Dance Teacher Tips
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For all the time we spend talking about feet, we think it's time we did a deep dive into toes. Those little piggies bear a lot of weight, endure painful blisters and help your students soar across the classroom day after day.

So, to show our toes the love they deserve, here are five exercises that are all the self-care you need this week.

You're welcome!

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Dancer Health
Photo by Jim Lafferty; modeled by Sydney Magruder, courtesy of Broadway Dance Center

"If you don't have strong abdominal muscles, you sag into your lower back, your pelvis usually tips and you're hanging out and slumped into your hip joints," says Deborah Vogel, movement analyst, neuromuscular expert and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City. "It just has this whole chain reaction."

The effects of poor core strength can be dire for dancers: from weak and tight hip flexors, which negatively impact extensions, to lower-back discomfort and misaligned shoulders and necks. "Having well-toned abdominals for your posture is the primary reason why you should do stabilizing exercises," says Vogel. "It will allow you to bring your pelvis into correct alignment and good posture."

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Dancer Health
ABT Studio Company member Virginia Lensi. Photo by Kyle Froman

What is the key to getting higher extensions to the front and side? I've gotten many suggestions to use my psoas, but during all of the exercises I've done to try to strengthen them, I always end up using my hip flexor. Hadley

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Dancer Health
Marika Molnar directs the physical therapy department at New York City Ballet. Here, she works with principal Ana Sophia Scheller. Photo by Rachel Papo

In her work as director of physical therapy for New York City Ballet, Marika Molnar relies on tools like bands, balls and Pilates equipment to rehabilitate and strengthen dancers. She says there's a place for such tools in daily dance classes, as well. Resistance and stability tools can help students develop strength and even break bad habits. "Say someone is compensating because of a weakness or restriction—that's what they're always going to do," she says, even after a teacher corrects them repeatedly. "If you give them something that makes things a little unfamiliar, their brain has to participate more. It becomes not only a physical exercise but a cognitive one." The dancer learns in a new way, and improves.

Molnar has collaborated with Pilates expert Joan Breibart and PTs at Westside Dance Physical Therapy to create a series of tools and exercises with dancers' training and recovery needs in mind. Here, she shares three of her favorites.

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Photo by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Lizzie Villareal

Our hips are overachievers. They are the main source of turnout and the axis of all leg movement. Dancers work them hard. No one knows this better than Heather Heineman, physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center. She treats all kinds of hip injuries in dancers, frequently from overuse. That's due, in part, to dancers' nonstop schedules. “In most sports, you have spring warm-up season, then you compete, then you cool down, then you take a break," she says. “You're still exercising, but you're doing different movements." But for dancers, it's repeat, repeat, repeat, all year round.

Dancers need to know how to properly care for and strengthen their hips—not just for career longevity, but to achieve maximum performing capability. There are several ways hips can suffer, but building the right muscles can help achieve proper technique and avoid injury.

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It was August in New York City, and Paula Morgan was leading a body placement seminar at the 2014 Dance Teacher Summit. When someone asked for advice on addressing bowleggedness in students, the already energetic Morgan switched into high gear. She demanded an example body from the group of attendees; a bowlegged dancer volunteered and stood on the low stage.

With feet touching in parallel, her legs curved outward before joining the hips, leaving a long, almond-shaped gap from crotch to heels. Morgan coached her to imagine wrapping her muscles around her legs, engaging subtle outward rotation without moving the feet. She put a hand between the dancer's calves. “Squeeze my hand," she said. “Keep wrapping." She swiped her free hand along the demonstrator's tights to help her feel the direction of the rotation. Her calves closed on Morgan's fingers. The room erupted in applause. “What about knock knees?" someone asked, and the process began all over again.

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It's up to the teacher to keep young male dancers' training on track as they develop into adults. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, courtesy of The Portland Ballet

When a young male dancer hits puberty, you'll know the signs: “One day they look normal, the next they look like a string bean. They can get a little wonky for a while," says Jim Lane, managing director for The Portland Ballet, a youth academy and company. “You'll notice turns get out of whack, or they'll trip doing an easy combination across the floor."

Most boys begin puberty around age 11 or 12 and complete the process by 16 or 17. It is a physically awkward time; growth spurts can leave boys gawkily tall and unsure where their extremities end. This is especially tough on male dancers, who can temporarily lose their grace and coordination, as well as some flexibility. As their dance teacher, you can help them continue to train successfully, even as their bodies change.

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