Health & Body

Combating Cramps: Simple Ways to Prevent and Relieve Pesky Muscle Spasms

Thinkstock

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.

Drink Up!

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

Electrolyte-Rich Foods

“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.

Teaching Tips
Justin Boccitto teaches a hybrid class. Photo courtesy Boccitto

Just as teachers were getting comfortable with teaching virtual classes, many studios are adding an extra challenge into the mix: in-person students learning alongside virtual students. Such hybrid classes are meant to keep class sizes down and to give students options to take class however they're comfortable.

But dividing your attention between virtual students and masked and socially distant in-person students—and giving them each a class that meets their needs—is no easy feat.

Dance Teacher asked four teachers what they've learned so far.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
All photos by Ryan Heffington

"Annnnnnnd—we're back!"

Ryan Heffington is kneeling in front of his iPhone, looking directly into the camera, smiling behind his bushy mustache. He's in his house in the desert near Joshua Tree, California, phone propped on the floor so it stays steady, his bright shorty shorts, tank top and multiple necklaces in full view. Music is already playing—imagine you're at a club—and soon he's swaying and bouncing from side to side, the beat infusing his bones.

Keep reading... Show less
Teachers Trending
Evelyn Cisneros-Legate. Photo by Beau Pearson, Courtesy Ballet West

Evelyn Cisneros-Legate is bringing her hard-earned expertise to Ballet West. The former San Francisco Ballet star is taking over all four campuses of The Frederick Quinney Lawson Ballet West Academy as the school's new director.

Cisneros-Legate, whose mother put her in ballet classes in an attempt to help her overcome her shyness, trained at the San Francisco Ballet School and School of American Ballet before joining San Francisco Ballet as a full company member in 1977. She danced with the company for 23 years, breaking barriers as the first Mexican American to become a principal dancer in the U.S., and has graced the cover of Dance Magazine no fewer than three times.

As an educator, Cisneros-Legate has served as ballet coordinator at San Francisco Ballet, principal of Boston Ballet School's North Shore Studio and artistic director of after-school programming at the National Dance Institute (NDI). Dance Teacher spoke with her about her new position, her plans for the academy and leading in the time of COVID-19.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.