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By Rosie Gaynor
For this PNB principal, injury led the way to better health and a fuller awareness of her body.
Maria Chapman explodes across the stage—her legs stretching into three long jetés, one right after another. She powers through her solo in David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, giving the extreme extensions and torso shifts full play. Kisses is about how good it feels to dance, and Chapman gets the point across, showing that every muscle and joint can contribute to the enjoyment. Piqué passé: Did you know how luscious a stretch that can be?
Two years ago, this Pacific Northwest Ballet principal couldn’t have done that passé. A fluke foot injury had her facing two surgeries; her doctor thought she would never dance again. Chapman was back onstage in 10 months.
“Proprioception was really key to my rehabilitation,” says Chapman. (Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your limbs are and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of your body.)
“Since I was on crutches for so long—six months,” continues Chapman, “I developed a real disconnect to my entire right leg, but especially my right foot. It didn’t even feel like it was part of my body. So I really needed to remember to love my foot and reincorporate it back into my body—to take it back.”
Chapman did proprioception exercises to reintegrate her foot, but in the process she tuned in to her entire body, gaining a connected quality that looks great onstage.
The Root of the Problem
Chapman started listening to her body when she was very young. At 15, while at the School of American Ballet, she struggled with a pinched fat pad in her knee, a relatively common injury in that joint. The “ice it/rest it” prescription wasn’t yielding long-term results. Chapman, however, realized that forcing her heels to touch in first position was causing the problem. “It makes my knees angry,” she says. Rather than fussing over a perfect first, she just stopped putting her heels together. Problem solved!
Chapman knows the price of not listening: In 2000, she was sidelined for a season. Her back had given her warnings, she says, but she pushed on—to the point where it spasmed nonstop. She recommends admitting when your body needs attention, rather than just plowing through. Take the time to figure out what’s going on. “I was doing a lot of movement from my back when I should have been using other parts of my body”—specifically her obliques, glutes, and hamstrings.
Fuel and Maintenance
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Chapman grew up eating “everything” cooked in bacon fat. Nowadays, her health-savvy, triathlete husband does much of the cooking for them both. At some point, her canister of bacon fat just…disappeared. She eats three full meals—and snacks. She chooses colorful foods, high in protein and calcium, low in sugar and salt. Nuts, yogurt, a sweet potato (or squash), and an avocado make a daily appearance. Water is key; she also drinks electrolytes and protein shakes. Before a performance? Clif Shot Bloks.
Chapman avoids popping pills like Advil, given their potential long-term-use effects on the kidneys. She opts instead for an occasional homeopathic painkiller. She finds relief for strains with Phiten strips. A hot bath with Epsom salts at night helps, as does massage twice a month.
“My body feels really good,” she says. “But I do take care of myself every minute of the day…making sure I’m doing things that I need to do—the way I need to do them.” Pre-class rituals include 15–20 minutes of cardio (swimming, running, or biking) and 30 minutes of strengthening exercises (including pelvic-floor strengtheners, core stabilizers, and plyometrics). Equipment includes a Bosu ball, Thera-Bands, and weights. Variety is key for Chapman, and she chooses exercises that make her feel good. She has a binder full of favorites. She also works with a trainer twice a week, sometimes on moves specifically created to tackle issues noticed in performance.
Chapman looks ahead to see what the day—and the week—will require of her. She plans for it, considers which morning exercises will help most, and tries to pace herself. She works hard but fights the temptation to work so hard that she might compromise the next day’s dancing. “That’s not what I’m going for,” she says. “The goal is to have the perfectly planned week, dancing the way I want to dance.”
When she started rehearsals for Kisses, Chapman realized this fast piece would take more than just ramping up stamina. “You need strength to move in that bigger range,” she says. She found exercises that would help her safely manage the ballet’s split-second changes in direction and its extreme, full-range flexibility. Her work resulted in performances of power, speed, clarity, grace, and joy—A Million Kisses, inside and out.
Rosie Gaynor writes about dance in Seattle.
In a rehearsal for Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin. Photo © Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
Take Care of Your Entire Self—Even Your Toes
Chapman found that she was getting a lot of tightness underneath her foot because two toes were doing all the work. Here’s how she helps her other toes pull their weight.
• Put your foot flat on the floor.
• Wrap the thinnest gauge of exercise tubing around your big toe.
• Pull up on the tubing with your fingers so your toe comes up.
• Keeping the tension in the tubing, try to push your toe down.
• Repeat with each toe. “All the toes want to come up, too,” says Chapman. “The idea is to leave them down and just work the one toe. It’s actually hard!”
• Start with a few repetitions and work your way up to more.