Dancers on the Run

How to safely incorporate running as a cross-training activity—and reap the benefits

Dancer, runner and fitness model Jessalyn Gliebe has performed on “America’s Got Talent.”

When Amanda Lea LaVergne was performing eight shows a week in the adult ensemble of Broadway’s Annie, rehearsals, performances and press obligations took up most of her time. But when she wasn’t backstage or onstage in full hair and makeup, she was in spandex and sneakers, pursuing another goal: training for the New York City Marathon.

LaVergne is one of many dancers today embracing a growing trend: running. For years, dancers have been told not to run because it would rob them of their flexibility, make their hips tight or bulk up their quads. When done correctly, though, running can complement dancing. “Since my career involves singing while dancing, my stamina and strength are better, and that’s because I’m a runner,” says LaVergne.

You don’t need to train for a marathon to experience the health benefits of running. But if your dancers are thinking about adding running to their cross-training regimens, here’s what they need to know before hitting the road.

Get Fitted

Before you even think about becoming friends with the gym treadmill, getting the proper footwear is crucial. “Go to a running specialty store and get fitted,” says Daphnie Yang, personal trainer and running coach, graduate of Tisch-NYU’s Collaborate Arts Project 21 (CAP21) and former member of Balasole Dance Company. “The shoe experts will be able to analyze your stride, gait and foot strike and can make sure you’re running in shoes that fit you and your body.” Young dancers may be tempted to pick the cutest pair in the brightest colors, but it’s more important to wear shoes that will support your body as you run, or that can help correct any imbalances, such as pronation (rolling your foot inward as you step on it) or supination (rolling the foot outward).

Warm Up

“A warm-up, just like in dance class, is critical,” says Yang. Before you begin running, do a few gentle exercises to bring oxygen and blood to your muscles and joints. Yang suggests doing a few jumping jacks and then jogging very slowly before you increase your pace.

Holly Mendoza-
Hendricks running the 2014 New York City Half Marathon

Start Slow—Really Slow

A common mistake new runners make is doing too much too soon—either wanting to run too many miles right away, or wanting to run really fast right out of the gate. “As strong as your dancing self can be, running is a different beast,” says Holly Mendoza-Hendricks, professional dancer with Vissi Dance Theater and Amy Marshall Dance Company. “You want to make sure you’re working up to it.”

Yang adds, “Start slow, then gradually increase your pace as you warm up. The first five minutes of your run should be the slowest. Then work your way up to 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, then 30. Run at a pace where it feels like you’re loosening up the legs versus pushing the speed. You should feel slightly sweaty, a little out of breath and like your legs are gently striking the ground.”

Watch Your Form

“Don’t strike with your heels, keep your shoulders relaxed and keep your core engaged,” Yang says. “If you’re running correctly, you should feel like you’re floating.” Engage your hamstrings, glutes and core as much as you can. A tip for making sure your upper body stays relaxed: Shake it out. “Drop your arms and shake them out once in a while, and give your neck a good roll,” says dancer, fitness model and spin instructor Jessalyn Gliebe. “It’s amazing how tight you can get, because you’re not always thinking about your upper body when you run.”

Cool Down

Don’t stop your run abruptly. Spend the last three to five minutes backing off the pace until you’re walking. “A cooldown flushes out lactic acid and helps prevent soreness,” says Yang.

Stretch, Stretch, Stretch…and Foam Roll

The easiest way to combat added tightness from running is by making stretching a “non-negotiable,” according to Yang. On top of running up to 10 miles a day when training, Gliebe also adds hot vinyasa yoga to her fitness regimen to aid her stretching and help with core strength. LaVergne carries a lacrosse ball with her at all times—“It’s perfect for rolling out my feet and getting into those tight little spots”—and she devotes ample time to easing into lunges and figure-four stretches (where you cross the ankle at the knee seated or lying down and pull legs toward torso or torso toward legs) to keep her hips open.

Reap the Benefits

There’s plenty of muscle to be gained from running. “I was always a graceful dancer,” says Gliebe. “Running gave me all that strength in my legs, though, which made me a powerful jumper.” Plus, dance can be a largely anaerobic activity, where you are extremely active in brief intervals. Going for a run gets the heart rate up and keeps it there for an extended period of time. “Running gave me the cardiovascular endurance of a beast,” says Yang.

For touring dancers, there’s convenience in being able to exercise anywhere, even if there’s no gym or studio nearby. All you need is a pair of sneakers to take a run outside. “It’s the most consistent way to stay in shape when I’m traveling,” says LaVergne. Plus, it gives her the opportunity to see the world beyond the auditorium. “Running is the best way to see the cities I’m traveling through.” DT

Alison Feller is a dancer-turned-runner and former editor in chief of Dance Spirit. She has completed three marathons and was training for her fourth at press time.

Photo by Coty Tarr, courtesy of Jessalyn Gliebe; courtesy of Holly Mendoza-Hendricks

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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