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Big, Bad Habits
Part of dance's beauty is that its perfection is elusive. At the same time, this can be one of the most frustrating things about the form. Whether you've been cursed with tight muscles or have picked up a distracting habit, fixing your technical hang-ups can feel like a never-ending battle. But the truth is, all professional dancers, even those with seemingly effortless technique, have their share of struggles.
Suzi Taylor: Master teacher at Steps on Broadway and New York City Dance Alliance. Photo Courtesy Taylor.
Annette Karim: Director of dance medicine at Evergreen Physical Therapy Specialists in Pasadena, California. Photo by Evergreen PT Specialists, Courtesy Karim.
Stiff, Wobbly Ankles
New York City Ballet
Lauren Lovette in rehearsal with Justin Peck and Jared Angle. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Lauren Lovette's ankles have flexibility and strength in all the wrong places: They're loose side to side, making it easy to pronate, but too stiff to achieve a deep plié. It was a problem that plagued her throughout her student years, until, at the suggestion of a teacher, she started lifting her heels just a fraction of an inch off the floor in plié to open up her range of motion. Meanwhile, she focused on strengthening her ankles in the other direction. “When I studied Pilates with Patrick Strong, he had me roll up to relevé on pointe while he physically held my foot down to provide resistance," she says. “I also switched to stronger shoes that I didn't realize I needed."
Ask the teacher: “You have to build the musculature around a loose ankle," says Taylor. She recommends working on finding stability on your standing leg in parallel. Away from the barre (or, for a more advanced version, on a half-ball balance trainer), practice plié to relevé in coupé and passé. Gradually work up to a turned-out position.
Ask the PT: “It's common for dancers who wear pointe shoes all day to have trouble bending at the ankle, even though it's quite loose side to side," says Karim. To increase flexion, practice downward-facing dog, with knees bent and heels pressed toward the ground. The goal is to stretch in this position until, over time, your feet are far enough away from your hands that your ankles are flexed at a 20-degree angle with your heels closer to the ground.
Karida Griffith. Photo Courtesy Dorrance Dance.
Karida Griffith, Dorrance Dance
“When I'm entering the last stretch of a 50-minute second act, I've got to make sure I'm not dropping any sounds, or other aesthetic performance qualities," says tap dancer Karida Griffith. She credits Jason Samuels Smith—a real drillmaster, she says—with boosting her endurance through long runs of cramp rolls. “I can remember hearing Jason yell, 'Toe, toe! Toe, toe!' to emphasize the timing, and I was just willing myself not to drop my heels too soon," she says. “You see how many you can do consistently, and at what pace, before you lose a sound or start rushing, then build up from there."
Ask the teacher: Taylor understands dancers wanting to run a piece until it's perfect, but warns that it won't necessarily increase your overall stamina. “Rehearsal is great for building endurance within one piece, but it's probably not enough to support everything you could be asked to do by a choreographer."
Ask the PT: Cross-training by swimming, biking or performing any other activity that ups your heart rate, at least three times a week for 20 minutes, will increase your aerobic capacity. Karim also points out that the more stable your center, the more support your extremities have. A strong core will give you the freedom to move quickly and efficiently throughout a long piece.
Melanie Moore (center) in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Fiddler.
Weak, Hyperextended Legs
Melanie Moore, Fiddler on the Roof
Flexibility is something that many dancers strive for, but Melanie Moore has worked hard to rein hers in. “I was blessed with beautiful lines, but if I don't think about rotating from the hips or elongating the leg, rather than whacking it up, I'm not in control," she says. “I never realized I was faking rotation with hyperextension." Ballet class was the best training ground for undoing her bad habits, but she says they still creep back in if she's not mindful.
Ask the teacher: “Your mantra has to be: 'Just because I can, doesn't mean I should,' " says Taylor. Develop an awareness of whether your weight is forward, on an engaged and rotated standing leg, or just relaxing back into the knee joint.
Ask the PT: Karim warns against sitting in static stretches, which will only weaken already-lengthened muscles. Instead, try dynamic stretches like walking lunges or a flowing yoga sequence. If you have access to one, do développés on a vibration plate (a vibrating platform that looks like a step-on scale, available at some gyms). “The unstable surface will actually increase the efficiency of the muscles you need to support your extensions," says Karim.
Andrea Parson channels the energy of her partner, Franco Nieto, to keep calm. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy NWDP.
Andrea Parson, Northwest Dance Project
Andrea Parson has long struggled with anxiety before rehearsals and performances. “It can be difficult to psych myself down, especially on tour, but even in class," she says. “If I'm too pumped, my energy takes me all over the place." Before dancing, Parson focuses on her breathing: She pictures sending breath down her spine to her tailbone, softening her muscles as she exhales. While moving, it helps her to tune in to all the sensations, such as the floor beneath her, the temperature of the room or the stability of her partner. “I feel my shoulders drop, my upper chest releases, and I have more power to move from a calm, relaxed place."
Ask the teacher: Before performances or auditions, Taylor suggests doing a full barre. “Your mind certainly won't be there for you if your body's not ready for it."
Ask the PT: Karim suggests this calming exercise: Lie on your back with your legs in the air, and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. “Put your arms out to the side and just breathe. Your diaphragm will drop slightly, settling your nervous system. It's like a baby crying it out on his back, with his legs in the air." Crawling on your stomach and rolling or bouncing on a stability ball can have the same effect—the oscillation calms tension.
Linda Celeste Sims. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy AAADT.
Linda Celeste Sims, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
With very long arms, one of the most challenging things Linda Celeste Sims has had to work on is her port de bras. “People say not to look in the mirror, but I rely heavily on it to check the lines of my arms and that I'm getting them to the right position at the right time," she says. She concentrates on lifting her arms from her center and making sure they are connected from her back down through her fingertips. “One thing that has really helped is Gyrotonic—the resistance and strengthening helps me feel the connection between my arms and back. I keep up that strengthening when I'm on the road by doing 15 slow push-ups, making sure my shoulders are down, at least every other day. And I never skip my 20-minute floor-barre warm-up—that's home base," Sims says.
Ask the teacher: The full coordination of your arms with your body is key. “Never mark your arms, even in a crowded classroom," says Taylor. “If there isn't space to do the arms the combination calls for, hold them in first or fifth en bas. Those are the pictures your body should know, not the collapsed position of marked arms."
Ask the PT: Use the mirror to take stock of the musculature support it takes to both move and hold the arms. Then close your eyes briefly, hold the position, and then open them to check your line in the mirror. Karim adds that dancers who have difficulty maintaining their port de bras often need to strengthen their arms and core. Another possible issue: You might need a good stretch. “Tight lats can actually pull your arms out of position," says Karim.
Kristyn Brady is a Vermont-based freelance writer with a BA in dance from Muhlenberg College.
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.