Back in the day, dancers often studied a single technique and swore allegiance to one choreographer. Now, dancers typically must handle a much wider range of physical and creative demands. One way to gain the mental and physical resilience their careers require is through the practice of yoga.
Yoga classes that incorporate all aspects of the practice, from philosophy and breath work to poses and meditation, have the most to offer. A good class will balance internal and external rotation in the hips and shoulders, stability with mobility in the torso and even the exhale of breath with the inhale. Perhaps most helpful of all, yoga draws us into the present moment, settling our attention so that the mind can begin to quiet. Students are encouraged to work from the inside out; to let go of attachment to specific shapes and tune in to the felt experience of each pose. By freeing dancers from fixating on the mirror, yoga can deepen a dancer's kinesthetic intelligence and depth as a performer.
When a young male dancer hits puberty, you'll know the signs: “One day they look normal, the next they look like a string bean. They can get a little wonky for a while," says Jim Lane, managing director for The Portland Ballet, a youth academy and company. “You'll notice turns get out of whack, or they'll trip doing an easy combination across the floor."
Most boys begin puberty around age 11 or 12 and complete the process by 16 or 17. It is a physically awkward time; growth spurts can leave boys gawkily tall and unsure where their extremities end. This is especially tough on male dancers, who can temporarily lose their grace and coordination, as well as some flexibility. As their dance teacher, you can help them continue to train successfully, even as their bodies change.
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.
DT sorts out facts from myths to help you and your students survive cold and flu season.
Dancers are not the type to cringe at a little pain and suffering. So whether you’re one of those who insists it’s “just allergies” until you’re running a fever of 103 or prides herself on simply toughing out any illness, chances are you’re not giving your body everything it needs when you get that inevitable cold or flu. The good news is there are ways to properly treat common viruses to avoid missing a whole week of work. The goal is to be “healthy sick,” says Dr. Patrick Donovan, a naturopathic primary care physician who treats dancers from Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. That means, “maybe the first day or two you stay home and rest, but then you’re back at work—not overworking yourself—then coming home and relaxing.” Donovan tells his dancer patients to call him at the first sign of the sniffles so he can recommend steps to stop an illness in its tracks, or at least shorten its duration and intensity. From upending common misconceptions about treatments to sharing his never-fail sore-throat cure, Donovan gave us his best cold season survival tips tailored for dancers and their teachers. You’ll want to keep these pages on hand all winter long.
Truth or Myth
Cold Cures and Flu Fixes
1. If you feel a cold or flu coming on, you can shake it off with a workout.
Maybe, but listen to your body. If you’re getting the pre-cold blahs and you feel like a dance class would give you a boost, go for it. Donovan says it won’t hurt and could help, though there is no research to suggest that “sweating out” an illness works. If, however, you feel the ickiness coming on and it’s all you can do to buy a box of tissues before you fall into bed, do it. “Sometimes we get sick so that we rest,” says Donovan. “It’s the body’s way of saying, ‘You’re pushing too much.’”
2. If you have a fever, bring it down.
False, if you can stand it. From what researchers can tell, fevers seem to be an important part of fighting illness. As long as they stay hydrated, teens and adults can safely suffer fevers up to 102 degrees Fahrenheit. If your temperature gets higher than that or if you are uncomfortable or losing sleep, take ibuprofen or acetaminophen to reduce the temperature.
3. Feed a cold, starve a fever.
Not exactly. You should eat lightly under both conditions. Even if you can stomach it, Donovan says you should avoid eating heavy meals while you have a cold or flu, because heavy digestion requires lots of energy and blood supply—resources that could be fighting the virus. It’s most important to stay hydrated and keep your electrolyte levels solid. Broths, or chicken soup with garlic and onions—which have antiviral qualities—often appeal when other foods don’t. They provide sodium and potassium while going easy on the digestive tract.
4. You are only contagious during the first two days of an illness.
Mostly true. A cold or flu is most communicable during the first 24 to 72 hours of having symptoms. That’s why it’s good practice to stay home—away from students and co-workers—at the first sign of an illness, even if you still have the energy to be in class. You are likely safe to return to work once your fever goes down. This indicates your immune system has the illness under control.
5. You can “power through” a cold. It might feel awful, but there’s no risk.
False. “That’s the thing with dancers,” says Donovan. “They are passionate, dedicated and stubborn. They want to push too far.” If you’re dragging yourself through too many classes and rehearsals with a cold or flu, your immune system struggles to keep up, prolonging the illness and making it easier to catch a secondary infection, like a sinus infection or pneumonia.
These are a few of the vitamins and minerals Donovan recommends, shown to help shorten the duration and intensity of cold/flu viruses. Start taking them at the first sign of an illness, and keep it up for about a week. Talk to your doctor about recommended dosages.
Vitamin D3: Modulates immune system response
Vitamin C: Improves white blood cell function
Vitamin A: Encourages antiviral activity in the body
Zinc: Prevents virus from attaching to membranes
The Best Medicine
Nope, not laughter. When you’re down and out, make sure you’re living by these cornerstones of cold and flu treatment.
For every degree of fever, you should consume an additional liter of fluid, says Donovan. That’s on top of the recommended 64 ounces a day. In addition to plain water, try coconut water to keep your electrolytes balanced. It’s high in potassium and magnesium and low in calories and added sugars. Or, try a miso broth with shiitakes for a liquid sodium boost combined with mushrooms’ antiviral qualities.
“Sleep is medicine,” says Donovan. You should be striving for seven or eight hours per night. If you can’t sleep with a cold, though, don’t get out of bed. “Lie there. Make it meditative. Allow the body to rest.”
You can have your voice!
When you have to speak all day, there’s nothing worse than a lingering sore throat. Donovan recommends this gargle—tested by professional singers—for any time you’re feeling hoarse. It should not be used to treat strep throat or other infections that require antibiotics, but can be used along with appropriate antibiotics.
2 oz. water
2 oz. real lemon juice
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1/2 tsp. cayenne powder
Gargle and spit to clear postnasal drip and soothe your throat.
Every time Deidre Kellogg Ketroser held a “girl talk” with her ballet class, a few of the young students would giggle and cover their faces with embarrassment once they heard it was about periods and what they could expect as dancers. But by the end of the sessions, students were more confident speaking about the topic, and some even thanked her for bringing it up.
For most preteen girls, it’s mortifying to talk about menstruation and other body changes of puberty. Young ballet dancers have additional concerns: You have to wear revealing tights and leotards. What if you’re bloated and you’re not allowed to add layers like shorts or a skirt? What if you don’t know how a tampon works? And, heaven forbid, what if you have a male teacher when you get your period during class?
“Our periods affect us as dancers and how we feel in class,” says Kellogg Ketroser, who held girl talks every few years over the course of teaching ballet in Minneapolis for nearly three decades. “It was important to me to have a safe place for my students to talk and have someone they could come to who understood what was happening.”
Dance teachers have the unique opportunity to teach young students to be in tune with their bodies, and speaking openly and honestly about what to expect during puberty can demystify a scary subject and help dancers feel safe coming to you with questions.
Kellogg Ketroser structured her talks as informal, 15-minute chats before class. She’d start by asking dancers if they wouldn’t mind raising their hands if they’d gotten their periods. Usually about half of the 11- to 13-year-olds would, timidly. As they looked around at their peers, they could see that they weren’t alone—either in getting their periods or in still waiting for it. “Everybody gets their period at a different time,” Kellogg Ketroser told them, “and that’s OK.”
Then, she would open the discussion to dancers’ questions. Though her advice was basic common sense, it helped dancers, she found, to hear it from a trusted adult: It’s a personal decision about choosing tampons or pads, but most dancers prefer tampons. Bloating? It feels worse than it looks. And as for having a male teacher: “If you feel like you are getting your period during class, ask the instructor to please excuse you to the bathroom. If he demands more information, you can say you have a personal emergency. That should suffice.”
One key point she always made was that the typical period is not a reason to skip class. If you suffer from cramps, she advises, “it is completely acceptable to mention this to your teacher before class—not as an excuse, but as a reason why you might not be at your best today.” DT
Hannah Maria Hayes is a frequent contributor to Dance Teacher and has an MA in dance education from New York University.
Dr. Kerry McGee, a pediatrician with Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh, co-teaches a two-hour workshop at the clinic called “Puberty. Seriously?” for 9- to 12-year-olds to attend with a trusted adult female. “Young dancers are going to have questions and concerns, and while they have friends and Facebook, it’s so much better if they have a trusted adult female role model they can go to,” she says. Here, she shares a few tips for a period talk for dancers.
- Acknowledge that puberty is uncomfortable to talk about, but use real vocabulary. Slang or silly words seem secretive and shameful if students have serious questions.
- Tell your students that athletes and dancers tend to get their periods a little later than average. Everyone has different timing, and that’s OK.
- Be open about your own experiences and reinforce that puberty is universal.
- Don’t assume what the girls know; they may know less than you think.
- Consider having students write down questions and put them in a box and use them as anonymous conversation starters. —HMH
Brush up on your puberty facts with Dr. McGee’s recommended read, which she gives to everyone who takes her class: The Care and Keeping of You: The Body Book for Younger Girls, Revised Edition, by Valorie Schaefer.
According to Dr. Lorraine Chrisomalis-Valasiadis, a gynecologist in New York City, dancers and other athletes often have light periods and minimal cramping because they are so active and often have low body fat. But if a student’s period is a pain, she recommends these steps for relief.
- NSAIDs like ibubrofen or naproxen go a long way when easing day-to-day pain from cramps. (However, many doctors recommend against taking NSAIDs right before class, because the dancer may not feel it if she injures herself.)
- When a dancer is at home or relaxing between classes, the fetal position is best for taking the edge off period pain.
- During her downtime, a dancer can rest a hot water bottle on her abdomen for a soothing sensation.
- If cramping persists every month, a student might consider talking to her parents or doctor about getting a prescription for low-dose birth control pills. A low, regulated dose of estrogen will reduce the thickness of the uterine lining, which can mean a lighter period and less cramping.
*If cramps are so bad a dancer can’t make it through class, she should see her doctor to make sure she isn’t suffering from an ovarian cyst or another medical issue. —Andrea Marks
How to safely incorporate running as a cross-training activity—and reap the benefits
When Amanda Lea LaVergne was performing eight shows a week in the adult ensemble of Broadway’s Annie, rehearsals, performances and press obligations took up most of her time. But when she wasn’t backstage or onstage in full hair and makeup, she was in spandex and sneakers, pursuing another goal: training for the New York City Marathon.
LaVergne is one of many dancers today embracing a growing trend: running. For years, dancers have been told not to run because it would rob them of their flexibility, make their hips tight or bulk up their quads. When done correctly, though, running can complement dancing. “Since my career involves singing while dancing, my stamina and strength are better, and that’s because I’m a runner,” says LaVergne.
You don’t need to train for a marathon to experience the health benefits of running. But if your dancers are thinking about adding running to their cross-training regimens, here’s what they need to know before hitting the road.
Before you even think about becoming friends with the gym treadmill, getting the proper footwear is crucial. “Go to a running specialty store and get fitted,” says Daphnie Yang, personal trainer and running coach, graduate of Tisch-NYU’s Collaborate Arts Project 21 (CAP21) and former member of Balasole Dance Company. “The shoe experts will be able to analyze your stride, gait and foot strike and can make sure you’re running in shoes that fit you and your body.” Young dancers may be tempted to pick the cutest pair in the brightest colors, but it’s more important to wear shoes that will support your body as you run, or that can help correct any imbalances, such as pronation (rolling your foot inward as you step on it) or supination (rolling the foot outward).
“A warm-up, just like in dance class, is critical,” says Yang. Before you begin running, do a few gentle exercises to bring oxygen and blood to your muscles and joints. Yang suggests doing a few jumping jacks and then jogging very slowly before you increase your pace.
Start Slow—Really Slow
A common mistake new runners make is doing too much too soon—either wanting to run too many miles right away, or wanting to run really fast right out of the gate. “As strong as your dancing self can be, running is a different beast,” says Holly Mendoza-Hendricks, professional dancer with Vissi Dance Theater and Amy Marshall Dance Company. “You want to make sure you’re working up to it.”
Yang adds, “Start slow, then gradually increase your pace as you warm up. The first five minutes of your run should be the slowest. Then work your way up to 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, then 30. Run at a pace where it feels like you’re loosening up the legs versus pushing the speed. You should feel slightly sweaty, a little out of breath and like your legs are gently striking the ground.”
Watch Your Form
“Don’t strike with your heels, keep your shoulders relaxed and keep your core engaged,” Yang says. “If you’re running correctly, you should feel like you’re floating.” Engage your hamstrings, glutes and core as much as you can. A tip for making sure your upper body stays relaxed: Shake it out. “Drop your arms and shake them out once in a while, and give your neck a good roll,” says dancer, fitness model and spin instructor Jessalyn Gliebe. “It’s amazing how tight you can get, because you’re not always thinking about your upper body when you run.”
Don’t stop your run abruptly. Spend the last three to five minutes backing off the pace until you’re walking. “A cooldown flushes out lactic acid and helps prevent soreness,” says Yang.
Stretch, Stretch, Stretch…and Foam Roll
The easiest way to combat added tightness from running is by making stretching a “non-negotiable,” according to Yang. On top of running up to 10 miles a day when training, Gliebe also adds hot vinyasa yoga to her fitness regimen to aid her stretching and help with core strength. LaVergne carries a lacrosse ball with her at all times—“It’s perfect for rolling out my feet and getting into those tight little spots”—and she devotes ample time to easing into lunges and figure-four stretches (where you cross the ankle at the knee seated or lying down and pull legs toward torso or torso toward legs) to keep her hips open.
Reap the Benefits
There’s plenty of muscle to be gained from running. “I was always a graceful dancer,” says Gliebe. “Running gave me all that strength in my legs, though, which made me a powerful jumper.” Plus, dance can be a largely anaerobic activity, where you are extremely active in brief intervals. Going for a run gets the heart rate up and keeps it there for an extended period of time. “Running gave me the cardiovascular endurance of a beast,” says Yang.
For touring dancers, there’s convenience in being able to exercise anywhere, even if there’s no gym or studio nearby. All you need is a pair of sneakers to take a run outside. “It’s the most consistent way to stay in shape when I’m traveling,” says LaVergne. Plus, it gives her the opportunity to see the world beyond the auditorium. “Running is the best way to see the cities I’m traveling through.” DT
Alison Feller is a dancer-turned-runner and former editor in chief of Dance Spirit. She has completed three marathons and was training for her fourth at press time.
Photo by Coty Tarr, courtesy of Jessalyn Gliebe; courtesy of Holly Mendoza-Hendricks