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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
To be honest, we never tire of watching non-dancers tackle a day in the life of the pros. From athletes to average Joes, these videos always give us a good laugh, and they remind the rest of the world that a whole lot of work goes into every dance performance you see. But often times, these dancer-for-a-day videos don't fully understand the importance of training (i.e., you can't just throw on a pair of pointe shoes and give it a go).
That's why we're especially loving this video by Refinery29 that actually gets it. Lucie Fink, host of the R29 YouTube series Lucie For Hire , got a private lesson from American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, and it was endlessly entertaining.
"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 lead 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."
We'd love to know what it is that has Pina Bausch, Rudolf Nureyev and Gerard Violette so amused, or what Toer van Schayk (far right) is thinking here, but one thing's for certain: We're terribly envious of the journalist (second from right) who got to be there when this shot was taken in 1986.
It's the end of a long rehearsal day for the dancers of Abraham.In.Motion. They're reviewing phrases of a new work, Dearest Home. It's a pretty typical rehearsal scene. Some dancers cluster around a laptop trying to piece together steps learned long ago. Others review choreography together, working to figure out who remembered which arms correctly.
What isn't typical: The company's director and choreographer, Kyle Abraham, is nowhere to be seen.
That's because while the company is based in New York City full-time, Abraham spends most of his year teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he joined the faculty last September. It's an unconventional model for a single-choreographer–led troupe, almost functioning like a repertory company in which choreographers drop in for a week to set a piece, leaving it up to the rehearsal directors and dancers to keep the momentum going.
La Scala Ballet has a knack for snagging exceptional guest artists, and the company's rare West Coast appearance this weekend at Segerstrom Center for the Arts is no exception. Principal dancer étoile Roberto Bolle will partner both Misty Copeland and Marianela Nuñez in Giselle. And in an extra international twist, they'll be accompanied by the Mikhailovsky Orchestra for the engagement. July 28–30. scfta.org.
Serious dancers interested in musical theater face a difficult choice when applying to college: Should you major in dance or musical theater? "You can make a career following either pathway," says Lynne Formato, associate professor of performing arts at Elon University. If you choose to go the musical theater route, find a program that will challenge your dance technique: