Chances are, there is at least one student you interact with daily who is dealing with trauma in their life. In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a massive study on childhood trauma and elevated it to an official public health issue. They measured adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include things like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, poverty and absence of a caregiver, either physically or emotionally.
While the days of slapping students' legs with a cane have become part of (recent) history in dance training, a "leave it at the door" mentality persists in many studio settings. But when a student enters the studio, they come as an entire person, with all the shades of complexity that entails—especially in their years developing into an adult.
In a 2017 survey of 1,000 dancers by Dance Magazine, only 10 percent of students said they would definitely feel comfortable talking to a teacher if they had a mental health issue. And while it is not the role of dance teachers to play therapist, you may be one of few adults who interacts with a student on a regular basis, and ultimately their success and well-being are tied to your investment.
If you are like your students, you get in at least a few stretches before class. Perhaps you prop your foot on the barre and stretch out over your leg. You may even try the splits. The typical pre-class warm-up has changed little over the years, but our attempts to achieve length before the first plié may be missing the point.
The exercises mentioned above are static, or passive, stretches and, according to Deborah Vogel, should be saved for after class, when you're finished dancing. “If you hold a stretch like that for 60 seconds or a little more, you will achieve longer length in the muscle, so it is increasing flexibility," says Vogel, co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine and lecturer in dance at Oberlin College. “But it's also inhibiting the muscle's ability to fire." In other words, by focusing solely on length with no strength, you leave muscles loose and languid, with their strength temporarily decreased. Overstretching is a real concern, as well. Vogel warns that pushing too far in a passive stretch, especially for young dancers, can damage the structure of a joint and line the dancer up for serious injury down the road.
On the other hand, dynamic, or active, stretching lengthens some muscles while strongly engaging others. This helps prepare the whole body for movement, making it a great choice for before class. Vogel says the approach emphasizes control in the stretches, instead of how far you push yourself. It requires the dancer to move slowly through her range of motion rather than bouncing or physically pushing her body into place. This also reduces the risk of overstretching.
Beyond safety considerations, dynamic stretches can also effectively pinpoint and release tight muscles better than static stretches. If you just sit in a stretch, you may be missing the real hurdle to your greatest flexibility. “In dynamic stretching, you're stretching the whole length of a muscle group, not just one muscle," Vogel says. “Oftentimes, there's some place besides the muscle you're working on that might be limiting your flexibility."
Dynamic hamstring stretch on the barre
Photos by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Dia Dearstyne
Vogel recommends these active adjustments to the classic hamstring stretch on the barre. "If you are just hanging out, you will feel that in the back of the leg," she says. But you could be feeling more.
1. Contract the quad muscle of the leg on the barre. This action helps release the hamstring for a deeper stretch at the back of the leg.
2. Slowly tilt the pelvis forward by drawing the sitz bone of the working leg back. Gently rotate the pelvis toward the working leg. Vogel says some dancers will feel a stretch in the quad while others feel it in their calf. "Now we're working at mobilizing a line of flexibility," she says.
Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Christina Spigner has always suffered from foot cramps. But the problem was especially troublesome during the company's 13-show run of Ballet Imperial, a hallmark of Balanchine's demanding choreography. “We're onstage for such a long time and not just standing and posing, but doing a lot physically," says Spigner. “My feet would cramp up and it was painful. That's a hard thing to recover from onstage."
There is a flexibility freak show going on in the dance world. Between out-of-this-world extensions on “So You Think You Can Dance" and a boundaries-pushing contemporary scene, it seems the bar for bendiness gets higher every year.
"So why did you quit?"
It's a question I've been asked hundreds of times since I stopped dancing over a decade ago. My answer has changed over the years as my own understanding of what led me to walk away from greatest love of my life has become clearer.
"I had some injures," I would mutter nervously for the first few years. This seemed like the answer people understood most. Then it became, "I was just not very happy." Finally, as I passed into my 30s, I began telling the uncomfortable truth: "I quit dancing because of untreated depression."
Last spring, Miami City Ballet corps de ballet dancer Chloe Freytag decided to eat vegan. With a passion for nutrition, she was concerned that toxins and preservatives in certain foods were preventing her from becoming her best dancing self. "Before veganism I was more rundown and I would get tired easily. My body was weak and heavy at times," she says. "Now I feel like a lighter person, more happy and energetic. I feel more like myself."
“I think I pulled a muscle." We've all said it, but what does it mean? There are many aches and pains that accompany a dancer's daily practice, but there are important differences between muscle soreness and a strained or “pulled" muscle. While both require a balance of rest and carefully planned exertion, a strained muscle has distinct symptoms that will tell you quickly that it is more than just back-from-vacation soreness.
“Muscles like to be warm," says Megan Richardson, a certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “They don't like to stretch and do explosive movements while cold." When you saunter into the studio before class and flop down into the splits, or practice your variation on cold muscles, you're setting yourself up for a strain.