Inside DM

How to Dance Forever

What are the secrets of a long career? All dancers hope to perform for many years, digging deeper into their artistry with each new season. But often, their stage time gets cut short by injury, age-related loss of strength and flexibility, or simply burnout. We asked five longtime dancers what’s kept them going strong for so long. 

Sara Webb

Webb (in George Balanchine’s Ballet Imperial) does 10 to 30 minutes of cardio daily. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet.

Houston Ballet, Principal

Years Onstage: 19

Early Lesson: After a back injury at age 20, the word “core” became part of Webb’s every-day vocabulary. “I have a handful of go-to exercises to prevent my muscles from getting used to any one.”

Conditioning: Webb takes one Pilates and Gyrotonic class each during busy weeks, and more often during down times. She also does cardio every day before class: 20 to 30 minutes of intervals on the elliptical on easy rehearsal days, 10 to 15 steady minutes on the bike otherwise. “I like to start class a bit tired. That’s how I build my stamina.”

Rest Strategy: Webb believes time off should be just that.

Advice: “Budget your effort: If you have six hours of rehearsal, you can’t sustain giving 100 percent for that long. I see younger dancers make this mistake all the time. Be smart, and be your best advocate.”

Norwood Pennewell

Garth Fagan Dance

Years Onstage: 37

Pennewell takes two classes a day. Photo by Greg Barrett, courtesy Garth Fagan Dance.

Conditioning: Pennewell builds extra strength by taking two Garth Fagan technique classes a day, one at 11 am, the other at 6 pm.

Nutrition: He stays away from processed foods and sugar, sticking to leafy greens, complex carbs and some meat. “I try to stay as trim as possible. Even five pounds makes a difference in how my knees feel.”

What Keeps Him Going: “Working over and over to make an uncomfortable movement look fluent or count against a constant time signature, you learn to release your focus on being correct and just live in the moment. You’re free to fly.”

Advice: “Learn how to push without fighting, so there’s less exertion.”

Louise Lecavalier

Montreal-based independent dancer/choreographer

Lecavalier is a tornado of energy in her 60-minute So Blue. Photo by André Cornellier.

Years Onstage: 38

Counterpoint Classes: Early in her career at La La La Human Steps, Lecavalier learned that her training should be different from what she was performing so the two could feed each other and keep her body balanced. “I took ballet when we were dancing things very far from that.”

Conditioning: Her training regimen has included everything from running to biking to boxing. Today, she takes a daily hatha yoga class (“the unfashionable kind, with no false spiritual talking”) and works with a personal trainer once a week on everything from cardio to light weights. “It’s always different, like a childhood game. It makes me work at things that I am not so good at.”

Nutrition: When she became pregnant with her twin daughters, she became more conscious of what she was eating. “I started to eat a good breakfast—Budwig Muesli—and still do. I also eat less chips and fries.”

Career Strategy: Becoming a solo artist has been key to her longevity. “Because there were so many eyes on me, being a loner protected me.”

What Keeps Her Going: Lecavalier feels she has more to discover about herself as a mover and more to mine in her highly idiosyncratic style. “My body is changing. My understanding is deeper. The mystery is still there.”

Michael Trusnovec

Trusnovec, here in Brandenburgs, feels stronger today than at the start of his career. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC.

Paul Taylor Dance Company

Years Onstage: 19

Conditioning: Trusnovec does Pilates mat exercises daily, and takes reformer/tower/chair sessions privately and with other PTDC dancers. Pilates has helped train his body to move intelligently and fend off small injuries. And his once-a-week 50-minute class at SLT (Strengthen, Lengthen, Tone) offers a challenging, fun cardio workout.

Nutrition Philosophy: “If something makes me feel good, then it’s a good thing.”

On Aging: Trusnovec feels stronger than he did when he was young. “I work smarter in my dancing—I can have more economy. And I am so much more attuned to my body and Paul’s work.”

What Keeps Him Going: “Wanting to learn more. I can’t stop yet because I haven’t figured it all out yet.”

Advice: Keep a life outside of dance. “I am inspired by all kinds of art, such as plays and musicals, especially the imaginative, thought-provoking ones. Recently, I was moved by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I’m lucky to live in New York, where I’m constantly surrounded by everyday art on the streets.”

Sally Rousse

Twin Cities–based independent dancer/choreographer

Photo by Danny Chan, courtesy Rousse.

Years Onstage: 31

Conditioning: After a serious ankle sprain when she was 33, Rousse found that Pilates helped to stabilize her pelvis. She does a reformer and mat class once a week and also works in mat exercises between barre and center. “I like to sneak it in like David Howard did.” She is now trying to get more cardio into her daily routine.

Class Philosophy: “If there is time to do a combination again, I will.”

Nutrition: As her metabolism has slowed, she’s had to pay more attention to her diet. “Dairy and wheat are now off the menu. I have developed something of an allergy/high sensitivity to these two foods.”

Balance: Rousse keeps a healthy perspective on dance by having a family and a full intellectual life. “I love to travel overseas to new cultures and I’m involved in my community (currently, advocating for more mass transit in Minneapolis). I also love reading novels and biographies and doing crossword puzzles.”

Career Strategy: Now that the co-founder of James Sewell Ballet is pursuing a life as a freelancer, she has entered the entrepreneurial arena. “I’ve been lucky all these years to have so much control over my artistic life.”

Advice: “Dance demands a full curiosity to keep it fresh. Without it, I don’t think I would have stayed interested in dance, and, more importantly, I don’t think that anyone would be interested in me.” 

Ashley Wallen's choreography brought The Greatest Showman to life. (Photo by Niko Tavernise, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox)

The 2018 Oscar noms are here. Which is fun and all; we'll never not get excited about a night of glitz and glamor and, when we're lucky, pretty great dancing. But we'd be a heck of a lot more excited if the Academy Awards included a Best Choreography category. And really—why don't they?

Last year, La La Land's Oscars domination (FOURTEEN nominations) made the fact that Mandy Moore couldn't be recognized for her fantastic choreo—a huge, indisputable part of the film's success—seem especially cruel. This year, it feels weird not to recognize the dance contributions of Ashley Wallen (The Greatest Showman), Anthony Van Laast (Beauty and the Beast), and Aurélie Dupont (Leap!), to name just a few.

Read the full story at dancespirit.com.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

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