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By Siobhan Burke
“How do they do that?” It’s the question you ask of your favorite dancers, the ones whose bodies seem to know no limits, who can just toss aside the laws of physics as they please. But as all dancers can attest, a lot of effort underlies the illusion of effortlessness: hours upon hours of daily training, rehearsing, strengthening—and constant mindfulness of the body’s needs. In our new monthly column, we hear from dancers about their individual approaches to staying in shape and taking care of their bodies, as they rise to the physical (and mental) challenges of the profession.
By the end of Doug Varone’s Lux, a 22-minute marathon for eight dancers, you wonder how Natalie Desch is still standing—and how she has the same calm radiance that she started out with. The 36-year-old performer, who joined the NYC-based Doug Varone and Dancers in 2001 after five years with the Limón Dance Company, admits that getting through Varone’s dances is no easy feat. Yet despite the demands of his work, Desch has so far enjoyed (“knock on wood,” she says) a relatively injury-free path. We talked to her about her daily warm-up regimen, her optimism in the face of injury, and her advice for a long, healthy career.
Training for Stamina
During an average rehearsal period, in the weeks leading up to a performance, Desch spends four to six hours a day, five days a week, in the studio. On about three of those days, she tries to hit the gym before rehearsal. A half-hour of cardio on the elliptical or bike helps her build the endurance she needs to master Varone’s elaborate choreography. “Some pieces will turn your legs to Jell-O if you aren’t ready for them,” she says. “Also, if you’re in a performance environment where nervousness is an issue, you may go for the gusto at the outset and then not have enough stamina to get through the entire evening.” She keeps more high-impact forms of cardio, like running, to a minimum. “There is already a lot of running and pounding in Doug’s rep,” she says, “and I feel like my joints don’t need any more impact than what they already get in a day of rehearsal.”
While Desch’s exact warm-up in the studio fluctuates on a daily basis—“I do what my body tells me it needs,” she says—it typically includes elements of Pilates, yoga, and ballet, woven together in a floor-to-standing progression. “Sometimes I feel it’s nice to begin on my back with my legs bent in a parallel way so my feet are planted near the base of my torso,” she says. “I usually start by massaging my lower back against the floor via some abdominal isolations. Then I might do some ‘bridges,’ where I roll upwards from the base of my spine to elevate my pelvis and roll down from the highest part of my spine again. That feels really good, and gets my hamstrings, core, and pelvic floor going.”
Sun salutations are another pre-rehearsal staple. “I find that if I start them slowly and then very gradually increase the speed, I build up a nice, easy warmth in my body.” Using that warmth, she moves into “a more technical dancerly place” with some modern variations on a ballet barre. “Eventually I get to locomoting myself with bigger weight shifts and more torso involvement,” she says. “Also, ideally I’ll improv a bit, changing levels from standing to the floor and back again.”
Throughout her warm-up, Desch pays special attention to her core. “I have to really concentrate on core strength, because I’m naturally just a little floppy in that area,” she says. Her ab-strengthening tactics include Pilates exercises like the 100s (“I could always do more Pilates,” she says) and spending extra time in plank position during sun salutations.
Improving Through Injury
Injury can end a dancer’s career—or enrich it. For Desch, the latter has been true. While she’s been sidelined by a couple of traumatic freak accidents—a broken foot and a mysterious hip ailment—she looks back on these as blessings in disguise. “I’ve been lucky to have amazing physical therapy through the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries,” she says. “It afforded me a lot of information moving forward. The exercises I learned there, I’ve never really stopped doing. I use them as a new arsenal for preparing myself and guarding against injury.”
Injury also comes with the benefit of a “mental health check,” Desch says, bringing the positive aspects of dancing back into focus. “Boy does it make you appreciate what it is to move. It’s kind of like clearing out the silly parts of dance, the things you complain about. All of a sudden you realize, This is a good thing, and I know because I can’t do it now.”
Quality Over Quantity
For dancers who hope to have a long, resilient career, Desch advises balancing consistent work with relaxation and change. “I think that sometimes people get injured because they’re a little too gung-ho,” she says. “You want to work hard without overdoing it.”
Making healthy choices, she believes, depends on knowing your own body—its patterns, proclivities, and limits. “It’s not always easy, but try to look at yourself from an outside perspective, with an honest eye. Always be questioning, How do I feel? How am I doing?” This means accepting the body’s changes over time, as Desch is coming to realize. “I’m not 21 anymore, and I’m figuring that out,” she laughs. “My arabesque is a different person’s from what it was 10 years ago. But I also see how to move differently than I did 10 years ago. I’m more interested in finding the qualitative range that I can tap into.”
As she continues to evolve as a performer and technician, Desch gives herself the same reminder that she gives to her students at Hunter College, where she teaches contemporary technique: “Your dancing is really 95 percent what your mind is. It’s just this little bit of skin, bones, muscle, and connective tissue that makes it happen. But the whole source is what you think, how you imagine, and how you know yourself.”
Siobhan Burke is Dance Magazine’s education editor.
Photo by Hope Davis, courtesy Desch