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By Dr. Linda Hamilton, PH.D
Injury can sideline dancers for weeks or months, so wellness strategies that cut your risk can mean the difference between a successful season and a frustrating healing period. Dance Magazine advice columnist Dr. Linda Hamilton has worked with New York City Ballet to create a program that lowered the dancers’ weeks out by 46 percent. In her new book, The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body, and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.95), she shares the keys to the company’s wellness program, which can help all dancers stay—and dance—healthy. Below are a few highlights.
Success—indeed survival—in the current dance scene with its demands on stamina and versatility means knowing how to take care of yourself. It’s smart to adjust what you do for exercise, nutrition, and relaxation according to whether you’re performing, on break, or auditioning. And that’s not all you may need to consider. Your age, body type, and personality play a role in keeping you strong and dancing at your best. Pay attention to the keys to peak performance, and you’ll see a difference in every part of your life, not just onstage.
WORK HABITS Preparing your body to dance is the first, most essential, step. Unfortunately, warming up and cooling down often get neglected, and can translate into a needless risk. Other tricky areas include finding the best ways to stretch your body, and working with your specific arch and foot type. Another challenge can be finding a healthy balance between work and rest periods. Dancers also need to know how to care for minor aches and pains so they don’t become serious problems, even if it means marking steps for a few rehearsals, or skipping jumps for a while.
CROSS-TRAINING Why isn’t dance class enough? Many dancers resist changing their routine or adding another activity to get in shape for an intense schedule. Yet while regular class is essential, it tends to bypass certain muscle groups, and it doesn’t raise your heart rate enough to provide an aerobic workout. In fact, 85 percent of technique class doesn’t require the stamina it takes to perform onstage. The constant repetition of steps also stresses vulnerable areas of the body associated with teenage growth spurts, prior injuries and your physique (for example, being tight- or loose-jointed). That’s why finding the right cross-training program that improves your strength, flexibility, and aerobic capacity can make a real difference. It also compensates for specific areas of vulnerability after you’re 12, when dance training becomes more demanding.
EATING RIGHT A balanced dancer diet involves a variety of nutritious foods before and after exercise. Many dancers find this a challenge. They tend to eat on the run, and are susceptible to turning to junk food as an emotional release. Yet the rewards of giving yourself a well-balanced meal are tangible and will have a direct impact on your dancing. Calories mean energy, the right kind of calories mean energy that lasts. When all is said and done, dancers need to be food-conscious, not food phobic! Think about what you’re giving yourself to dance well, not what you’re avoiding. It’s a much healthier way to look at it.
WEIGHT-CONTROL STRATEGIES Dancers often feel pressure to reach an ideal weight, and for some, achieving an appropriate look can be a struggle. However, wanting to be fit and lean doesn’t have to trigger disordered eating, which threatens not only your dancing but also your physical and mental well-being. Dieting is a trap filled with false promises. There are healthy ways to reach an optimal weight by working with, rather than against, body type. Keep in mind that each genre’s aesthetic requirements are different. Broadway and commercial dance showcase curvier women and sturdier men than does ballet. Some artistic directors may prefer physiques that aren’t rail-thin. Dance is more diverse than most realize. In the end, setting realistic food and exercise goals is the best way to change your body.
MANAGING STRESS To perform at your peak, you need to be able to balance your excitement and achieve physical control. Dancers who suffer from weight gain, delayed wound healing, poor health (for instance, numerous colds), or injuries are frequently those for whom stress has taken the upper hand. The remedy differs for each person. The first step is to be aware of stress. Do you often:
• Feel insecure, anxious, self-critical, can’t accept your mistakes or self-medicte with alcohol or drugs?
• Feel muscle tension (backaches and headaches), experience disordered eating or sleep problems, have extreme fatigue or abdominal pain?
• Suffer from poor concentration, irritability, forgetfulness, blanking out, constant worry, social avoidance?
If you answered yes to some of these questions, you probably need to upgrade your coping strategies, from relaxation techniques to positive self-talk. Being aware of negative stress is the first step in righting the balance.
Succeeding in today’s versatile dance world means being ready to take a life-changing approach to your health. The good news is that you can become a more effective artist and athlete, and learning the principles of wellness is the key.
Photo by Erin Baiano. Model: Alison Cook Beatty