Get Fit

A dancer’s intense training often results in overuse of muscles, wreaking havoc on her body. And because most dancers’ workout regimens tend to concentrate on core conditioning and increasing flexibility, they overlook the need for strength and cardiovascular training—exercises essential to preventing injury. Noticing this in their own dancing and teaching practices, movement and fitness specialists Meredith Koloski and Jennifer Walker were prompted to develop a well-rounded conditioning program for dancers.

Muscular imbalances can be detected by observing lateral squats and other activities.

 

The two met at Arizona State University while MFA candidates. They combined their expertise in dance, dance kinesiology, Pilates and sports medicine and in 2008, launched Optimal Fitness, a three-part program that tests body balance and builds a

system of strength training, core conditioning, flexibility and cardiovascular exercise tailored to individual needs.

 

“The exercises and assessments in this program were created from personal experiences of learning how to activate and strengthen different muscles to balance out my dance technique,” says Koloski, who has since settled in Philadelphia, where she choreographs, teaches and works as a personal trainer. “I realized that most dancers don’t know how to activate their muscles, like the glutes or hamstrings. The program helped me heal from chronic dance-related injury and to balance out my body better, which strengthened my dancing.”

 

Koloski and Walker implemented Optimal Fitness into the Junior Repertory Company at Dancers’ Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Walker is the school director and Koloski was serving as a one-year guest artist. To conduct part one, the two teachers assessed each dancer’s muscular imbalances, overuse injuries and training needs, while observing the dancers in various positions. They followed a comprehensive packet of diagrams, questionnaires and fill-in charts to answer such questions as: “Does the pelvis tend to tilt forward or backward?” “Do their arches fall in or out?” “Do the knees fall in or out?” and “Do the shoulders roll forward or backward?” If a dancer squats or does a pelvic lift with her knee falling in, for example, it means her inner thigh is weak. They then assessed core strength, balance, agility and flexibility in a similar method.

 

Cardiovascular fitness was tested last. This is the biggest problem area for dancers, says Koloski, since technique class is greatly anaerobic. “Some dancers give out within three minutes of cardio activity, especially ballet students,” she says. To perform the test, dancers did jumping jacks to a steady beat for three minutes. Each dancer’s pulse was then taken for one minute. The lower the heart rate, the fitter the dancer.

 

Once the assessments were complete, Koloski and Walker helped their dancers set personal goals and design individualized training programs to accomplish outside of class. “This could be a series of exercises to do at home, in a small group or private class in Pilates, functional training or cardio-focused sessions,” says Walker. She encouraged students to go swimming, take group classes like Zumba or kickboxing or even try hiking for extra cardio.

 

The third and final portion of Optimal Fitness involves bringing injury-prevention training into the studio, so dancers become familiar with what muscles to activate. “It only requires 7 to 10 minutes during warm-up or technique class, once dancers have learned the proper method for the exercises,” says Koloski. “Before ballet, I start with floor work,” says Walker, who is also the rehearsal director, choreographer and performer with Contemporary Dance Wyoming. “I implement Pilates into floor barre. Standing, we work on pelvic alignment. If time is an issue, doing interval training of jumping jacks, mountain climbers or step-ups with strength training in between will allow dancers to get great cardio.” Their strength-training drills include: squats, lunges, scapula stretching and ab work.

 

Although the program has yet to grow beyond the creators and their direct students, Koloski and Walker have experienced successful results. “One student sprained her ankle last year and tore some ligaments. She has had a hard time coming back,” says Walker. “We realized she was not activating her core when jumping, and she had some unevenness in her landing. Now I can see the difference in her movements.” DT

 

Brianne Carlon has a BS in journalism from Kent State University and danced professionally for the Cleveland Cavalier Girls.

 

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Walker

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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