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."
There is a flexibility freak show going on in the dance world. Between out-of-this-world extensions on “So You Think You Can Dance" and a boundaries-pushing contemporary scene, it seems the bar for bendiness gets higher every year.
"So why did you quit?"
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what led me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
Last spring, Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chloe Freytag decided to eat vegan. With a passion for nutrition, she was concerned that toxins and preservatives in certain foods were preventing her from becoming her best dancing self. "Before veganism I was more rundown and I would get tired easily. My body was weak and heavy at times," she says. "Now I feel like a lighter person, more happy and energetic. I feel more like myself."
“I think I pulled a muscle." We've all said it, but what does it mean? There are many aches and pains that accompany a dancer's daily practice, but there are important differences between muscle soreness and a strained or “pulled" muscle. While both require a balance of rest and carefully planned exertion, a strained muscle has distinct symptoms that will tell you quickly that it is more than just back-from-vacation soreness.
“Muscles like to be warm," says Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “They don't like to stretch and do explosive movements while cold." When you saunter into the studio before class and flop down into the splits, or practice your variation on cold muscles, you're setting yourself up for a strain.
Ways to shift your stretching routine from passive to dynamic
If you are like your students, you get in at least a few stretches before class. Perhaps you prop your foot on the barre and stretch out over your leg. You may even try the splits. The typical pre-class warm-up has changed little over the years, but our attempts to achieve length before the first plié may be missing the point.
The exercises mentioned above are static, or passive, stretches and, according to Deborah Vogel, should be saved for after class, when you’re finished dancing. “If you hold a stretch like that for 60 seconds or a little more, you will achieve longer length in the muscle, so it is increasing flexibility,” says Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine and lecturer in dance at Oberlin College. “But it’s also inhibiting the muscle’s ability to fire.” In other words, by focusing solely on length with no strength, you leave muscles loose and languid, with their strength temporarily decreased. Overstretching is a real concern, as well. Vogel warns that pushing too far in a passive stretch, especially for young dancers, can damage the structure of a joint and line the dancer up for serious injury down the road.
On the other hand, dynamic, or active, stretching lengthens some muscles while strongly engaging others. This helps prepare the whole body for movement, making it a great choice for before class. Vogel says the approach emphasizes control in the stretches, instead of how far you push yourself. It requires the dancer to move slowly through her range of motion rather than bouncing or physically pushing her body into place. This also reduces the risk of overstretching.
Beyond safety considerations, dynamic stretches can also effectively pinpoint and release tight muscles better than static stretches. If you just sit in a stretch, you may be missing the real hurdle to your greatest flexibility. “In dynamic stretching, you’re stretching the whole length of a muscle group, not just one muscle,” Vogel says. “Oftentimes, there’s some place besides the muscle you’re working on that might be limiting your flexibility.”
Vogel recommends these active adjustments to the classic hamstring stretch on the barre. “If you are just hanging out, you will feel that in the back of the leg,” she says. But you could be feeling more.
1. Contract the quad muscle of the leg on the barre. This action helps release the hamstring for a deeper stretch at the back of the leg.
2. Slowly tilt the pelvis forward by drawing the sitz bone of the working leg back. Gently rotate the pelvis toward the working leg. Vogel says some dancers will feel a stretch in the quad while others feel it in their calf. “Now we’re working at mobilizing a line of flexibility,” she says.
Get your body moving and muscles firing as you test your balance and elongate muscles throughout the standing leg.
1. Begin standing in either parallel or turned-out first.
2. Tendu back with your left leg.
3. Keeping your standing leg straight and your shoulders square, tip the body forward, lifting the leg behind you in a penché motion and reaching with your left arm toward the ground. (Keep your right hand by your side.) Stop when your left fingertips touch the floor. The goal is not to get the working leg vertical, but to move slowly and with control.
4. Leading with the shoulders and keeping your core engaged, return to upright with your foot returning to tendu back. Close and repeat on the other side.
Actively increase mobility in the spine.
1. Begin on all fours with hands aligned under your shoulders and knees under your hips. Lift your left hand off the floor and “thread the needle” between your right hand and knee until your entire left arm and shoulder and the side of your face are on the ground.
2. To make the stretch dynamic, press your left arm into the floor while you lift the right arm up, reaching your fingertips toward the ceiling. Your shoulders should be aligned one on top of the other.
3. Place your right hand back on the floor beside your head and straighten the arm completely as you lift your body off the floor, unwinding your spine and reaching your left fingertips toward the ceiling. Again, shoulders should align one on top of the other.
4. Return your left hand to the floor. Repeat to the other side.
This is particularly beneficial for young dancers as they improve control and coordination, but it is a helpful warm-up and stretch at all levels.
1. Battement your left leg in parallel to take a giant step forward.
2. In a continuous motion, lower your right knee to the ground keeping your chest lifted and back straight with your hips and shoulders square.
3. From the lunge, battement the right leg to repeat on the other side. This can move across the floor at a slow marching speed: lunge, battement, lunge, battement.
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer and frequent contributor to Dance Teacher.
From top: Thinkstock; exercise photos by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Dia Dearstyne
Fueling your body for dance is essential, but deciding what to eat isn't always easy. And with new diets surfacing every month, it can be hard to know what to believe: low-carb, low-fat, no gluten, no dairy? What's the best approach?
We delved into two hot diet trends—paleolithic and gluten-free—and consulted experts to find out how they really stack up for dancers. There's something to take away from both of these diets. Learn the facts to create a meal plan of whole, nutrient-rich foods that will never go out of style.
Sports drinks are designed to provide electrolyte replacement and energy for athletes. When dancers are working hard, these drinks—as well as natural alternatives like coconut water and fruit juice—can offer a boost. But each beverage is formulated differently, and the endless options can leave a dancer scratching her head by a vending machine. DT spoke to nutrition experts to learn how sports drinks can help dancers and what ingredients they should look for when choosing one to meet their needs.
When dancers sweat, their bodies lose water and electrolytes: primarily sodium and potassium. Electrolytes aid muscle and nerve function and maintain the water balance inside and outside of cells, and the blood’s pH balance. Basically, your body won’t function correctly without them.
Because dance is mostly non-aerobic—meaning you exert yourself in short bursts and then rest—dancers don’t tend to sweat as intensely as marathon runners. But if students are working hard in the studio for more than an hour without stopping, Karyn Baiorunos, nutritionist at the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, says they may want to replace electrolytes. She suggests sipping a drink that contains potassium and roughly 100 mg per 8 oz serving of sodium. Traditional sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade work well.
Young students who move into a more intensive level may have trouble getting through class. Baiorunos says this is often because their muscles aren’t quite developed for the increased amount of work. In these cases, the right drink can give them a boost.
The energy promised by most sports drinks comes from sugar. Baiorunos recommends a drink with no more than 14 grams per serving—the magic number for increased energy. “That’s the ideal absorption,” she says. “If you go higher than that amount of sugar, the body can’t absorb it, and you end up with a stomach ache.” Skip the diet or sugar-free sports drinks that offer increased energy. Some contain caffeine, which Baiorunos does not recommend.
Sharon Wehner, principal dancer with Colorado Ballet, prefers the natural option of coconut water, which she usually mixes with water to reduce her sugar intake. Fruit juice is another natural source of sugar, and it can be diluted with water.
Whatever a student chooses, they should sip it rather than guzzle it down. “It’s giving your body a steady flow of some sugar so you can continue with class,” Baiorunos says.
A Healthy Balance
Sports drinks, even natural options like juice or coconut water, shouldn’t be a dancer’s go-to beverage during the day, Baiorunos warns, since too much of one electrolyte can put the others out of balance. “Whatever drink you choose, don’t do it all day long, unless it’s just plain water,” she says. Peggy Swistak, nutrition consultant to Pacific Northwest Ballet, notes that there are sometimes multiple servings in a bottle. Just one serving over the course of a class should be plenty to reap the benefits.
In Wehner’s 18 years dancing with Colorado Ballet, she has learned to resist passing fads and to make her own decisions about what is best for her body. “If I drink this, what am I getting?” she says. “Why am I putting this in my body, other than because my friend drinks it?”
Ultimately, the most important thing is for dancers to be hydrated. “The rule of thumb is a half a cup of fluid for every 15 minutes of dancing,” Baiorunos says. She suggests encouraging students to sip on a water bottle before, during and after class. Swistak points out that while sports drinks aren’t going to hurt you, they don’t have any magic in them either. “Some of it’s the placebo effect,” she says. “If it doesn’t hurt you and you think it’s helping, then go ahead.” DT
Kathleen McGuire is a former dancer living in Pittsburgh.