Health & Body

Overtraining Can Be Dangerous for This Group of Dancers

To make dancers stronger and less injury-prone, Burns Wilson suggest adding floor barre or conditioning classes. Photo courtesy of Burns Wilson

With a career spanning 30-plus years in the dance field, Anneliese Burns Wilson has cultivated a unique perspective on health and injury prevention for dancers. From teaching ballet to teaching anatomy, she then founded ABC for Dance, which publishes dance-teaching materials. Now through research for her next book, which will focus on training the female adolescent dancer, she's delving even deeper into topics many dance teachers have overlooked.

Dance Teacher: What do teachers miss about training teenage dancers?

Anneliese Burns Wilson: Teenage years seem to be the time when we push dancers to do more and more hours, but it's actually the time when the body needs to be pulled back and not pushed as hard. Part of what they miss is how at-risk dancers at this age are for overuse injuries because of the way bones grow during puberty. Their hormones and ligaments change, so when kids are going through these growth spurts, bones are more vulnerable. They're more susceptible to stress fractures, among other issues, than when they're younger.

DT: How can we avoid overtraining during this vulnerable time?

ABW: Instead of working on jumps all the time, make sure to alternate exercises. It's a good time to work on alignment, balance between strength and mobility, as opposed to pushing the stretching. Put in floor barre or conditioning classes that aren't necessarily dance-based but act as cross-training, so they don't wind up with overuse injuries. It's also a really good time to work on things like stage presence and character classes, more artistic things, so it gives their body a little break from all the pounding.

DT: That's all well and good, but what about during competition season?

ABW: Focus on scheduling a more steady load of rehearsals instead of huge rushes. I know that's hard sometimes because you're bringing in guest teachers and there's only a certain amount of time.

Try monitoring the total number of hours kids are training between class and competition. While they're doing heavy choreography, use class time to work on more basic technique that focuses on stabilization and alignment. Also, look at the balance of your choreography. Looking at the front, back, right, left balance and make sure you're doing work that's equal on both sides. Lots of people are very flexible on their right side and not as much on the left, which can be neglected, unless you're in class.

But if you're rehearsing a number for 10 hours and all the complicated choreography or tricks are dominant to one side, it can be dangerous if you're not doing something to counter that. Try reversing the choreography just as an exercise, not for execution, so they are getting the work on both sides. And when you're cleaning up choreo, they don't have to be working full-out.

Sometimes I'll have students sit on the floor and put on the music and have them just do arms and head and upper body. Because a lot of times they get lost in the feet, it's a good time to check in that they know everything, while also giving part of the body a rest.

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.

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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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