After a long day of class and rehearsal, a dancer’s body craves a little TLC. Massage has been proven to increase circulation, unravel muscle knots, gently loosen tight fascia and create an overall sense of relaxation and balance. “The more you move, the more you need to release to address imbalances,” says Erika Kalkan, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. A professional massage isn’t always an option, because of tight schedules, finances or location. Luckily, self-massage can be very effective; you just need to have the right tools and know how to use them.
If you try to use your own hands to massage yourself, you’ll find it’s difficult to reach certain areas and to apply enough pressure. Tools like foam rollers and tennis balls are popular among dancers because they let you use your own body weight to work deeply into muscle tissue. Balls work best for smaller, pinpointed areas while rollers are better suited for bigger muscles and allover relief. When using a tool, Kalkan suggests less motion and more sustained pressure with deep breathing. Instead of chatting with friends while casually rolling your calf on a ball, focus on what you are doing and visualize muscles releasing.
Here, Kalkan outlines self-massage techniques for treating commonly tight areas in dancers. Roll slowly across the area, and pause on tighter spots for about 20 seconds or until a slight release is felt. These exercises work best on a warmed-up body and can be done daily or as needed.
To Release the IT Band and TFL
Dancers frequently have tight iliotibial (IT) bands—thick bands of fascia running along the outside of the thighs—and tensor fascia latae (TFL)—small muscles near the outside of the front hip joint. If left untreated, it can cause knee pain and restrict hip mobility.
Lying on your side, place a foam roller under the outside of your bottom thigh, about three inches above the knee. Taking weight into your hands, slowly roll the roller up toward the hip, stopping before going over the hipbones. Roll back down to just above the knee, and repeat 8–10 full rolls, stopping to breathe into tighter spots.
If the pain is extreme, try a softer roller, taking more weight into your hands, or placing the top foot on the floor to relieve some pressure. If more release is needed, go for a harder roller, or try slowly bending and straightening the bottom knee.
To Release the Piriformis
Overuse of the piriformis (a deep central gluteus muscle) can be caused by weak turnout muscles (deep rotators) and can cause painful compression on the sciatic nerve.
Lying on your back, open the right leg into a turned-out passé, and place a ball (tennis ball or smaller) directly under the center of the passé leg’s glute muscle. Move around a little to find a tight spot, then stay there and breathe, imagining the muscles relaxing over the ball.
Stop and reposition the ball if tingling or numbness shoots down the leg.
You can also try sitting on top of a foam roller, one leg in a turned-out passé position, and rolling very slightly up and down.
To Release Pectorals
Overused and often overlooked, tight pectoral muscles contribute to forward shoulder and head posture, which throws off alignment.
Hold a small squishy ball or soft tennis ball against a wall, just below shoulder level. Facing the wall, lean forward until the ball touches slightly below your right collarbone, near (but not in) the armpit. Lean in more to increase pressure and hold for 20–30 seconds, while breathing. Move ball slightly toward the sternum and repeat.
Release pressure and move the ball if arm or fingers feel tingly or numb.
To Release Calves and Foot Arches
Calves and feet get tight from relevés, jumping and pointing the feet. If left unaddressed, this can lead to Achilles tendon issues, foot pronation and improper foot and ankle mechanics.
Small diameter rollers and small balls work best here. For calves, sit down and place the tool underneath the lower leg, slightly below the knee. Roll the ball/roller down toward the ankle, pausing on tighter areas. Be sure to roll over the central, inside and outside muscle fibers, and take note of which areas are tightest.
To release arches, stand and place the device under center of the foot, rolling very slowly toward toes, then back toward the heel, again pausing in spots for 20–30 seconds. Strong pressure can be applied on the feet, as long as the ball is on the meaty part of the muscles, not directly on bones. Again roll central, medial and lateral part of the arch. DT
Jen Peters is a private Pilates instructor and a former dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo by Jacob Pritchard for Pointe