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.
"We think as dancers, 'Oh my gosh, if this thing isn't working hard enough, I have to work it harder.' In order for these muscles to work, they have to have a chance to relax, too." –Kathryn Maykish
As deeply familiar as dancers are with their bodies, there's one muscle group that can remain mysterious. You can't see it, and it can be tough to access, but the pelvic floor serves a major role in your posture and body function. Dancers and other athletes are more prone than the general population to dysfunction of the pelvic floor, and this can have major ramifications in dance and life.
Tuttle (left) with dancer Jessica Einhorn at Mark Morris Dance Center. Photo by Kyle Froman
Shuttling between 25 weekly classes at four institutions in two different boroughs of New York City, Ashley Tuttle gets much of her daily exercise just from the commute. "You live in the city, you have to walk a lot," says the former American Ballet Theatre principal, who also starred in Twyla Tharp's Movin' Out on Broadway.
Tuttle is beloved for her open adult classes at Mark Morris Dance Center, where she encourages even novices to let loose and really dance the phrases rather than just drilling technical exercises. Since 2016, though, she's spent the majority of her teaching hours as faculty at Eliot Feld's Ballet Tech, where she trains pre-professional students from fourth grade through high school. She also leads college classes four times a week at Barnard, and teaches a company class at ABT when the troupe is in town.
Since launching her teaching career a decade ago, Tuttle is frank that her own wellness has not been a priority, and that's something she wants to work on. She talked to DT about her fitness, eating and sleep habits, how she's always striving to take better care of herself, and shared recent advice from Mark Morris.
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 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.