Why Dancing Made Me A Marathon Runner
This Sunday, about 50,000 people will be lining up in Staten Island to run 26.2 miles for the New York City Marathon. I'll be one of them.
When I tell people from the dance world that I'm training for what will now be my eighth marathon, most can't comprehend why I would want to do something so boring. Many dancers can't see the point of repeating the same movement over and over for four or five–odd hours when you could spend that time dancing, moving your body in so many different, more fun and interesting ways.
I get it. As a teenager, I used my rehearsal schedule as an excuse to get out of gym class specifically so I wouldn't have to run laps around my school's baseball fields. But over the last few years, I've come to love this weird endurance running hobby. And I've realized that most of the reasons I do relate directly back to dancing.
For starters, there's the dedication and perseverance (some might call it obsession) that is an integral part of being a dancer. In the studio, I learned to love the daily commitment to pushing my limits, and trying the same things over and over until my body began to be able to do what my mind commanded. Running has become my outlet for that need to to challenge myself day after day.
As Joffrey Ballet star Fabrice Calmels once said in an interview with Runner's World about his own running habit, "the physicality of the race is similar to some parts of the ballet…. It becomes a decision, 'I'm just going to keep going through this struggle.' "
But I find there's a bigger connection than just sheer grit or applause. I think dancers and runners both are attracted to their passions because they want to achieve the seemingly impossible. They want to prove to themselves that with enough hard work, you can do something superhuman, whether that's balancing your entire body on your toes or running longer than 26 miles in one go.
For me, one of the greatest things about dancing is that feeling you get during a perfectly placed pirouette. You're turning and turning, and you hold on to eek out one extra rotation, using your turnout to slowly finish exactly where you want to with complete control. That feeling of total grace, of an ease that you can only master after hours, days, years of practice, is one of the most satisfying things I've ever found in life.
That feeling is what I search for every time I go out running. Just like in dance, I don't find it every time. Sometimes you're sore, or tired, or "off" your leg. Usually when I'm running I'm a panting mess, bobbing awkwardly up and down. But every once in awhile, I can find that ease and grace where my body feels like it's soaring forward, and my legs are churning below me effortlessly.
I don't know if I'll get that feeling during the marathon on Sunday. But I do know that the years I spent working to lift my développé higher and jump more sprightly will be what helps me push past the wall at mile 20 when my legs hate me and all I want is a pizza and a couch.
Jacques d'Amboise in Apollo, 1963. Photo by John Dominis via danceheritage.org
One person I often think of to get through the rough parts of a race is Jacques d'Amboise. In 1976, the New York City Ballet principal dancer ran the marathon the very first year that the course covered all five boroughs of New York City, according to The New Yorker. He trained for it without telling George Balanchine, mostly by running around the Central Park reservoir. After his very first long run of 20 miles (just two days before the marathon!), he told his friend who'd gotten him into running, "That run you suggested was just fantastic."
I know exactly how he must have felt.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
Whatever your feelings about Wayne McGregor's heady, hyper-physical choreography, we can all probably agree on one thing: We'd really, really love to pick his brain. And tomorrow, Dance Umbrella, a UK-based dance festival, is giving everyone the chance to do exactly that.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.