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.
By the time they're old enough to do their own pre-class warm-up, most dancers know they can injure themselves by stretching cold muscles. "When you just throw your leg over your head, you're microscopically tearing muscle fibers," says LuAnn Leonard-Johns, a former Rockette who teaches Zena Rommett Floor-Barre, a technique designed to help dancers find correct alignment, improve flexibility, prevent injury and strengthen the muscles needed for ballet. Yet there's still something tempting about plopping down into a split or straddle stretch before class—maybe because it allows for relaxing and socializing with friends.
You've seen them: dancers, still recovering from a holiday food coma, shuffling into class in a woozy, post-vacation stupor. (You may even know the feeling yourself.) It's all they can do to make it through their classes, and by day two, they're stiff, sore and moaning about it.
“Winter break is the worst," says Rubén Graciani, chair of dance and associate artistic director, Conservatory of Performing Arts, at Point Park University. Not many students take a January intensive, and with no school for about four weeks, it's just long enough to fall seriously out of shape—especially if dancers aren't cross-training.
“The biggest thing is stamina," he says. “Jumping into that schedule—11 to 13 technique classes a week—it's really hard on their bodies."
When Brittany Purtell heard one dancer was repeatedly bad-mouthing another on her eight-person competition team in early 2017, she knew she had to take action. "We got word about bullying among the team members," she says. "It started at their school and then carried over to the studio." A dancer was spreading rumors about her teammate: "Something along the lines of 'So-and-so is not trying; she's not practicing; she doesn't deserve to be on the team,'" says Purtell, who directs the Senior Elite team at Open Space Studio in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Concerned the bad-mouthing could lead to a serious rift among teammates, she planned a camaraderie-building session, where students filled poster boards with dance compliments about one another—and themselves—and decorated the studio with hearts where they'd penned why they love dance. She's heard no complaints since, but statistically speaking, she likely will face some variation of this challenge again.
In fond memory of a legendary teacher, we wanted to revive some timeless wisdom David Howard shared with us back in 2001.
We're privileged to honor four extraordinary educators with this year's Dance Teacher Awards in August at our New York Dance Teacher Summit. The awardees include Julie Kent, Djana Bell, Rhonda Miller, Sue Samuels and Stephanie Kersten.
In Rhonda Miller's jazz class at Pace University in New York City, dance majors look audition-ready, with wanded hair and strappy bra tops. Miller, who founded one of the only commercial dance BFA programs in the country, wants them to always be prepared to sell themselves to casting directors, producers and directors. "You never know who will walk in," she says. She works to teach dancers in four years what it took her a lifetime to learn about show business.
Since leaving the stage to become a teacher, Arantxa Ochoa says she's kept in shape by never staying still. A typical workday begins at 6 am when the former Pennsylvania Ballet principal wakes up to drop her son off at school. She gets to the Miami City Ballet School offices early to take care of administrative tasks and warm up briefly (if she's lucky) before teaching her first class at 9:45. Then it's dance and directorial duties until 8 pm. It's typical for her to pull off her ballet slippers and step into high heels for a meeting amid six hours of teaching. Luckily, she's fallen in love with the job. "You get up in the morning, and you're like, 'This is my life." It's not a job; it's a passion," she says. "When you really love it, that makes everything easier."
Passion alone can't fuel you indefinitely, however. Ochoa, a native of Valladolid, Spain, cooks hearty meals in the evenings and is strict about setting aside at least one day a week for herself and her family. She is frank that it's a struggle to care for herself as much as her students. "I have to stop and say, 'Arantxa, you have to think of yourself,'" she says. "The days pass by, and all you think of is your students."
DT caught up with Ochoa about how she takes care of her own body and mind while nurturing students, and she shared some straight talk about the challenge of making time to keep herself healthy.
You know it's essential to cross-train outside the studio as a teacher. "The only times I've had major injuries have been when I'm teaching," says Michele Miller, a Pilates instructor, veteran movement teacher and professor of dance at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. "I think when I'm teaching class, I'm not in my own body the same way. I'm not paying attention to me; I'm paying attention to my students."
She relies on Pilates to keep her whole body strong and safe in the studio. But even with her workout routine, she notices areas of weakness. "When I teach my modern class, I tend to do everything starting on the right side, and I noticed it felt like my pelvis was getting a little twisted in one direction," she says. She began alternating which side she demonstrated first, and it evened out.
Miller isn't alone—specific muscles tend to go undertrained or forgotten in teachers' daily studio routines. Paying particular attention to these parts of your body could be the key to increased strength or even pain-free days at the barre.