No Pain, No Gain: Help Students Build and Maintain Stamina

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When it comes to physicality, dancers are athletes. Watch a New York Knicks game, for example, and you'll see the Knicks City Dancers work just as hard as the basketball players. Their routines are packed with energy and intensity. Plus, they continue performing on the sidelines, with little time to rest.


Dancers need lung power and muscle strength to push through energy-draining solos, tough choreography or four acts of Swan Lake. They also need it to prevent fatigue-related injuries. While you can make additions to your classes and rehearsals to push their stamina, dance alone will not build cardiovascular strength. Students need to supplement with cross-training to be in top physical condition.

In the Studio

There are ways to incorporate stamina-increasing exercises into technique class. "It has to be part of the curriculum that gets built up slowly," says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East. By the time BAE students are 8, they're jumping for 10–15 minutes at the barre. Hoover has them do a series of slow jetés, for example, in which they brush, jump and hold plié. Students then remain in the position while she walks around to adjust their placement. "They have to wait while I'm fixing someone, even if their thighs burn. It's not fun. But those are the moments when they're getting stronger."

Once a week, advanced students at Savage Dance Company in Sykesville, Maryland, take a conditioning class that focuses on core work and upper-body strength, finishing with 20 minutes of an aerobic activity like jogging. "It's like a jazzercise class," says owner Nichole Savage. "The kids aren't worrying about a turn or leg extension, but concentrating on their heart rate and cardiovascular work."

You can also build stamina in rehearsals by running dances twice in a row. "The second time through will look dismal," says Hoover, "but when the students get onstage and do it only once, they'll have all the energy they need." Help them push through that second time by asking them to focus on breathing with the music. Slowing down the breath will oxygenate muscles and refocus energy and attention. Also, identifying less demanding parts of the choreography will help them learn where they can conserve energy. Not every step needs to be performed to 100 percent.

Cross-Training

Though in-class exercises will build stamina, dancers need to do aerobic activity outside of the studio to reach greater cardiovascular and muscular endurance. If not, their bodies may learn to adjust to specific routines or class patterns without necessarily improving their overall strength.

"When dancers just take class and run through their routines, they develop stamina specifically for that routine and their bodies get used to it," says Monica Lorenzo, athletic trainer for the Radio City Rockettes and the Knicks City Dancers. "They need other activity to keep their bodies in their most ideal and efficient form."

Lorenzo recommends low-weight, high-rep weight training in combination with cardiovascular activity. "We do 30–60 minutes of cardiovascular training, like running, rowing or swimming; anything other than just dancing," she says. She particularly likes fusion Pilates with cardio blasts, a style that periodically raises the heart rate at intervals throughout the class.

Consistency will help students maintain their bodies throughout slow periods, like summer. Both of Lorenzo's troupes do four to six days of cross-training per week during off-season. Alternating days with strength training and cardiovascular workouts or balancing both activities in one day will help maintain energy and muscle tone. Hoover suggests fast walking; it doesn't require weights and is easy on the joints.

"Company members who get to the top are the ones who keep themselves in shape," says Hoover. "The same thing goes for students. They just can't take that month off in August."

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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