Last Wednesday was National Stress Awareness Day, and all day we couldn't stop thinking about dance teachers.
Whether it's helping your students cope with anxiety caused by the pressures of our industry, unpacking your own anxiety caused by a lifetime in this industry or simply just managing the day-to-day stresses that come with teaching, you are dealing with a lot of stress, and we want to help.
Dance Teacher caught up with a Pacific Northwest Ballet School consulting psychologist Toby Diamond to get some professional advice on how to deal with anxiety. She gave a teacher's seminar at PNB on this subject earlier this year.
Try out some of her tools, and see how they can benefit your health and the health of your students!
The human head weighs somewhere between 8 and 12 pounds. For many of us, our youngest students included, that comparatively large weight spends on average at least a couple hours a day hunched over a screen. While you may not consider your students as average, there is no denying we spend more hours than ever looking down at handheld mobile devices. "I think of it as 'tech posture,'" says Blossom Leilani Crawford of Bridge Pilates, "when the head is forward and the shoulders are forward. People don't know where their heads are anymore, and you certainly can't turn well with the weight of your head forward."
Forward head posture seems to be the very antithesis of the open chest, lifted spine and presentational sensibility of most classical dance training. But beyond the aesthetics, this misalignment can affect balance and coordination in developing dancers and, at the extreme end, can be associated with nerve damage and pain down the arm.
According to Dr. Marshall Hagins, physical therapist for the Mark Morris Dance Group, there are really two things going on when you see forward head posture. First, the skull is projected forward in front of the body (as in when we look down at a phone). But then, because we are social creatures who want to see and interact with the world in front of us, the head rotates backward on the spine, thrusting the chin up and out. "The muscles in the front of the neck are short and relaxed," he explains, "while the muscles in the back, which are keeping the head from falling further, are lengthened and overworking." The neck muscles have a very high density of proprioceptors and the nervous system feedback is working to fight gravity all of the time, all of which can result in a levator scapulae that is overused and painful.
Hagins offers a tent analogy for balancing the head in three dimensions without simply resorting to a military posture. "All the surrounding neck muscles need to have just the right amount of tension to keep a heavy object, such as the head, balanced atop the tent pole of your spine," he says. "When it leans one way, the corresponding wire becomes loose and the other wires have to pull harder." He notes that it can still be possible for dancers to move in and out of the proper positions even if the resting posture is slouched. However, assuming such a posture for most of the day can lead to injury.
The phenomenon has caused Crawford to modify the abdominal exercises in her mat class. "I sometimes ask for the head to stay on the floor for the single-leg stretch or double-leg stretch," she says. "I call it 'angry turtle' when you work to draw the back of your head into the floor. Once that is understood, it is easier to transfer into lifting the head off the ground properly."
However, both Hagins and Crawford caution that dancers are often hypermobile and prone to overcorrecting, so it is important to focus on good postural habits and incremental changes so they don't move from one misalignment of the head and neck to another. Here are three simple exercises Crawford uses to help students find and feel where proper head alignment is in different planes of movement. They are great on their own, in any warm-up, or can be easily sprinkled into a Pilates mat routine.
Supine Head Float
Elena Prisco, age 17, student at Lake Tahoe Dance Collective. Photos courtesy of Thompson
1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet planted, with a yoga block, or prop of similar height, under the shoulder blades. Let your head rest back into this big, chest-opening stretch, with your fingers interlaced, hands behind your neck so that your pinky fingers are against the base of your skull.
2. Float your head up to spine level, chin tucked in, hands helping to traction your neck long. Use exhales to activate the abdominals and keep ribs heavy and soft while your head is up. Hold for a few counts and then rest back into the stretch.
3. Repeat several times, being careful not to let the chin jut forward.
*If you are ready for more, float the pelvis up to spine level along with the head. Keep the pelvis in a neutral, untucked position.
With the physical demands required of dancers today, conditioning and injury-prevention are more important than ever. So it's no secret that dance teachers are constantly in search of new ways to challenge, strengthen and build upon their dancers' training—safely.
Madi Hicks in Jeff Edwards' ballet class at Juilliard (Kenneth Edwards)
You know what unfortunately goes hand in hand with the greatest time of year? The dreaded cold and flu season. But, never fear—you can stay ahead of the curve this year by keeping your immune system working smoothly before the sniffles set in. We've rounded up our best tips and tricks to help you stay healthy (and dancing!) all season long.
You and your phone have more in common than you might guess, says Dr. Rafael Pelayo, pediatrician and clinical professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine. "If you charge your phone halfway, it works for a few hours," he explains. "But it's not performing at its full potential, and you have to be careful about how you use that energy."
It'd be nice to just plug into the wall for nine hours until you hit 100 percent battery, but for (human) dancers, it's not that simple. So DS asked Dr. Pelayo and Dr. Argelinda Baroni, co-director of the Child and Adolescent Sleep Program in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, how to maximize your own battery life—ensuring you'll dance better and more safely in the process.
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.
It's very common for young dancers to over-rotate their feet in first position. The first suggestion I have is to simply not turn out so far. The dancer should be able to stand in first position with equal weight between the pads of the big toe, little toe and heel. Otherwise she will create a twisting motion at the knees and ankles, which will leave her vulnerable to injuries.
Growing up, I remember my teachers telling me that I was expected to be at dance when I was sick, unless I was throwing up. The expectation was that I could push through most illnesses for class, and if I couldn't, I should sit and take notes. While I didn't always love it at the time, I was able to keep up with the changes made in the routines, and prove to myself that I wasn't just being lazy and ditching class.
The iliopsoas (psoas for short) is the primary muscle that lifts the legs above 90 degrees to the front and side. The iliopsoas is a hip flexor that works with the quads to begin lifting the leg before taking over above the 90-degree point.
Pliés shouldn't be excruciating. As a ballet conservatory pre-professional student, Taylor Gordon knew this, but when the back of her left heel began aching during pliés and jumps in 2007, she didn't think it was a big deal. She was dancing more than 20 hours a week and couldn't imagine pain bad enough to keep her from it. "I never understood why people I'd seen who were injured had to sit down and watch class," she says, remembering her determination. "Why can't you just push through it?"