Dancer Health

Let Go of Stress to Dance Your Best

Active relaxation exercises release tension and speed muscle recovery. Thinkstock

Strange as it may seem, the missing ingredient of a dancer's optimal performance is often rest. According to Kathleen Weber, consulting sports medicine physician at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, dancers should think of recovery as an essential element in their training. “As you walk offstage, you should already be thinking, 'How am I recovering?'" she says.

As many dancers know, repetitive strain on muscles can lead to micro-traumas, or tiny tears in muscle tissue. If the body never has a chance to heal, an overuse injury can result. Rest gives muscles a chance to repair themselves, but finding an extended period of time to relax is not in most dancers' playbooks.


Active relaxation is a tool to aid recovery—both physical and mental, according to Erika Bloom, owner of Erika Bloom Pilates Plus in New York City. “When we find a way to soften and move with ease, we are actually calming our nervous system," she says. She often coaches dancers in the practice, also known as conscious relaxation, using a set of physical and mental techniques that release tension through progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, visualization or a combination of these. They can be done as you wind down for bed, lying on your back in the studio before class or anywhere you can grab a quiet 10 minutes for some essential rest and recovery. There may be additional biological benefits to the practice, as well. Some say active relaxation prevents soreness, enhances flexibility, reduces the levels of stress hormones and even boosts the immune system.

Making Space for Breath

Many dancers are chest breathers. “They are afraid to breathe into the belly and allow the pelvic floor muscles to relax," says Bloom. “The tendency is to hold and grip everything." Shallow breathing can make a dancer feel out of breath, anxious and tired. Diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing, pushes the diaphragm downward, giving the lungs space to expand. Breathing fully relaxes the shoulders and enhances freedom of movement. It also increases your oxygen intake and expels stale carbon dioxide, increasing energy while reducing fatigue and the risk of injury. Regular practice can make it easier to breathe deeply while dancing, as well as in everyday life.

Bloom recommends a three-part breath. Try to take time between the inhalation and exhalation, she says. “I tell dancers to live in the space between the breath."

1. Sitting or lying down, breathe into the lower third of your lungs, allowing the belly to expand, as if filling a balloon with air.

2. Continue inhaling into the middle part of the chest. Allow your rib cage to expand sideways.

3. Still inhaling, let the air flow into the top of the lungs and into the space behind the collarbones. Try not to let your shoulders lift, but avoid forcing them down, too.

4. Exhale the same way, by emptying the lower, then middle and uppermost third of the lungs. Repeat several times, inhaling and exhaling fully each time. Then, be still for a few moments, feeling a sense of calm.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) is a conscious relaxation exercise that focuses on one muscle group at a time. It can be practiced alone but is particularly effective when led by another person. Teachers can try leading dancers through the exercise to end class or rehearsal.

1. Begin lying down on a mat in a quiet place or corner of a studio. Slowly inhale, flexing the feet and straightening the knees while contracting the calves, quads and glutes. Hold for five seconds. Exhale slowly and release the muscles, thinking of letting go of any tension. Notice the feeling of muscle relaxation compared with the rest of the body.

2. Move on to hands, arms and shoulders as a group. Clench the fists and straighten the arms, tensing biceps and forearms. Count to five, and release. Notice the feeling of the muscles tensing up and relaxing.

3. Repeat this process with abdominal muscles, chest and back together, then facial muscles (squint the eyes, wrinkle the forehead, clench the jaw) and finally the scalp and neck muscles.

4. Repeat the entire exercise before lying still for several moments, sensing the weight of your body.

In Your Mind's Eye

Try ending your breathing exercise with a visualization. It can help you relax more fully.

1. Close your eyes and picture a place where you feel relaxed, such as a beach or a mountaintop. See yourself walking toward it and then sitting down. Breathe deeply.

2. Engage all of your senses. You might imagine feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin or smelling the air.

3. As you inhale, imagine calming energy is entering your body. As you exhale, let go of any thought that doesn't support your goal of relaxation.

4. If your thoughts wander, return to the scene in your mind and focus on your breath. Continue for several minutes or longer. When you are ready to end the exercise, visualize yourself standing up and walking away. Still feeling a sense of calm, slowly open your eyes.

Once you've practiced visualization a few times, try going to this peaceful place in your mind any time you're feeling anxious—like right before you go onstage. It can offer a grounding, calming experience when you need it most.

Dance Teachers Trending
Rising Waters, by Gianna Reisen. Photo by Josh Rose, courtesy of L.A. Dance Project

For Gianna Reisen, a classically trained ballet dancer who now performs with L.A. Dance Project, the process of finding music for her choreography is everything. "If I'm not 100 percent inspired by the music, the movement just doesn't come out," she says. Following this natural creative spirit, though, wasn't always the driving force behind her artistry.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

2019 has been rife with fantastic holiday songs that are simply BEGGING to be choreographed to. From Pentatonix to Kacey Musgraves, these bangers are the perfect match for your upcoming holiday-themed jazz class. Use each song for different elements of class (warm-up, across the floor, combo, etc.), or have your students get in groups and assign each one a different song from the list to choreograph to. The options are endless, but the general feeling of joy will be the same.

YOU'RE WELCOME! And happy holidays, everyone!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Alvin Ailey surrounded by the Company, 1978. Photography by Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution, all rights reserved

From 1961 to 1994, legendary photographer Jack Mitchell captured thousands of moments with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. Now, this treasure trove of dance history is available to the public for viewing via the online archives of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The collection includes both color and black-and-white images of Ailey's repertoire, as well as private photo sessions with company members and Ailey himself. Altogether, the archive tracks the career development of many beloved Ailey dancers, including Masazumi Chaya, Judith Jamison, Sylvia Waters, Donna Wood and Dudley Williams—and even a young Desmond Richardson. And there's no shortage of photos of iconic pieces like Blues Suite (Ailey's first piece of choreography), Cry and Revelations.

We couldn't resist sharing a few of our favorites below. Search the collection for more gems here.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by CJ Harris, courtesy of PHILADANCO

Each anniversary celebration of a dance company might also be considered a lesson in dance history and a study of endurance and perseverance. Thus the 50th anniversary of PHILADANCO is an opportunity to celebrate the remarkable legacy of founder and artistic director Joan Myers Brown as a source of inspiration for students, dancers and colleagues nationwide.

PHILADANCO is a resident company at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and kicked off its 50th season on October 5. Brown and the company will participate in the International Association of Blacks in Dance's 32nd annual conference, January 14–19, in Philadelphia. And you can catch the company throughout the U.S. in 2020, including February performances in Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Getty Images

Q: My 13-year-old daughter has always been flexible, but last year she suffered an acute injury to her hip flexor from an overstretch position. Since then I have told her not to participate in over-splits or other extreme positions. Is that the right thing to do?

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Jacqueline Chang, courtesy of Ailey Extension

Marshall Davis Jr.'s introduction to tap dance began at 10 years old at African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where his father is director, in Miami, Florida. Training began in sneakers and dress shoes that Davis Jr. did his best to get sound out of. "My father was reluctant to invest in tap shoes, because he thought it was likely I would change my mind about dancing," he says. But it didn't take long before Davis Jr.'s passion for tap became undeniable, and his father bought him his first pair of tap shoes. Just one year later, Davis Jr. became the 1989 Florida winner for the Tri-Star Pictures Tap Day contest, a promotion for the movie Tap, starring Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis Jr. Through that experience, a new tap-dancing future was opened.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: Are there good sources to find replacement dance teachers? When I go through standard employment services, I get people who are not properly trained or lack experience.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Courtesy of Susan Jaffe

Throughout Susan Jaffe's performance career at American Ballet Theatre, there was something special, even magical, about her dancing. Lauded as "America's quintessential American ballerina" by The New York Times, Jaffe has continued to shine in her postperformance career, most recently as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. She credits the "magic" to her meditation practice, which she began in the 1990s at the height of her career. We sat down with Jaffe to learn more about her practice and how it has helped her both on and off the stage.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Reviewing a simple recording of your voice when you're teaching can help you hear how you sound to your students. Taking the time to play back your instructions, corrections and compliments throughout class will help you find any weak spots as well as recognize some of your strengths. It's a great technique to help you evaluate your instructional ability and make improvements, and pat yourself on the back for things you are doing well. Plus, it's super-easy to do!

Keep reading... Show less
Site Network
Including ballet competition standout Alina Taratorin (photo by Oliver Endahl, courtesy Taratorin)

Congratulations to the 39 talented dancers just named 2020 YoungArts award winners! This year's group of awardees includes several familiar faces from the competition scene.

Keep reading... Show less
To Share With Students
Photo by Brian Babineau, courtesy Burghardt

When Alicia Burghardt entered Dean College in Massachusetts as a freshman dance major, it hadn't occurred to her that the Boston Celtics had a dance team. A competition kid with aspirations for Broadway, Burghardt never imagined herself as an NBA dancer. But by the time she was finishing her senior year, she'd not only joined the Celtics Dancers, she was choreographing a number for a major playoff game. And after finishing her rookie year, surrounded on that TD Garden parquet floor by uproarious fans, she couldn't help but stay for another. "It's unbelievable performing for Boston fans," she says. "They're so loyal to their team. It could be third quarter, down 20 points, and they're still cheering."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
"The Greatest Show on Earth." Photo by Brenda Rueb, courtesy of Vona Dance

Your year-end recital is your studio's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Not only is it the time for your dancers to celebrate what they've accomplished during the year, it's your opportunity to demonstrate to parents firsthand the value of a dance education. A successful recital can also grant your school an influential role in the local community. Whether a prominent conservatory or a small-town studio, and whether your dancers win competitions or take classes once a week, your year-end recital is the chance for your dancers—and your program—to shine.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox