the mind and often includes breathing practices—can reduce stress, boost memory and improve mental focus. But it's hard to find time to sit still and breathe, especially when students and parents depend on your constant attention. Fortunately, you don't need an hour of quiet contemplation to benefit from the practice. Even a few moments of centered breathing can reduce daily stress and help you stay grounded amid the demands of your hectic lifestyle.
Encouraging students to stay active during vacation will help them smoothly return to dance in the fall.
The leggy and lean Alicia Graf Mack needs to keep herself in top form when Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater has time off. When she returns to rehearsal in the fall, her body must be prepared for a jam-packed season that lasts nearly seven months. “Ailey is an extremely athletic company,” she says. “I have been jogging for over 10 years, and it definitely keeps my stamina strong.”
It’s tempting for dancers to cut all physical activity out of their summer break plans. But while students don’t necessarily have to continue taking regular classes, they should consider taking up activities that will keep them in shape. If stamina and muscle strength aren’t maintained during these months off, it may be physically difficult—and dangerous—to jump into a full dance schedule in the fall. Working out during the summer helps dancers safely transition back into class, while giving them the opportunity to get out of the studio.
Jogging is a simple and free way to burn calories and build stamina, but dancers have to be careful. Running puts pressure on the hips, knees and ankles—joints already overworked in dance training. Because of this, Los Angeles Ballet physical therapist Susanne Thom advises against running until bone structures have matured (typically between ages 17 and 19). She also cautions those who are extremely hypermobile or have a history of stress fractures, knee pain or eating disorders, because they are more susceptible to recurring injuries and stress fractures.
Wearing shoes specifically for running and running on a track will help absorb some of the impact. “Dancers should never run on concrete,” says Thom. The hard surface often slopes slightly, throwing off correct running form. Regardless of surface, dancers should watch that they’re running in parallel position, not turned out, and end all jogs with stretches for the quadriceps and calves. Ultimately, a dancer should listen to her body as intently as she does in the studio. “If my knee is hurting or my hip is tight, I will walk,” says Graf Mack. “I will still get the same benefits.”
Although it may not always burn as many calories, biking has many of the same cardiovascular benefits as running, but it “puts less stress on the ankles, feet and knees,” says Thom. Her clients use indoor training bikes so they can adjust the machine’s measurements to their bodies. But Julie O’Connell, director of Performing Arts Medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, prefers outdoor bikes for dancers. She finds that stationary bikers are tempted to set the resistance level unnecessarily high, which leads to bulky thighs. Working on a regular bike removes this temptation and gives dancers a chance to exercise outdoors. Finding a bike suited for the dancer’s body will allow her to exercise safely—good fit means the knee isn’t hyperextended when the pedal is in its lowest position. And like with running, the quadriceps should be stretched out afterward to avoid overbuilt muscles.
O’Connell strongly recommends swimming to her dancing patients. Unlike running and biking, which mostly work the lower body, swimming activates all of the major muscle groups, including the arms, legs and core. It also puts little weight on the joints, which makes it especially safe for dancers coming back from injury or those who have musculoskeletal problems, says Thom. To promote healthy bone density, it should be paired with exercise that does put some weight on the joints, such as yoga, Gyrotonic and Pilates. And as with most sports, dancers should be aware of their alignment, since swimming movements are very repetitive. Thom advises taking a lesson with a coach to learn correct technique. DT
Tess Jones is a freelance writer and certified yoga instructor in Seattle.
Safe Summer Training
DON'T EXERCISE EVERY DAY: The body needs a break from physical activity. “There should be at least one day of rest per week,” says Julie O’Connell of Athletico Physical Therapy. “They need time to let their bodies recover.”
STAY HYDRATED: Summer heat and sun will increase water loss. O’Connell recommends drinking 15–20 ounces of water 2–3 hours before exercise, and 8–10 ounces every 15 minutes of aerobic activity.
LEARN WHAT YOUR BODY CAN HANDLE: One of the biggest mistakes Los Angeles Ballet physical therapist Susanne Thom sees is overtraining. Pay attention to what your body can take in terms of mileage, time and intensity, and listen intently.
STRENGTHEN AND STRETCH: Alternate cardio with targeted, low-impact activities like Pilates, Gyrotonic or yoga, which promote lean muscle by using the body’s own weight and stretching throughout. Some studios offer outdoor yoga or stand-up paddleboard yoga (yoga on a paddleboard in water) as a fun summertime activity.
Photo by Andrew Eccles, courtesy of Ailey
Addressing safe yoga practices
TaraMarie Perri discovered yoga early in her dance career, and her instructors were eager to teach a flexible body already suited for the practice. “I had some teachers who were excited about my ability to do anything, but they didn’t make sure I wasn’t setting myself up for a potential injury,” says Perri, who founded Mind Body Dancer, a dancer-friendly yoga method that has been implemented at Steps on Broadway, Dance New Amsterdam and Mark Morris Dance Center, all in New York.
As the practice of yoga becomes increasingly widespread, dancers flock to classes to improve upper-body strength, enhance overall fitness, calm the mind and rebalance the nervous system. But like any physical practice, yoga can be dangerous if not pursued correctly.
Susie Smith, physical therapist at the Colorado Ballet, says joint mobility injuries such as strains, sprains, tendonitis and pelvic misalignment are most common among dancers because of their hypermobile joints. To prevent these injuries from occurring during yoga, look for experienced instructors who have worked with dancers or athletes; these teachers tend to emphasize proper alignment without pushing the body.
Kathleen Hunt, yoga instructor and co-owner of Samadhi Yoga in Seattle, recommends coming to class with a “beginner’s mind,” regardless of age, strength or ability. Dancers must be responsible for their own safety, tuning in to their bodies to know when it’s appropriate to push a position or hold back. Smith adds that keeping muscles around joints slightly activated will maintain stability (instead of sinking or sitting into a pose).
An open mindset is the best way to ensure safety during practice. In dance, competition can be a healthy motivational tool, but it won’t be of benefit in yoga, where overexerting the body can result in injury. “For dancers especially, ego and physical achievement can be very intertwined,” says Hunt. Don’t be embarrassed to use props (straps, blocks and blankets) to achieve modified poses, which will provide the benefits of a stance without forcing joints, muscles and tendons to extremes they cannot manage.
Dancers who pursue yoga to help strengthen and rebuild after injury should get approved by their care provider. For acute injuries, seek out private lessons with a yoga instructor or therapist trained with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (iayt.org). Inform the yoga teacher so she can modify poses. “It’s important that the student trust the teacher enough to say, ‘Look, I have this injury or illness,’” says Perri, “because then they can really work with the student in a way that’s supportive.”
When practiced safely, yoga can strengthen, calm, inspire and even educate, helping dancers understand how their muscles and joints function. “What’s really exciting,” says Perri, “is when you work with somebody who’s overly mobile in their hips, back or knees, and they begin to understand how their muscular support works.” These revolutionary insights can be “mind-blowing for somebody who considers themselves a master of their instrument. It feels like they have a whole new territory to explore.” DT
Tess Jones is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Seattle.
Overwhelmed by the Options?
The type and frequency of class dancers should choose will depend on their training regimen. Evaluate an overall routine to determine what is missing and seek classes that complement, not duplicate, strengths.
Alignment-Based Yoga (Iyengar, Anusara, Hatha)
Great for most dancers and best for those hoping to improve alignment
Most modern yoga tracks to B.K.S. Iyengar, whose classes are known for attention to detail, down to the placement of each muscle and bone. Like Iyengar, Anusara features alignment, but it has an upbeat, heart-opening attitude. Hatha can describe all types of yoga but often means a gentle, alignment-based class. All three styles are safe for dancers to practice.
Flow Yoga (Power Yoga, Vinyasa, Ashtanga)
For someone looking to improve overall body strength, such as a ballet dancer
Flow yoga is beneficial for those interested in a vigorous, strength-building practice. Power yoga offers a full-body workout and moves quickly between poses, challenging stamina and strength. Vinyasa, meaning “flow with the breath,” can be gentle or strong, depending on the teacher. Ashtanga classes feature repeated sequences to build strength over time.
Restorative Yoga (Gentle Practice, Yoga Nidra)
A stress reliever for highly active dancers, like those in a conservatory program
Restorative classes are an excellent complement to a vigorous training regimen, allowing dancers to rest their nervous systems and recover and regenerate their bodies. They may be labeled as “gentle” classes. Meditation during Yoga Nidra brings students to a state of aware sleep. Calling a studio may reveal prescheduled restorative postures.
Heated Yoga (Bikram, Hot Yoga)
Generally not recommended for dancers
Susie Smith warns against hot yoga, though many yogis swear by its benefits—the body’s management of heat and its cleansing of toxins. Smith says this is where dancers may find the greatest risk in overstretching. Those who choose this method should pay extra attention to alignment and pull back from highly flexible poses, focusing on strength and stability.
Photo by Sophie Kuller, courtesy of Mind Body Dancer