Supporting the Pregnant Dancer

Pregnancy changes the brain structure, per the latest research, in ways that help a mother understand the needs of her infant. The study (from Leiden University and published in Nature Neuroscience) suggests the brain adapts to motherhood by enhancing the ability to empathize. And the effects can last two years. Of course, brain changes are only one of a myriad of ways motherhood can impact a dancer's daily studio practice. Whether you're expecting or coaching a dancer through her pregnancy, you'll want to know what our experts advise to best support a pregnancy physically, emotionally and mentally.


Pregnant Posture ≠ Ballet Posture

What happens to your perfect ballet posture can be alarming. Anneliese Burns Wilson, founder of ABC for Dance, recommends accepting the inevitable and offers some help for two common changes.

Your butt sticks out and your lower back sways

As the baby develops, it shifts forward in your pelvic basin, and your pelvis develops an anterior tilt. Don't fight it. Instead, begin early on to practice finding a healthy pelvic position. Train yourself out of lengthening the lower back, or worse, tucking the tailbone.

First trimester. Photo by Kyle Froman

Find your changing healthy pelvic position (based on the Feldenkrais pelvic clock exercise)

In the first trimester you can do this exercise lying flat on your back; in the second and third trimesters, sit and recline back on your elbows instead of lying flat. Knees bent and soles of your feet together, imagine your pelvis as the face of a clock. Twelve o'clock is where the pelvis meets the spine; 6 o'clock is your tailbone; your left hip is 3 o'clock; your right hip is 9 o'clock. The turned-out position allows for movement of the pelvis on the thighs with less exertion, making it a good choice during pregnancy.

Second and third trimester. Photo by Kyle Froman

Rock your tailbone toward your navel (from 6 o'clock to 12 o'clock), allowing your back to gently lengthen against the floor. Pass through the center or neutral position to rock your tailbone in the other direction, allowing the top of your pelvis to shift forward and your back to gently arch (from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock). Continue to gently transition between these two positions 4–5 times. Rest in the position where your pelvis feels balanced between the 12 and 6 o'clock positions.

Next rock from the 3 o'clock to the 9 o'clock positions. You will feel your weight transfer from the back of one side of the pelvis to the other. The goal isn't to lift one hip off of the floor, but instead to feel the transition from one side to the other. After 4–5 sets of shifting, find center and compare it to the centered position you found above.


6–12 o'clock. Photo by Kyle Froman

Now, find the numbers in between and trace arced paths around the clock in both directions. From your centered position, shift to 12 o'clock, and then trace your way to 1 o'clock and return to 12. Then go to 12, through 1 to 2, and return; 12 through 1 and 2 to 3 and return. Continue to make your way around the clock and then reverse.

At the end, feel your weight centered on your pelvis and move to standing and feel your natural position.


3–9 o'clock. Photo by Kyle Froman

Your shoulders round

To counter the tilt of the pelvis, the thoracic spine increases its curve toward the back of the body. This, combined with the development of fat stores between the shoulder blades, may make you look more round-shouldered and hunched.

Try this chest opener to build strength between the shoulder blades and the muscles that extend the middle and upper back.

Hold a resistance band in your hands with arms straight out in front of you at chest height.

Open your arms toward second position, feeling the shoulder blades sliding toward each other. Release, and repeat.

Try it with an extension: As you pull your arms open, lift your collar bones and sternum toward the ceiling.

Understanding Your Pelvic Floor

Dancers tend to have superficially tight pelvic floors, says Marimba Gold-Watts, who owns Articulating Body Pilates studio (and teaches Horton technique), but not necessarily enough strength in these deep stabilizing muscles at the base of the spine. She recommends three exercises for a more comfortable pregnancy and easier delivery. The idea is to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, while at the same time learning to lengthen and fully release them. This will guard against issues like incontinence and worse—organ prolapse—after birth.

Find Stability on a Ball

1. Sit on a large physio ball with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Choose a big enough ball that your knees and hips form at least 90-degree angles.

2. On an exhale, engage your pelvic floor. Imagine the muscles are an elevator that you are lifting away from the ball. Move the elevator to the second floor. Using deep exhales, lift the elevator to the third, fourth and fifth floors, holding for at least a second on each level.

3. Then release the muscles completely. You can do this for a few minutes daily.

Quadruped Exercise

1. Begin on your hands and knees with a neutral spine.

2. Engage your pelvic floor muscles and your abdominals together. You will feel your baby belly lift toward the ceiling. Think of snuggling your baby closer to your spine without changing the position of your spine.

3. Flex at the hips as you move your pelvis back over your heels, maintaining the engagement and the position of your spine.

4. Release the pelvic floor muscles. Then re-engage and move your hips back over your knees so the hips are slightly elevated.

5. Release.

Repeat 10–20 times.

Note: If your wrists are uncomfortable (which is common during and after pregnancy), fold your yoga mat over a few times under the heels of your hands.

Assisted Squats

1. Hold on to something with both hands—a barre, a Pilates springboard or Cadillac, a TRX at your gym or your significant other—and stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and slightly turned out (no more than 45 degrees).

2. Engage your pelvic floor muscles as you lower your pelvis down to a full squat.

3. At the bottom, release your muscles completely, and allow them to stretch.

4. Re-engage your muscles, and maintain engagement as you rise back up to standing.

Eating for Two

As the baby takes up an increasing amount of your internal body real estate, digestion becomes a challenge. But dancers still need plenty of fuel for their busy days and don't have the luxury of sitting around while their body processes a meal. Try these snack and meal ideas from Rebecca Dietzel, co-author of A Dancer's Guide to Healthy Eating. Reach for whole foods as much as possible. Processed products won't give you the nutrients you or your baby need.

Consuming nuts and seeds as butters makes them easier to digest: great sources of protein and healthy fats, try almond, sunflower-seed or hemp butter. Best to skip peanuts, since they have omega-6 fatty acids and inflammatory properties.

Q Whip up your own nut butter in a food processor, using the chopping blade and a big pile of plain, raw nuts. Add cinnamon, mild curry powder, cardamom or cloves to aid digestion and enhance flavor.

Make a smoothie with coconut milk. Add mango or pineapple with cinnamon, or blueberries with ginger. No refrigeration needed. Sip from it all day.

Mash an avocado with lime and cumin—kind of like guac, but skip the raw garlic (could be too pungent and cause nausea).

Keep a jar of olives on hand: easy to snack on, easy to digest, and they're full of good fats for cardiac health.

Pack your soup in a thermos. Make a simple vegetable and rice soup with rosemary and basil.

As the trimesters go on, it will become harder to scarf the whole thermos in a 15-minute break, so bring foods you can eat bite-by-bite, too.

Drink Up

Sometimes, the added pressure of a growing baby on the bladder discourages women from drinking enough. Be sure you drink regularly, even if it means going to the bathroom every 15 minutes.

Add some nutrients to your water

Steamy drinks: rose hip tea, or hot water with lemon or lime for Vitamin C

Refreshing: coconut water, pomegranate juice

Breathe to Calm Your Mind and Body

As the baby grows inside you, you may find you get short of breath more easily. Anneliese Burns Wilson,

a specialist in dance medicine and the director of ABC for Dance, recommends these exercises for early and later stages of pregnancy.

Four-part breath

Before the baby has grown too much is a good time to practice using breath to relieve stress. This conscious breathing exercise is a gentle way to maintain spinal alignment and tone in the abdominal and pelvic floor muscles.

Imagine yourself standing inside an inner tube. When you inhale, think of expanding all the way around the circle, not just in one or two directions.

Try to find the four parts of your breath. That is, in addition to the inhales and exhales, notice the brief pause that comes after the inhale and again after the exhale.

During the pause before each exhale, think about lifting your collar bones and gently extending your upper back.

After the exhale, enjoy a moment of stillness. This is when the supportive tone of the stabilizing transversus abdominus muscle can be most easily felt.

Port de bras side

As the baby grows, breathing can become more challenging. This exercise can be done standing or sitting in a comfortable straddle position, and it will help maintain mobility in the rib cage.

Bring your arms to second position (or one arm if you want to use the barre for support).

Lift one arm over your head and lengthen toward the ceiling before stretching over to the side. Maintain length from your hip to your ribs on the underside, instead of crunching them together.

To create even more length on the side you're stretching, rotate your top hand palm up, and then flex your hand at your wrist so you are pushing away from your body. At the same time, consciously press the same-side foot into the floor if you're standing, or the sitz bone if you're sitting.

Feel the dynamic tension from your heel (or sitz bone) to your wrist, as you take a few breaths in this position. Return to your starting position.

We Polled Dance Teachers Online About Their Must-Have Supplies and Gear

Saltines and ginger ale to get you through morning sickness

Capezio dance sneakers to cushion swollen feet and support your back

Myofascial release ball (17 cm/280 grams size) to release the pelvic floor

Balera high-waisted leggings

Never underestimate the benefits of a reliable student assistant. They jump; they turn; they lead warm-ups while you rest your feet!

Seat of Your Soul meditation cushion for a comfy seat

Belly band for extra support

Use a rolling chair to make hands-on corrections after you're done walking for the day.

Loose-fitting Irma top from LulaRoe

Photos by Kyle Froman, Katie Dettling of Fit-Arts, demonstrator; Thinkstock; myofascial release ball: photo by Kyle Froman; shirt: photo by Nathan Sayers, shirt supplied by LulaRoe/Becky Williamson

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Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

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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