How Rest and Recovery Can Take Your Dancers to the Next Level

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More studio time = more improvement? Not always, according to Roman Zhurbin, American Ballet Theatre soloist and certified personal trainer. "It's absolutely necessary to take rest days so your body can reset and you stay motivated," says Zhurbin. "Seven days a week of hard training is just unhealthy." What is healthy: letting your body recover from a jam-packed dance schedule so you can give your best possible performance.


Give It a Rest

But lying on the couch is wasted time, you might say. Think again! "When you work hard in class or rehearsal, micro-tears form in the fibers of your muscles," says Michelle Rodriguez, an NYC-based physical therapist who specializes in helping dancers. Sounds scary, but these tiny, tiny tears are what allow your muscles to hypertrophy—i.e., grow—which makes you stronger. You have to give your muscles periodic time off so they can do this repairing and rebuilding.

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A weekly rest day is even more essential if you're still growing or under 15. "Growth plates are the part of your bone that literally lengthen to make you taller," says Dr. Selina Shah, a sports and performing arts medicine specialist and the physician for San Francisco Ballet School and Diablo Ballet. "Time off without the stress of impact allows for normal growth without injuring those growth plates." Even if you're done growing, regular days off help prevent stress fractures and other overuse injuries.

The Rest of the Best

What does a healthy rest-and-recovery regimen look like? Rodriguez, Shah, and Zhurbin agree that, ideally, you won't set foot in a dance studio one or even two days each week. Getting eight hours of uninterrupted, high-quality sleep—more like 9 or 10 if you're training intensely or still growing—is also crucial. Rodriguez recommends stretching, massaging, foam rolling, and wearing thigh-high compression socks during downtime to help hardworking muscles bounce back more quickly.

Oh, and the bathtub should be your BFF. "Muscles contract and relax because of the opening and closing of sodium and calcium channels," says Rodriguez. "When you're going hard, these electrolyte supplies can be depleted. When you lie in a bath containing Epsom salts or magnesium, your skin absorbs some of those minerals."

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Feeling extra-brave? Take a page from Zhurbin's book and opt for a cold shower or ice bath. "Research has proven cold temperatures assist in recovery," explains Shah. "You can put a covered ice pack on sore areas or get in a cold bath for up to 15 minutes." (That said, if a warm bath is what feels most relaxing to you, go for it!)

What to Do When You Literally Can't Even…

…take a rest day, that is. The reality of life as a serious dancer is that you won't always—or even usually!—be able to control your training and performance schedule. That just means it's your responsibility to use the recovery time you do have to your
advantage. On a quick break between rehearsals? "Don't spend it standing up," says Rodriguez. "Sit down, eat a snack, then lie down and put your legs up on the wall. Even brief periods of true rest make a huge difference in recovering on a daily basis."

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"Unlike most athletes, dancers are in season all year," Rodriguez says. "Look at your career as a marathon, not a sprint. You don't want to burn out because you've done too much." The next time you have a week off between an out-of-town intensive and the start of classes at your home studio, don't be afraid to spend that time relaxing. Or do as Shah suggests: "Try a sport you don't have time for during the school year, just to allow your muscles to work in a different way." Your body—and your dancing—will thank you.

What About Active Recovery?

American Ballet Theatre soloist and personal trainer Roman Zhurbin recommends incorporating active recovery into your cross-training plan up to three times a week. Think of active recovery as your regular cross-training workout, but less intense and half as long. "I'll do lifting, pull-ups, body-weight exercises, push-ups, and anything else I'm working on," says Zhurbin. "It's classic strength and conditioning, but shorter and not fatiguing to the point where I'm exhausted."


Personal trainer and American Ballet Theatre soloist Roman Zhurbin working with ABT principal Stella Abrera (courtesy Zhurbin)


You should actually feel more energized at the end of active recovery, as opposed to a regular cross-training session, which might leave you feeling pretty tired. Yoga, biking, walking, or a half-hour of barre are all great active recovery options.


Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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